Whenever a public organisation or salaried official is awarded a prize, the temptation is to rebuke the prize-givers for squandering their largesse on people who were just doing their job. When the organisation concerned is the United Nations, the official is its secretary general, and the award is the Nobel peace prize, the temptation might be doubly hard to resist.
Yesterday's announcement from Oslo constituted a happy exception. The decision by the Nobel prize committee to award this year's – centenary – peace prize jointly to the UN and to Kofi Annan for their work for a "better organised and more peaceful world" was greeted with almost universal enthusiasm. That response alone proves how well-deserved was this year's award.
Only five years ago, the United Nations was at the nadir of its fortunes; its very relevance was in question, as was its ability ever to bridge the widening divides between East and West, rich and poor. Such was the acrimony among its members that Mr Annan's predecessor, Boutros Boutros Ghali, was refused a second term.
Now, the mood inside and outside the UN is quite different, thanks partly to changes in the world, but largely to the quiet but persistent efforts of the current secretary general. Mr Annan has played the consummate diplomat in public and kept the tough talk judiciously private. He has stuck his neck out only seldom, but to impressive effect, as when he insisted that governments could not cite the principle of national sovereignty to cover gross human rights violations.
A supreme example of cross-cultural influences himself – born in Africa, educated in the US and Switzerland, married to a Norwegian – Mr Annan has brought rare sensitivity to his job. Tributes came equally yesterday from Israelis and Palestinians. Nor has he forsaken his African roots, using the weight of his office to demand that the Aids epidemic there be treated and not dismissed as a plague of the poor.
Mr Annan's discreet efforts since 11 September to negotiate an international plan for the future of Afghanistan have so far gone almost unnoticed, drowned out by the threats, and then military action, orchestrated by Washington. But they are a classic example of the way that he and the UN have operated most effectively: patiently and below the radar until there is a consensus for more public intervention.
The strategy has not always worked, and may not work with Afghanistan either. But the authority bestowed by the Nobel prize may give the UN's efforts an edge at this critical time. That would be a bonus, but it is not why the prize was awarded. The achievement of the UN and of Kofi Annan is, in a cynical age, to have given a good name both to international organisations and to diplomacy, and for that they deserve their million-dollar prize – and all the honour that goes with it.Reuse content