Courtesy Reuters

Annan at the End: Grading the Secretary-General

In This Review

The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power

By James Traub
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006
464 pp. $25.00

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

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