“He was always trying to bring out the best in us,” said a young, Libyan woman in a moving testimonial to the former Secretary-General at an emotional memorial service at the United Nations in Geneva. She, like many of the speakers, paid tribute to Annan’s ability to connect optimistically with people across geographic, generational and status lines. “He really listened to us and always encouraged us to help others,” she said as a representative of the Youth Leadership Movement of the Kofi Annan Foundation.
Many kilometres away, both spatially and ideologically, President Donald Trump was declaring that he was “against globalism and for patriotism.” The United States president boasted; “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy. America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism around the world. Responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty.”
Annan’s vision of cosmopolitan optimism vs. Trump’s vision of America First. Annan’s vision of reaching out to help others vs. Trump’s vision of only looking out for Americans in a world of constant dangers. Cooperation and altruism vs. self-defense and greed. Concern for others vs. egotism.
It was impressive to hear how Annan inspired so many people through his humility. As his wife explained, he was no different in private than he was in public. Always concerned, he was a great listener who was able to empathize with all types of people. “He sensed when I needed to see him and would arrange a meeting even before I called him,” explained his step-daughter.
In a recorded tribute, Kofi Annan explained how the United Nations was not just a forum for representative governments. As he wrote in The United Nations in the 21st Century: “For even though the United Nations is an organization of states, the Charter is written in the name of ‘we the peoples.’ It reaffirms the dignity and worth of the human person, respect for human rights and the equal rights of men and women, and a commitment to social progress as measured by better standards of life, in freedom from want and fear alike. Ultimately then, the United Nations exists for, and must serve, the needs and hopes of people everywhere.”
Compare Annan’s concern for “the peoples” with Trump’s crowing that in “less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” Trump’s presentation to the General Assembly, his direction of the Security Council and his bizarre press conference at the end of the day were all about The Donald, his accomplishments and his vision of the world. There was no room for anyone else.
While Annan was instrumental in upgrading the Human Rights Commission to the Human Rights Council and including human rights as one of the three pillars of the United Nations, President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Council while showing a penchant for dictators and human rights violators.
The list could go on. Even though I am suspicious of binary distinctions, comparisons between Kofi Annan and Donald Trump are more than evident. The tribute to Kofi in Geneva, as well as the ceremonies in New York and Ghana reflect a universal admiration for a truly unusual man.
As for Trump, the greatest testimonial to what the world thinks of him was when the world’s leaders laughed when he bragged about how his administration “has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” When asked about the laughter at the follow-up news conference, Trump replied to a reporter: “That’s fake news, and it was covered that way. They weren’t laughing at me. They were laughing with me. We had fun.”
What do you mean by “we”? Certainly not Annan’s “we the peoples.”