Kofi Annan had the good fortune to become Secretary-General at an unusual moment in the UN's history. The Cold War had ended, and US hegemony was not yet seriously contested by other world powers. This made it easier for the Security Council to reach decisions, and gave Annan greater freedom of maneuver than most of his predecessors.
But the 1990s was also a unique moment in another respect, which with hindsight can be seen as even more important: the moment when globalization became an inescapable reality, directly affecting almost everyone in the world.
Globalization had two main aspects. One, partly though not wholly related to the end of the Cold War, was the removal of barriers to international exchange of goods and services, and to some extent also to the movement of people. The other, which occurred independently but pushed the world in the same direction, was the information revolution. For the first time, it became possible for people in almost any part of the world to communicate directly, and instantaneously, with those in any other.
This had economic effects, notably on the speed at which money could be moved around the world, but also profound political and social ones. The full extent of these would not become apparent until after Annan left office--indeed, we are still discovering it now. But his mandate coincided with what can now be seen as an extraordinary transition--from a world in which the production and distribution of information was relatively centralized and controlled, to one in which it is happening everywhere, all the time.
Annan sensed intuitively that this created, for the first time, a global space of communication in which, potentially at least, masses of people in different parts of the world were reacting to each other's statements and actions, and exchanging information and ideas. In short, it was a world where there could be such a thing as global public opinion, and where a person in the right place, and with the right skills, could help form that opinion by speaking directly to people in different countries. The UN, for the first time, could be something more than an association of sovereign states (though it was still that), and begin to live up to the opening words of its Charter, "We the peoples ..."
Few people expected Annan to be the man who would grasp this opportunity because, until he became Secretary-General, he was largely unknown outside the relatively small and specialized world of...