Speaking to The Independent within hours of his selection by the Security Council last Friday to replace Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Mr Annan also signalled that he will be a vigorous defender of the UN. In comments that often seemed aimed at the United States, he warned against using the UN as a scapegoat for missions that go wrong and rejected the premise that UN reform must mean cuts in budgets and manpower.
He was most blunt, however, about peacekeeping, noting the failure of the world community to avert the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. "It was unforgiveable. Sooner or later we will realise that we cannot let the brush fires go on without any attempt to contain them. If no country - not even the United States - is prepared to play the international cop, then the only alternative is United Nations peacekeeping".
Mr Annan, who has been in charge of UN peacekeeping since 1993 and has thus suffered personally the humiliations of recent blue-helmet missions in Bosnia, Somalia and Central Africa, said he accepted that the notion of a standing UN army, briefly floated by Mr Boutros-Ghali, was too ambitious. But he observed that some countries, including Denmark, have already created brigades that are on permanent standby to help the UN or other bodies such as Nato in case of sudden need around the globe.
"We are encouraging governments to prepare rapidly deployable brigades or batallions and we are trying here to create a rapidly deployable mission headquarters," he suggested.
Persuading states actually to commit soldiers to individual operations will, he acknowledged, always be difficult. He noted that 30 governments had been ready in principle to join a UN force for Rwanda but that none, when the moment arrived, had come forward. "But what we do now must presuppose that at the right time governments will participate and will have a broader view," he said.
The peacekeeping debacle in Somalia, in particular, left a sour taste at the UN because of Washington's swiftness in assigning blame to the UN. The soft-spoken Mr Annan, who is from Ghana, was tart in his response. "If governments continue to use the UN as a scapegoat, then the UN will become so discredited that it will be of no use to anyone - not even as a scapegoat."
Asked if he has any guiding principle for the UN, Mr Annan borrowed a phrase from the late French President Francois Mitterrand. "He put it beautifully when he said: `If we buy into the illusion that we can make the world inhabitable for the few we will end up making it uninhabitable altogether.'"