European Affairs

Kofi Annan as Tragic Hero: His UN Legacy     Print Email

The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power.
By James Traub
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2006), 464 pages.
Reviewed by François Clemenceau

At last, a readable book about the contemporary United Nations. Author James Traub is a writer with a gift for teaching, and in his book, The Best Intentions, he lays out the workings and often-hidden maneuvering that characterize operations at the UN – the global flagship of multilateralism. His book illuminates what goes on inside the bureaucracy and the vast, complex General Secretariat that is opaque to the public and even to the media beyond the circle of reporters accredited to the UN. That situation makes the Secretariat an easy target for smears by critics.

The book also tries to explain the realities of the General Assembly – with its grand rituals and often-unreadable and incomprehensible documents – and also of the UN’s specialized agencies devoted to development and humanitarian work. These are the great – and sometimes just grandiloquent – causes of our era, and there can be no doubt about the noble intentions of the UN’s founders in the wake of World War II. But ossifying bureaucratic methods, the role of national quotas in personnel staffing and the inertia of top-heavy leadership have left a widespread impression that the UN is something between a Boy Scout and a civil servant paralyzed by red tape.

Traub makes a convincing case that Annan has enhanced the UN’s global stature in a particularly turbulent period.

The author seems to have been initially attracted to his subject by concern about the oil-for-food scandal and then gradually been drawn into reporting on questions of whether the scandal was manipulated against the UN. Undoubtedly, he shared the general sense of outrage about the scandal. Beyond the views of individuals – Americans or Europeans, pro- or anti-UN, pro- or anti-Kofi – people smelt dirty business in this transaction riddled with hypocritical compromise. But then, as Traub convincingly recounts it, these suspicions and insinuations were orchestrated and amplified into accusations and character assassination against Annan. The episode seems to have disgusted Traub, who devotes a score of pages in chapters 15 and 19 to laying out what he suspects were sordid maneuvers against Annan. Although he does not say so outright, Traub conveys the view that many of the attacks on Annan were really a campaign of retaliation in the U.S. for the degree of independence he had established for himself during his tenure at the UN. And he suggests the scandal was also aimed at the UN itself: obviously a flawed organization, it has a single overriding defect in its detractors’ view – its refusal to take orders from the great powers and their blocs.

The ambiguity in this bout of UN controversy has often been linked to questions about the personality of Annan himself. Is he soft-spoken or simply soft? Patient or slow? Courageous or clumsy? All these different facets of the man are described by Traub as he retraces Annan’s two mandates at the UN helm.

It is ironic that Annan and the U.S. should have ended up with such tense relations. He was the preferred U.S. candidate to succeed Boutros Boutros-Ghali when the Clinton administration decided to dump the Secretary-General, the former Egyptian foreign minister, by refusing to back him for a second term. At the time head of UN peacekeeping, Annan, a Ghanaian, grandson of tribal chiefs, had spent almost his entire career at the UN and was thoroughly familiar with the UN’s assets and weaknesses. Traub recounts how Annan, once in the top job, used that knowledge and his new authority to give the UN a higher profile – and carry himself to global eminence.

As the story unfolds, Traub seems to become increasingly impressed by Annan. But his generally admiring account does not blind Traub to some of Annan’s flaws that marred his performance and destiny as the UN leader. He probes Annan’s apparent slowness to counter-attack against the barrage of allegations when the oil-for food scandal broke. As Traub tells it, Annan was hoping for help from American friends, so he was relieved to finally get advice and support from Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration’s former UN ambassador. With this help, Annan rebounded. The inquiry headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, eventually cleared Annan of corruption. But Traub notes that Annan’s initial paralysis, verging on personal depression, was damagingly prolonged.

Traub gives a blow by blow account of how the oil-for-food story unfolded and gradually took on bigger dimensions. Was there a concerted effort by the UN’s foes to inflate the scandal and use it to destroy Annan and devastate the UN he had helped shape? Was there a real plot afoot? Or did we simply witness a wave of displeasure against the glass-walled UN headquarters on the bank of the East River? Traub claims that an Annan confidant discreetly sounded out the Bush administration on the question and was told “you won’t find our fingerprints on this one.” That ambiguous reply says a lot about the mood of revenge in the White House and the State Department toward Annan, the man who called the war in Iraq illegal, who wrote a letter warning against the U.S. attack in Fallujah, and whose deputy for humanitarian operations derided the U.S. offer of $15 million for Asian tsunami victims as “a tip.”

A recurrent theme in the book is the frustrated mutual confrontation of Annan and the nations that initially supported him. On the one hand, the Bush administration resented Annan because he refused to be a simple accomplice of U.S. policy. On the other, Annan was alienated by what he felt was a lack of support for him in the Security Council – obviously, from the United States, but also, he told Traub, from its two European permanent members, Britain and France.

In the showdown on Iraq, President Bush’s team, including Colin Powell and Condelezza Rice, felt at odds with the UN position and its logic. This turned into personal animosity against Annan and his advisers, who were accused of failing to understand U.S. reasoning. The situation provided an opening for the neo-conservatives – who were powerfully positioned in the White House and the Pentagon – to act on their view that the organization was simply outmoded in the post-September 11 era, that it could not adapt to function in tandem with U.S. military power and therefore was no longer a good investment for Washington.

The first sign of this U.S. frustration was the appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN (as the successor there to John Negroponte). Traub’s few pages on Bolton make lively reading as he recounts characteristic episodes in his career and the evolution of his views. These had consequences when Bolton got to New York. His tough approach nearly derailed the package of UN reforms backed by Annan. An international “wise men’s group” had been provided a report on how to change the UN so it could respond better to new threats and generate more fairness and more democracy. A compromise package had been worked out by Annan and the head of the General Assembly, Jean Ping from Ivory Coast. By balancing demands for more development and calls for great promotion of democracy, it had gained consensus backing.

At that point, Bolton arrived and wanted to start over from the beginning – five weeks from the General Assembly’s opening session in September 2005 that was supposed to adopt the new program. Traub provides a comic but depressing account of Bolton’s futile crusade to put his stamp on the reform by insisting on revisiting each and every article in an effort to add a new touch so that they bore the hallmark “made in USA.” Reform proposals have still not been adopted that match the initial hopes of handing the secretary general’s office greater power to oversee management – responsibilities still largely in the hands of the unwieldy 191-state General Assembly, where developing nations fear losing their influence. Committees on ethics and on human rights remain short of some earlier expectations.

His tactics were apparently not approved in advance by Secretary of State Condi Rice, but Bolton’s action had dire effects. Eventually, Washington watered down the substance (and the style) of its demands, but “the Bolton episode” intensified many African member states’ suspicions about U.S. intentions on UN reform. Again, Traub raises the question of whether U.S. behavior was misplaced zeal by inexperienced individuals or deliberate sabotage.

Traub makes much of Bolton’s failure to unseat Mohammed El Baradei, Director- General of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. Bolton, who had headed U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, resented the UN official for his skepticism about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But official U.S. hostility failed to prevent El Baradei from winning a second term as IEAE head and then winning the Nobel Peace Prize – a direct slap at Bolton and his fellow neo-cons.

Equally illustrative is the painstaking political work by Lakdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy who helped pick the first Iraqi members of the interim government, the starting point for Iraqi democracy. (Bad relations with Paul Bremer, the top U.S. representative in Iraq, was one reason for Brahimi’s resignation in 2004.) Iraq’s start toward democracy was a process that the White House constantly singled out for praise as a success story – without ever offering a word of appreciation for the patience, courage and skill of the UN representative who did so much to make it happen.

Similarly, Traub manages to mix the personal dimension into his insider account of the Darfur tragedy. Readers quickly understand, from the signs of nervous tension and moments of doubt, that this is also a personal test case for Kofi Annan. Traub is able to bring out clearly the limits on UN action in crises of this sort. In a series of gripping paragraphs, we hear Jean-Marie Guehenno, the undersecretary for peace operations (the post that Annan had once held) explain to the secretary-general and his team just how few options are open to the UN and how limited its margin of maneuver is in Darfur. American demands (for military intervention) run counter to French reticence, which is based on the same reasons that France refused to get involved in Iraq – the wish to avoid a cultural and religious clash in the gird World. The African Union lacks equipment and resources. Darfur is one of the most glaring examples of the inability of international diplomacy to operate successfully while it remains constrained by the taboo against violating national sovereignty. Only if the events could be labeled “genocide” would there be an automatic right to invoke Article 7 of the UN Charter, which authorizes the use of force.

What Traub notes (and other observers know, too) is how horrible it will be for Annan if he steps down from his UN post on December 31 against a backdrop of deepening tragedy in Darfur – in effect, a second Rwanda. Both those crises have very personal dimensions for Annan. Darfur has echoes of his difficulties with the United States and the other P-5 states (as the Security Council’s permanent five members are known) in what turned out to be UN impotence when confronted with the massacres in Rwanda in 1994. Annan was not then the UN head but he did hold a key position as head of peacekeeping, where he behaved cautiously, exposing himself to (unjust) accusations of being unwilling to speak out or of lacking the right temperament of a man of decisive action in a crisis. Above all, Traub says, Annan had seen once again the cowardly behavior that can affect even powerful nations as well as nations that are directly exposed to a tragedy of global dimensions. Beyond France and the United States, there were other nations and bodies (including South Africa, Zaire (now the Republic of Congo), the Organization of African Unity, Russia and China as permanent Security Council members) that turned a blind eye to genocide in Rwanda as if it did not matter or as if any attempt to take significant action would have involved too many risks in terms of domestic policy or regional security interests. So now again with Darfur, when the tough questions are asked: Who will supply troops? What reaction can be expected from neighboring Egypt, which opposes intervention? What will be the impact on more fragile neighboring states, Chad and the Central African Republic, which France supports and fears will be exposed to crushing influxes of refugees? All this must amount to a burden of worry for Annan these days.

Without trying to draw up a balance sheet on Annan’s tenure, the book suggests that his time at the UN has brought new prominence and irreversible change to the organization. The internal crisis sparked by the oil-for-food scandal accelerated the pace of reform and spread recognition of the need to modernize the world body’s management and give it greater guarantees of integrity. These moves – spurred by Annan, sometimes under outside pressure – will leave a strong mark on the UN.

So where do the U.S. lobbyists for “reform” want to take the UN? Traub speculates about the future possibilities. The status quo, he thinks, is untenable with a U.S. Congress that is tilted toward conservative views, regardless of the exact division on political party lines. What about the view – “with us or against us” – that was proclaimed by the Bush administration and survives, albeit in a more subdued form, in negotiations about sanctions on Iran and North Korea? Traub thinks this approach has backfired too badly to survive outside the neo-con movement, which itself is being marginalized.

What are the chances for some new approaches? The idea of trying to promote global leadership by “a concert of democracies,” to use Anne-Marie Slaughter’s phrase, interests people as different as prominent conservative Newt Gringich, editorialist David Brooks and ex- Clinton aide James Lindsay. But this approach based on a “hard core” of the right countries would raise questions, starting with: Whose brand of democracy qualities? Is the touchstone the rule of law or something else? In other words, can Russia or China qualify? If they don’t, would that open the door to international intervention in Chechnya or Tibet? And what about African countries that are moving in the right direction but are hesitant about some steps that they feel might imperil their stability and even their borders? And what about countries that don’t qualify: will they become pariahs who are consigned to a new, enlarged “axis of evil”? This “club” approach is probably modeled ultimately on the EU’s pattern of concentric circles: some countries join the euro and some don’t, some join the Schengen convention facilitating border-crossing and others don’t – and people live with the differences. But it is a misleading comparison in the sense that the EU, however variable its geometry, has a founding principle that requires all member states to accept the same set of core values. In practice, a “club of democracies” would likely grow more like NATO did, as a list of countries that signify their political allegiance rather than, like the EU, a pooling of resources and political will.

Traub himself does not share any itch for reform either in the form of making a clean sweep or as an attempt to pour new wine into old bottles. Instead, his excursion into the workings of the UN has left him convinced that it is an indispensable institution. Could it and should it be overhauled so it functions better and faster? Yes, Traub says, but not for a few countries’ benefit to the detriment of everyone else. In other words, any UN reforms should not be aimed at mirroring the balance of power but, on the contrary, guarantee the global survival of political and cultural pluralism.

The recent show of active U.S. hostility to majority sentiment in the world body was bound to reinforce suspicions in many gird World countries that the Bush administration would never really accept an approach – and changes – based on multilateralism and cultural diversity. And it did. Most of the resentful nations belong to the Non-Aligned Movement or the Group of 77, including “the usual suspects”: Iran, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and China. What is new nowadays is that this anti-US clamor rising from different places around the planet is voiced in viscerally hostile terms. Reflecting extremism or despair, it is a departure in the last few years from the routine denunciations that had become the wellhoned stock in trade of gird World rhetoric. How can we explain this escalation in antipathy, this shift to more virulence in public postures, other than as a sign that these countries share an impression of seeing this “supreme court of appeal” – where nations could speak out internationally on a basis of equality – called into question because of the ambitions of one member state?

Traub does not formulate the issue exactly in these terms, but a reader comes away from his book convinced that this question is eating at him and that he views the tenure of Kofi Annan as a time when the triumph of the neo-cons in Washington have started challenging the legitimacy of the United Nations, which the United States did so much to found in 1945. Nowadays critics of the UN tend to portray the world body as a system of derailing progress and putting the brakes on unilateralist impulses – in other words, a referee who tries to rush over in time to prevent two angry players from starting to slug it out.

Readers of Traub’s book are likely to come away with a different conclusion about the UN – to the effect that it has been loaded with too many restraints and obligations, too many requirements for old-fashioned consultations and useless red tape. These have often resulted in preventing the UN from acting fast enough – for example, in Bosnia or Rwanda. Some people want the UN to be strengthened by a UN tax so it has standing forces of its own and much better access to national intelligence findings. Annan has often countered this view with an argument of his own, which Traub repeatedly brings to his readers’ attention: the UN is a collective body of 192 nations and makes decisions on the basis of their wishes. In Annan’s view, failures by the world body to act more vigorously must be traced back to the failure of member states to work out timely compromises as a basis for action.

When Annan evokes roadblocks affecting UN decision-making, he has in mind a range of countries from every part of the political spectrum, including China and its inclination to act on a slow timescale, Russia and its nostalgia for great-power status, Britain and its longstanding allegiances, France and its ambitions, the United States and its claim to speak for the world (which some see as a cynical ploy and others view as simply naïve). That list involves only the five nations with veto powers in the Security Council. Annan could name dozens of other countries that have displayed, at one time or another, damaging wishes to play power politics with UN crisis management.

In this fast-moving juncture of history, France, which attaches great important to the UN and its place in it, would be well advised to grasp the extent and meaning of the changes being rejected in developments at the world body. In the past, Paris has too often been ready to exploit the frustrations of the Third World as a way of pushing French objections to U.S. hegemony. Since he came to office a decade ago, Jacques Chirac has defended the right side on these issues of principle, heeding the complaints of developing countries, setting itself up as the champion of their views and standing up for them in the flora of key international and financial institutions. And France was right about Iraq, as everybody can see now. France advocated the correct approach, had the right analysis and offered the right predictions about how things would turn out.

But France’s image, the initial meaning of its stance, was then blurred and sometimes tarnished by French behavior as events unfolded, starting with what seemed to be readiness in Paris to use the UN to sabotage U.S. chances for success. Paris worked to spread the worst possible interpretation of the intentions and actions of the United States and Britain and of their Italian, Spanish and Portuguese allies. The French acted as though they believed they had a monopoly on geopolitical sense and international generosity. They never lost an opportunity to insist that France’s historical experience, right or wrong, outweighed anyone else’s intuitions about the future, right or wrong. In this changing international context, the next president of France, whoever it is, should see to it that Paris changes its view of the UN. Specifically, it is urgent for France to stop using the UN as a place for posturing, which is usually aimed at dramatizing French-U.S. confrontation. Often the only result is to impede any constructive response in tragic crises that can only be remedied by UN cooperation.

Whatever questions may be asked about the man, “Annan emerges as a flawed but principled statesman, with a stature his successors are unlikely to be able to achieve,” concludes the Traub book’s reviewer in the U.S. journal, Foreign Affairs. Even so, it may be no bad thing that the “after-Kofi era” at the UN starts under a man with the temperament of Ban Ki Moon, the South Korean Foreign Minister who is the incoming secretary- general. There has been a great deal of comment to the effect that he lacks charisma, exudes blandness, is inclined to compromise and seems disinclined to seek a demanding agenda. But who can say? Coming in the wake of Annan’s tumultuous tenure, the South Korean’s more passive approach may make time for wounds to heal before the UN resumes its more active agenda.

During his first term in the five years ahead, Ban Ki Moon will face profound challenges and dangerous ambushes. None is trickier for him than the North Korean account, a problem with which he is intimately familiar because he knows the region first-hand and has been involved in the six-party talks and other negotiations. Failure on this issue will have a ripple effect on the situation with Iran and aggravate the dangers there. The United States could end up hostage to a triple failure: Iran, Iraq and the nuclear brinkman, Kim Jong Il.

It would be a grievous mistake to rejoice in a U.S. failure of this proportion. Those who want to show up the folly of some recent American policies cannot expect to see the world do better in a vacuum of power. The only solutions seem to lie with the United Nations, where competing demands have to be settled by leaving the doors open to bargaining. Annan helped keep that possibility alive with his performance in what he once called “the most impossible job in the world.”

François Clemenceau is Washington correspondent for Europe 1, the French radio network. He previously covered the Middle East, and European politics.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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