In This Review

The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power
The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power
By James Traub
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006, 464 pp.

Few institutions are as much discussed or as poorly understood as the United Nations. The media frequently cover specific crises but rarely offer in-depth commentary on the organization. Meanwhile, the many academic theses, commission reports, and expert analyses that are published on the UN remain inaccessible -- and often incomprehensible -- to the lay reader. Most Americans remain ignorant about how the UN is structured, what shapes its agenda, and why it acts the way that it does.

With any luck, all of that is about to change. This year, a burst of new books that delve deeply into the UN are being published by well-known authors -- a measure of attention unprecedented in the recent history of the world body. The books include a study of the UN's first 60 years by the Yale historian Paul Kennedy; a biography of Secretary-General Kofi Annan by Stanley Meisler, a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times; an account of the life and tragic death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of the UN's most formidable diplomats, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power; an overview of the U.S.-UN relationship by Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state and now the president of the Brookings Institution; and, finally, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power by James Traub, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

What explains this sudden American interest in the UN, a critical but confounding organization? The answer may stem in part from morbid curiosity with the numerous scandals that have beset the UN in recent years. It may also owe to genuine concern with the issues that preoccupy the institution: terrorism, globalization, AIDS, and environmental degradation. And it probably also reflects awe at how the UN and its leaders have managed to survive -- and occasionally prevail -- in the face of their various failures.

The organization has always had a particularly complicated relationship with Washington. The United States has especially intimate ties to the UN. No country was more directly responsible for the organization's creation; it was two U.S. presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who propelled the UN into being in 1945, eschewing "coalitions of the willing" in favor of a permanent, worldwide security institution. Truman was clear from the outset on what his involvement would mean. On June 25, 1945, in his closing address to the San Francisco conference that drafted the UN Charter, he stated, "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please." With these words, Truman signaled that he was abandoning the U.S. traditions of isolationism and unilateralism in favor of a new, universal alliance -- a task that would require serious adjustments by future U.S. presidents.

This shift has not always sat comfortably with Truman's successors. Indeed, Washington discovered soon after the UN's birth that despite its veto power in the Security Council, it could not always control its wayward child. As a result, ever since 1945, U.S. leaders have approached the UN with ambivalence: hoping, on the one hand, to use it to further U.S. national security interests, while, on the other hand, worrying that too much involvement might constrain the United States' ability to act.

This concern is easy to understand. For although the UN has backed the United States on many important occasions -- helping it resist a communist invasion of South Korea in 1950, aiding the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and endorsing the ouster of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 -- it has also frequently defied Washington. Thanks to the U.S.-Soviet split during the Cold War, the UN stood by impotently as a number of great emergencies -- such as the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring reform movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- unfolded. At other times, the UN has deeply offended U.S. leaders and large segments of the U.S. population, as when, in 1975, it passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and the Security Council finally began to act in unison, it still failed to support NATO's air war on Kosovo in 1999 and the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003.

This mixed record has caused great frustration among many members of the U.S. Congress, who have expressed their pique over the years by periodically blocking the payment of the United States' UN dues. It has not helped matters that the UN has also failed to accomplish most of its idealistic goals, such as alleviating poverty, ending armed conflict, spreading democracy, upholding human rights, eliminating AIDS, and improving the lot of the world's women and children.

Yet despite its tattered legacy, the organization has shown immense durability, and polling data in the United States continue to suggest that more than 60 percent of the American people support the organization. Much of the credit for the UN's persistently high stature in the United States and the world owes to the organization's leadership, especially Kofi Annan -- the UN's current secretary-general and the subject of Traub's new book.


The Best Intentions is the first full-length account of the ways in which Annan, despite his well-publicized stumbles, has enhanced the UN. Traub presents a thorough report on one of the UN's most turbulent eras (1997-2006), using Annan's own record as a way to describe the inner workings of the UN and provide a first cut at history. The result is one of the most definitive and accessible studies of the UN and its chief executive ever published.

Traub enjoyed unusual access to Annan; for over a year starting in 2003, Annan permitted Traub to sit in on staff meetings and visits from international dignitaries and to take numerous overseas trips with him. In addition, Annan spoke privately to Traub on at least 18 occasions, during which he described his feelings about the latest UN conflicts, explained to Traub why he took one political path rather than another during some upheaval, and spoke frankly about the character of particular leaders. In many ways, this arrangement was a singular tribute to the secretary-general's remarkable self-confidence. Annan must also have hoped that by granting access to Traub, he would shape the story of his own service through the eyes of a sympathetic biographer.

The tale that emerges is really one of two different eras -- Annan's first five-year term, during which practically every matter he handled ended with success, leading to widespread acclaim, and his second term, when almost nothing went right and every crisis seemed to blow up in Annan's face. What is extraordinary about this portrait is that Annan's own personal characteristics do not seem to have changed much through these two terms. Instead, what were virtues in his first go-round -- his conciliatory nature, his tendency to issue innovative challenges, and his adherence to multilateralism -- had become palpable weaknesses by the second.

By the time Annan, the grandson of tribal chieftains in Ghana, became secretary-general in 1996, he had already spent almost his entire career at the UN, where his equanimity and cordiality had made him a popular and authoritative, if always soft-spoken, figure. In many ways, his fast climb through the ranks of the UN bureaucracy had an almost enchanted quality to it. By 1993, he had reached the prestigious post of head of peacekeeping under Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

It was there, however, that Annan had his first brush with controversy. The trouble began the next year, when Annan failed to sufficiently warn the UN of the growing threat that radical Hutus were posing in Rwanda. Shortly thereafter, in a month-long genocidal fury, more than 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered despite the presence of a small UN force. Then, a few months later, 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, again in spite of the presence of UN peacekeepers. Annan has insisted that in both cases he pressed to the limits the Security Council directives given to him. But it has remained an open question whether he could (or should) have spoken out more forcefully about the looming disasters. Traub thinks he could have done more. This seems right: Annan could indeed have taken a more aggressive stance within the UN or resigned when he was ignored. In the end, however, he seems to have decided that he could do more good by continuing to work inside the organization. Whatever the merits of his decision, Annan's record was tarnished as a result.

Despite the disasters, he soon managed to impress U.S. diplomats with his decisiveness in approving the bombing of the Serbian army in 1995 -- something his own boss was unwilling to do. Annan was also subsequently successful in peacefully resolving bloody conflicts in Angola, Cambodia, and Haiti. As a result, he became the favorite candidate, especially in Washington, to replace Boutros-Ghali in 1996. During the backroom election contest, which Traub describes in compelling detail, France tried to block his selection. But Annan displayed great political acumen by promising to appoint a French national to his old peacekeeping post. The gambit worked, and Annan got the top job.

The new secretary-general soon became an international star. Capitalizing on his insider's knowledge of the organization, Annan showed a remarkable confidence in taking the UN in new directions. He boldly called for the organization to prevent future Rwandas and Bosnias, a challenge that engendered serious political opposition from many states, especially those in the developing world that feared it would lead to UN meddling in their internal affairs. He helped ravaged countries such as East Timor and Sierra Leone recover from calamity. He presided over an expansion in peacekeeping missions. He concluded a compact with international businesses to share in UN activities. He courted the U.S. Congress and convinced "Senator No," Jesse Helms of North Carolina, to restart the payment of U.S. dues. And by the end of his first term, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for himself and the institution.

What most impressed observers such as the U.S. special envoy to the UN Richard Holbrooke and others about Annan was his moral seriousness. He seemed to give a new gravity and standing to the UN. Describing to Traub a meeting he held with Saddam in early 1998 to head off a possible war, Annan declared, "There may be times when the secretary-general has to stand alone and use the moral authority of the office, and one should not shy away from that." Traub, impressed by this determination, describes his subject as "the kind of moral actor that the UN had lacked since the time of [Dag] Hammarskjöld," the organization's dashing second secretary-general. Traub writes that Annan "believed devoutly in what he took to be the universal principles of human rights and humanitarianism and in the use of force against evil, so long as the force was mustered collectively and in conformity with international law. He also believed that the rich nations had a moral obligation to help the poorer ones."


Matters suddenly became much more difficult in 2001, when Bill Clinton was replaced by George W. Bush. Annan was now forced to confront a much less congenial leadership in the UN's most powerful member state. The Bush administration quickly and publicly repudiated the multilateralism of the Clinton years and steered the United States in a much more aggressive and unilateral direction. This trend was briefly suspended after the 9/11 attacks -- when the Security Council supported the U.S. war against the Taliban and Annan worked with the Americans to help rebuild Afghanistan -- but Bush's subsequent decision to invade Iraq in defiance of the UN came as a sharp rebuke to the organization. It was also a shattering personal experience for Annan. Traub writes that as he saw the UN pushed aside in Iraq, Annan "suffered a kind of slow-motion collapse." He retreated to his New York residence, started taking antidepressants, and even temporarily lost his ability to speak.

He soon recovered some of his equipoise but remained shaken and distraught for many months afterward. Only gradually did he find ways to reestablish the relevance of the UN in the eyes of the world. He did so first by helping Iraq reconstruct its ruined society, working hand in hand with the United States and coalition forces -- at least until the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters in August 2003. His next move was to map out a major drive to reform the UN, hoping to prevent further preemptive attacks and to update the UN's ability to confront terrorism, as well as to secure other overdue changes. This campaign, however, was partially derailed by a scandal involving the Iraqi oil-for-food program, which dragged the UN Secretariat -- and not the scandal's real author, the Security Council -- into the center of a nasty controversy that ultimately implicated Annan's own son. Compounding matters were allegations of child prostitution by UN troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and of sexual harassment by the head of the UN's refugee agency. Criticism of Annan by right-wing pundits and politicians in the United States became shrill. According to some observers, the secretary-general even considered quitting.

But by 2006 he had regrouped once more. An inquiry into the oil-for-food imbroglio headed by the economist Paul Volcker cleared Annan's name, and he fired some of his closest staffers, appointing a whole new crew of aides to revitalize the Secretariat. Annan directed the UN's successful response to the Asian tsunami and returned to the reform campaign, pushing hard to produce the most sweeping package of changes that the UN had ever considered. This latter endeavor led John Ruggie, one of the world's most distinguished experts on the UN, to describe the secretary-general as a "norm entrepreneur," one willing to replace old verities with fresh canons and standards. Even his timeworn adversary, President Bush, began to regard Annan with grudging respect. Neither Bush nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ever called for Annan's resignation, even when urged to do so by their Republican allies.

As Annan's tenure draws to a close, the verdict on his career remains uncertain. He can claim victory on the vital issue of UN reform, but only a partial one. Much of what Annan hoped to accomplish was disrupted by John Bolton, an outspoken foe of the organization, whom Bush, in a final indignity, appointed as the United States' UN ambassador in August 2005. Traub provides an almost comical blow-by-blow description of how Bolton managed to undermine the entire reform agenda in his first month on the job, at one point flooding the negotiations with hundreds of new amendments. This story deserves wide dissemination.

In his closing ruminations, Traub himself seems uncertain about Annan and his accomplishments. At times, he thinks Annan was too soft and naive, too willing to believe the best of individuals as heinous as Saddam. At other times, Traub accepts the external constraints that limited Annan's authority at the UN. He notes that Annan suffered from a sense of "victimization" for being blamed for things over which he had no control. Yet he praises Annan's "inner compass" as fundamentally "sound," saying that "when he ignored advice, it usually turned out that he was right and his advisors wrong." And he compliments Annan's calm in the midst of diplomatic tornadoes swirling around him as being almost "extraterrestrial." "There was something uncanny, even a bit weird," Traub writes, "about the perfect equipoise [Annan] maintained in all settings."

Indeed, Annan has displayed an almost unearthly ability over the years to hold up under the most intense pressures. This fortitude may be partly explained by his almost religious belief in the UN's mission. His willingness to push the UN hard on controversial issues as well as demand that its member states adhere strictly to the UN's ideals has made him one of the organization's most formidable and memorable leaders.

And yet, in a rather gloomy conclusion, Traub argues that Annan is probably the last secretary-general who will "trail such clouds of glory" or "excite such fierce denunciations." For Traub believes that the authority of the UN (and of its leaders) will eventually be eclipsed by other global agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Still, his book offers proof that Annan, at least temporarily, did manage to elevate the organization to a new level of prominence. As for Annan the man, the various contradictions in his unusual character will probably not be resolved until greater distance allows for a more fully realized and exhaustive biography.

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  • Stephen Schlesinger was Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School from 1997 to 2006 and is the author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.
  • More By Stephen Schlesinger