Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.3 (Fall 2007): Book Reviews: The Parliament of Man (Paul Kennedy); Secretary or General? (Simon Chesterman editor); The Best Intentions (James Traub) [Full Text]

Sep 26, 2007

Barbara Crossette (reviewer)

In a BBC World News report from Kathmandu, an incredulous correspondent pressed a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to explain why it took three or four years to adjudicate asylum claims from relatively small numbers of people who somehow got to Nepal from places as diverse as Pakistan and Ethiopia. Well, the official said, there was the paperwork and the necessity to look into precedents in other countries. Four years? In an age of instant mass communication and information retrieval?

Such images of apparent sloth—not to mention the lethal foot-dragging on Darfur—strengthen the dismay and contempt among not only casual television viewers but also among well-informed scholars, national and international decision-makers, and representatives of the media who see the UN as chronically "too late with too little."

With a new secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, now in charge and the memories of the bitter final years of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, still vivid, a timely procession of books on the United Nations has been appearing to offer some fresh appraisals and insights into how things got this way and what, if anything, can be done. Together, these readable new studies add to an understanding of how an organization that is often slow to change and prone to stumbling has to adapt to an ever-evolving international atmosphere.

There are also some sharp personal assessments of the character, qualities, and misjudgments of the people (and some of their key subordinates) who have led the UN through the post–Cold War years, a time when new opportunities for effective action soon dissipated and giddy hopes were overwhelmed by brutal civil conflicts, genocide, runaway nuclear proliferation, perilous climate change, growing gaps between rich and poor, new dictatorships, and an upsurge in people smuggling and other cross-border crimes. Looming in the background was the rising tide of American hostility to the UN, beginning in the mid-1990s, as the Clinton administration tried to appease an isolationist Congress. The resulting corrosive antipathy to Washington that seeped through the secretariat and into many other corners of the UN will make it difficult to draw the organization willingly into many future projects promoted by the United States.

Paul Kennedy, the author of The Parliament of Man, is known for his fearless trend spotting—demonstrated in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—and this new book is, not surprisingly, the broadest in scope among new works. The Parliament of Man skims over more than a century of efforts to bring order to global chaos before focusing on the UN from its creation in the middle of the tumultuous twentieth century. This ambitious book, with its important geopolitical context, is too broad to be easily summarized, but two issues, economic development and human rights, are examples of the author’s opinion of present and future challenges.

Kennedy treats not only the story of the UN but also its companion Bretton Woods institutions: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The relationships between these last two institutions and the UN reflect differing institutional structures as well as professional jealousies and conflicting economic ideologies. Kennedy tackles the critics of the IMF and the World Bank (formally the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) in governments and, increasingly, nongovernmental organizations and acknowledges the no-win situations these institutions often face. "Perhaps the best that can be said is that, had the IMF and World Bank not existed and played the roles required of them, the world financial and currency system as a whole would most probably be in worse shape than it is today" (p. 140), he concludes.

There is much thought-provoking material in Kennedy’s study of the conflicting aims of the global North and South when UN member nations argue over socioeconomic priorities. He sees the basic North-South confrontation—which has intensified in recent years and will be central to UN debate for a long time to come—as a fundamental disagreement over whether to emphasize economic growth or the distribution/redistribution of global wealth. He is rightly scathing about the dismal record of the Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC, where big global economic issues might be addressed had it not failed comprehensively to live up to its founders’ hopes of serving as a developmental counterpart to the Security Council.

On human rights, Kennedy praises the standards set by the UN in its early years, writing that the regime established "was qualitatively different from anything that had gone before, even the advances made in the age of Enlightenment, because those earlier proclamations about rights had little or no place in international law" (p. 178). But he notes that, tragically, it was not long before some of the world’s worst abuses and atrocities were being overlooked, starting with the tens of thousands of deaths in China’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward. Later, he considers the Clinton administration’s political decision not to recognize genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and to stymie Security Council action to prevent or stop the slaughter, a major factor in "the single worst decision the United Nations ever made" (p. 103). Within the human rights machinery of the UN, it was ECOSOC, again, that ultimately allowed the old Human Rights Commission to sink into shocking disrepute before it was mercifully abolished in 2006, though its successor, the Human Rights Council, seems unable to shake off inherited flaws. Looking toward the future, Kennedy sends a brutal, concise message to the General Assembly on what to do with ECOSOC: "Kill it or cure it" (p. 270).

If Kennedy’s book is focused largely on institutional functions and global politics, the collection of essays in Secretary or General? gets much more personal. Here authors who have studied or worked in UN activities narrow the focus to the organization’s leadership, with emphasis on the most recent secretaries-general. In a few of these essays, punches are not pulled in assessing the records of the most recent of these singular world figures who hold "responsibility without power" (p. 31), in the words of Sir Brian Urquhart, who joined the UN at its founding and retired as an under-secretary-general for political affairs in the late 1980s.

Before Secretary-General Ban, two men who could not have been more different in personality and operational style held the office through difficult years. These two post–Cold War leaders were both, technically speaking, Africans, but even there they were perceived as coming from different worlds. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was an aristocratic Egyptian diplomat, a scholar, a Coptic Christian from a Muslim country, an imperious intellectual with a worldview shaped by a French education at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he still lives. Kofi Annan, a soft-spoken, popular Ghanaian born into a dynasty of regional chiefs, was educated in the United States and Geneva, married a Swede, and spends much of his retirement in Europe. He came to the job as the ultimate insider, the first career UN official to reach the top, with experience in the field and at bureaucratic desks.

"Introvert and extrovert, cool and warm, volatile and smooth, calculating and empathetic: their images could not have been more distinct" (p. 202), writes Edward C. Luck, director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Nevertheless, Luck, who has also been an adviser at the UN, sees not dissimilar legacies. "More than most of their predecessors, however, they shared a reputation as proponents of big ideas, bold doctrines, and a generous interpretation of the scope and authority of the office," he writes.

Luck’s chapter in this book dwells on relations between the United Nations and the United States since the collapse of the Soviet system. He usefully discounts the assumption that somehow Republicans cause the most problems in Washington. Republicans may be more confrontational, he acknowledges—demanding budget cuts and calling for Annan’s resignation over allegations of UN corruption surrounding the oil-for-food program—but Democrats, Luck argues, are part of the "broad consensus in the United States on the need to keep a tight rein on UN administrative and budgetary practices" (p. 212).

In Luck’s view, both Boutros-Ghali and Annan spent too much time whining about being scapegoats or publicly contradicting the United States. Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the UN, complained about Boutros-Ghali’s "anti-Americanism" (among a dossier of other charges) when his bid for a second term was summarily vetoed in 1996 by the Clinton administration. Annan, Luck writes, often spoke in moral tones, claiming to be defending the principles of the UN and representing the world’s people—going beyond his mandate and good sense. Several authors in the book mention the devastating effect of his choice of words when, goaded by a persistent BBC reporter in Britain, the secretary-general called the 2003 American invasion of Iraq "illegal" in the absence of Security Council authorization. That fired outrage in Washington. Luck suggests that one of the ironies of U.S.-UN confrontations is that "the removal of Cold War shackles left both the UN Secretaries-General and some U.S. officials feeling their oats and losing perspective" (p. 227).

An even tougher assessment of Annan is central to the chapter by Adekeye Adebajo, the executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa. Adebajo starts from an interesting observation: "Since the organization has a Third World majority and North-South issues have come to fill the void left by East-West politics at the United Nations, every Secretary-General since the age of decolonization has had to portray himself as a kind of southern prophet, championing the development and security interests of the weak against the powerful" (p. 140). When this role is combined with that of a secular Pope preaching the principles of the UN Charter and defending the independence of the organization, it complicates any secretary-general’s life and legacy, "though most obviously in the two African post–Cold War incumbents."

Adebajo raises the controversial issue of whether Annan, the choice of Anglo-Saxon powers, was really "African enough" to serve the South, as other Africans have suggested. Among other missteps, in this view, was Annan’s championing of humanitarian intervention—the right or responsibility of the world to act when governments abuse their own people—which some influential Africans saw as an invitation to Western or Northern neocolonial interference. Adebajo judges Boutros-Ghali as more attuned to developing nations, "steeped in the intricacies of Third World diplomacy" from his fourteen years as Egypt's minister of state for foreign affairs and possessing "a profound and intuitive grasp of the global South" (p. 148).

James Traub, a contributor to Secretary or General?, has written his own insightful book about Kofi Annan and the UN in a unipolar world, its theme reflected in its title: The Best Intentions. Traub, who was given extraordinary access to Annan and his inner circle, has produced a penetrating study of life inside the UN during the crises years that left the secretary-general physically depleted and professionally damaged. The man who had begun his tenure showered with adulation and good wishes, and who went on to earn a Nobel Prize for the organization and become a fixture in New York society, left the city bruised by American attacks and at the same time let down by resentful developing nations, which blocked his cherished administrative reforms on the ground that he would rob them of power at Washington’s request. Traub also offers portraits not found anywhere else of other powerful UN officials and how they interacted during critical moments, not always in the spirit of team play. At the top (the UN most Americans never see) the organization can be like a stable of individualistic thoroughbreds, many drawn from the cream of government ministries around the world. Whether they are sitting quietly in closed meetings or public events, Traub skillfully captures their machinations.

Though he is mostly sympathetic to Annan, Traub does fault the secretary-general for his slow responses and reluctance to be self-critical when self-criticism was due, notably during the oil-for-food crisis. By the end of his book, he suggests that with the end of Annan’s bedeviled final years, an era of strong secretaries-general who were able "to trail such clouds of glory or for that matter to excite such fierce denunciation" may be over, and, moreover, the UN itself will ultimately be reduced to just another international institution among many (p. 403). Neither the big powers nor the developing nations seem to want anything much stronger.

—Barbara Crossette, Trustee, Carnegie Council (The reviewer was UN bureau chief of The New York Times from 1994 to 2001.)

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