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

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

Nov 15, 2006

James Traub discusses the troubled relationship between the UN and the world's only superpower.

Introduction JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members and guests.

Jim Traub, whose compelling articles appear regularly the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is our featured speaker. He has written a wonderful book about Kofi Annan and the United Nations, entitled The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power. As he brings the United Nations to life for all of us this morning, I assure you that he will discuss it with his usual verve and wit.

To introduce Jim, I have asked Barbara Crossette to do the honors. An undeniably talented journalist, Barbara is someone who was there at the beginning of Kofi Annan's term and knows only too well of the challenges of covering the United Nations and of its Secretary-General.

Before we begin, I just want to briefly say a few words about Barbara's illustrious career. Many of you may know her from her stint covering the United Nations from 1994-2001 as The New York Times bureau chief. Earlier, she was the Times' chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She has reported from Central America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and has been Deputy Foreign Editor and Senior Editor in charge of The Times' weekend news operations.

In 1991, Barbara won the George Polk Award for foreign reporting for her coverage of the assassination in India of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1998, she won the Twenty-Five Year Achievement Award of the Silurians, a society of New York journalists; and the Award for International Reporting from InterAction, a coalition of more than 150 international nonprofit aid and development organizations. She also is the recipient of the Business Council of the United Nations' Korn Ferry Award for outstanding reporting on the organization, and the United Nations Correspondents' Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Since leaving the United Nations, she has worked with journalists in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Brazil.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to these two journalists. Barbara?

BARBARA CROSSETTE: Thank you. It's nice to be back here. I'm going to be very brief because James has a lot to talk about—Jim, or Jimmy to his dad.

I first met Jim on a crate of a military flight from Cyprus to Baghdad in 1998. He will give you more details on that. All other journalists on the plane were extremely envious because we had been told that he had got some kind of special access and was going to be doing a magazine article for The New York Times—me most of all, I guess. But in any case, we soon found that he was a remarkable colleague. He was self-effacing and in the background. He waited patiently for scores of mandarins and various people on both sides, the UN delegation and the Iraqi delegation, in order to extract an awful lot of information about what was happening and the atmosphere. All of this is in the book.

He also, unlike many of my other colleagues, did not steal my news story, which was nice. In any case, this sense of respect and credibility that we all saw in operation there has carried him through. I can't but think—and I have not asked him this, so it may be unfair be say so—that he established such a good rapport with the highest ranks of the United Nations that they felt very confident in opening the doors to all kinds of private meetings, to trips, to a variety of events, and certainly access to many important people who seemed, I would judge, to speak to him with enormous candor and also, as I said, with trust, knowing that he would handle all this information in a fair way. And he has.

I don't want to make the book sound too fair, because in this day and age you have to be nasty. He'll talk about its themes and so on. I won't.

Just to say, though, that if anyone that you know or yourselves ever need a very good account of, not just what this Secretary-General has been through and who he is, but the secretary-generalship of the United Nations, which isn't often examined this well—never this well, as far as I can tell—and also, beyond that, I think, the kind of book that we all wish we had been able to distribute when the United Nations was under such ignorant pressure over the last couple of years—I say when you are finished here, get one not just for you but for your congressman and your senator, because we now maybe have a new chance to take a new look at the U.S. relationship with the United Nations, and this book is a remarkable basis on which to build your knowledge.

Remarks JAMES TRAUB: Barbara, thanks for that ridiculously gracious introduction.

I'm so happy to be here, because so many times I have sat somewhere at that table, craning my neck, looking up, it's nice to be able to actually look out at everybody.

Now, I'm really not going to talk about any of those things that Barbara just foreshadowed, though I'm happy to answer questions about them. I thought, given that we are still in the kind of euphoric afterglow of the elections—not for everybody here, I'm sure, but for 97 percent of you—that I would talk about the end part of the subtitle, that is to say "in the era of American world power," and I would talk about U.S.-UN relations, which is a major theme of the book.

I start from a funny little insignificant incident, but still telling to me. Towards the end of the time that I was doing the research and, as Barbara said, sitting in on meetings, there was a meeting about Ethiopia-Eritrea. This was a meeting among Kofi Annan and his chief lieutenants. In the course of long discussions—"how can we possibly get to these people? "Who can talk to them?" and so on—I forget who, but one of the officials said, "Well, have we talked to the Africa Desk at the State Department?" Well, it turned out that the only folks who could talk to both the Ethiopians and Eritreans were in Washington.

Now, there was nothing extraordinary about the moment. I mean what actually struck me is how underneath this unbelievable turbulence that Barbara alluded to, and that has been so marked the last few years, there is this dense web of ties between any American administration and the United Nations, just because the United States occupies this unique position in the world; and there actually is a great deal of business being transacted all the time, though you'd never know this from listening to this ongoing onslaught against the United Nations that comes out of Washington. And so, what struck me was both the aspect of how deeply the United Nations depends on the engagement of the United States, but also how in many ways forthcoming Washington is towards the United Nations, despite everything, and how enduring that relationship is. So that struck me because, I guess, I too was so taken up by all of the fervent rhetoric.

I want to just briefly trace just the last decade or so of this relationship and then end by very briefly looking forward and asking what these elections and so forth can mean.

One thing, I think, which is worth recalling is that the Bush Administration did not invent unilateralism. The critique of the United States in the United Nations, as being scornful of the United Nations and of its obligations there, long predates the Bush Administration, but specifically in its modern form really comes from the mid-1990s, when the good, multilateral Clinton Administration decided very unilaterally that it couldn't live any more with Boutros Boutros-Ghali and did something which had never really happened before—at least never successfully— which is it prevented a sitting Secretary-General from succeeding himself.

It is worth recalling why that happened. Part of it was because you had the situation of a Democratic president with a Republican-controlled Congress, and that Republican-controlled Congress was really controlled by yahoos, not to put too fine a point on it. For those people, the United Nations was really their bête noir.

But it was also true that the Clinton Administration felt that it needed to find a good way of working with the United Nations, and they viewed Boutros-Ghali as being an obstacle to their doing so. Now, other countries may have felt so, but would not have succeeded in thereby deposing a Secretary-General. So it was not merely that the Clinton Administration was under pressure from the Right; it was that for its own reasons it wished this and, by virtue of the unique power the United States has, it was able to accomplish this.

So not only this fact was so, but the critique of American behavior was very, very intense at that time. I'm sure you all remember this famous phrase that Hubert Vedrine, the French defense minister, used—the "hyperpower"—that America wasn't a superpower, it was a hyperpower. Well, that was coined during the Clinton years, not during the Bush years.

The atmosphere in the United Nations which Kofi Annan inherited, the atmosphere from the late 1990s, was really poisonous because of American unilateralism. If you go back to that time, you'll remember there was the Helms-Biden Act, which imposed unilaterally a set of reforms on the United Nations, at the same time as also demanding that the United States be allowed to reduce its annual contribution to the United Nations from 25 percent of the budget to 22 percent of the budget. This was a cause of unbelievable agony. I mean, in many ways the emotional temperature was not so different from what it was during the Iraq debate in 2002 and 2003.

During that time, the United States was not paying its dues; it was getting further and further in arrears. It was at one point in danger of being kicked out of the General Assembly, or at least in hypothetical danger of that. Famously, our greatest ally in the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, the U.K. Ambassador, said at one point, making a point in saying it in front of our then-Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, that the United States—let me get the expression right here—"has muffled its voice and stained its reputation." That's pretty bad.

So that's how things stood as of that time. In fact, it is hard to remember now, but one of Kofi Annan's greatest achievements in his first years in office was to bring the United States back into the United Nations. I mean it's hard to remember now because that's going to be one of the greatest obligations of Kofi Annan's successor, which tends to make you think this is a perennial problem and not just a momentary aberration because of this extraordinary, highly ideological administration. But really, acting with Richard Holbrooke, they were able together to persuade an extremely reluctant General Assembly to buy off on these unilateral American demands, coupled with the unilateral American demand for lowering its annual dues payments, and move on.

One moral of that story, by the way, is that here the United States was driving the most bullying imaginable bargain—which is to say, "You will accept zero budget, you will accept all these reforms which we believe in whether you do or not, and you will also accept that the United States is going to reduce its annual payments, in exchange for which the United States agrees to pay you back part—not even all—of the arrears that it owes." You could not have had a more bullying transaction than that. But it was accepted.

Why? In part, because of adroit diplomacy. But the underlying fact, which I think the Bush Administration refused to acknowledge, is that the United States can get its way at the United Nations quite easily because, for all of the rhetorical anger there is, for all the difference of opinion, almost all states recognize that they have no choice but to have the United States be deeply engaged. And so there is a long history of the United States getting its way for arguably unfair terms.

So, in that sense, there is a huge built-in advantage which any American administration has going into the United Nations. It takes a lot to fritter that advantage away. I think probably you could view the failed debate over war in Iraq as a kind of laboratory experiment, which is to say: What do you have to do to fritter away that colossal advantage so that on a matter of supreme importance to the United States the United States cannot get what it wants?

In any case, in effect, the status quo ante circa the moment George Bush enters the White House is this quite recent embittered past, this sense of America using its hegemonic power in an increasingly gratuitous and irritating way, but also this success, this kind of new bargain that had been reached.

Obviously, then, something changes radically to put us where we are now. I would say that that something could be phrased something like this: The continuing fact of America's extraordinary power, which allowed it to act on its own if it so wished in a way that could not be said of other states, and then two new things—one, of course, being this new ideological position of the Bush Administration, the sense that acting through international organizations is a way of diminishing your sovereignty and diminishing your power, as opposed to a way of amplifying it, which was the sort of traditional, old-fashioned view that Truman had established at the outset of U.S.-UN relations; and then, of course, 9/11.

Now, even before 9/11 you could see how different this was going to be, because you had a whole series of treaties that the United States withdrew from or refused to sign—Kyoto, refused to sign; International Criminal Court, in effect, the Bush Administration, kind of gleefully, de-signed it and then went about trying to strike bilateral deals with various countries based on its having un-signed this thing. So that was already there.

But it hadn't really affected the kind of ongoing peace and security relations or Security Council relations at the highest degree. During the campaign, Condi Rice had specifically talked about withdrawing from our peacekeeping obligations in the Balkans, but it produced such an uproar that she quickly backed off. And so, in fact, there was no attempt on the part of the Bush Administration to unravel those things, as opposed to unraveling the treaties.

Now, 9/11 obviously changed everything, in the sense that matters of supreme geopolitical calculation were suddenly entrained by this and were going to come before the Security Council. Even then, it is important to remember what did not change.

In the fall of 2002, when the debate really began—would we go to war in Iraq or not?—I'm sure you recall that public opinion polls showed that the solid majority of the American people said, "Yeah, it's a good idea to go to war in Iraq as long as our allies agree and the United Nations gives it the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." So there was just a kind of default consensual sense that this legitimacy thing the United Nations has really matters, and we shouldn't go to war unless we will have it, and presumably we will get it if we have a just cause.

It didn't immediately change public opinion, of course. What it did immediately change was the climate inside the Bush Administration. It was sort of like a lighting bolt striking a jar of chemicals, that it catalyzed something. That something you could call this neoconservative vision of transformation. Certainly also, a deep sense of vulnerability, that because everything is so much more urgent than it was before, we can no longer allow ourselves any kind of constraint.

You can, for example, compare the debate over Iraq in 2003 to the debate over Iraq in 1998, which Barbara referred to, which is what led to this lightning trip to Baghdad that Kofi Annan took in the hopes of persuading Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors back in. At that time, for all that it was a very grave issue, the fact is the United States and other states were willing to allow Kofi Annan to, in effect, kind of wiggle in, find a tiny little opening where he could have an important role, and then have a very important role. He did succeed in doing something that seemed quite remarkable at the time, though, inevitably I think, it unraveled, and the bombing went ahead nine or ten months later.

This time around, in 2003, there was no such space. First of all, the ideological thing—that is, what the Clinton Administration had felt was "We've got to find a way to make this institution work in a way that is consonant with our own national security interests," and that's really why, at bottom, they felt Boutros-Ghali had to go, because they couldn't make the institution work in the way they wanted it to, or so they felt, as long as he was there. This time you had a greater sense of urgency, far greater sense of urgency—"we must act"—but with none of that sense of "and it is really important to find a way to act with the United Nations."

So then comes the story that all of you know, this ugly debate, this failed debate, and this ruinous moment, and the sense of having reached a kind of Rubicon, which Kofi Annan later phrased as "a fork in the road"—"we have reached a fork in the road, and we must either reform the institution in some radical way or we risk becoming irrelevant."

Now, interestingly, on reflection, he turns out to have been wrong, because the radical reform effort which he then introduced didn't really succeed, at least not in the terms he was talking about. And yet, the problem that he was worried about, which is essentially "the United States will leave because they will find this place hostile or unuseful," actually didn't happen.

So it is interesting. If you take the low watermark of U.S.-UN relations as that debate, and then, I think, extending onwards through 2004—the Oil-for-Food Programme mess and so on—yet, at the same time, something else was also asserting itself. I think that something else is the United States discovered the limits of this dynamic which it had sketched out, which was "we will act with our friends in a coalition of the willing and do what needs to be done."

So by the end of 2003, by six months after this debate, which had included, of course, all these contemptuous references to the United Nations by Dick Cheney and so forth, suddenly the United States discovered they were blocked in Iraq. Why were they blocked? Not that they didn't have the military bite, but it turned out that this infuriating thing called legitimacy was not self-conferring. That is, the Bush Administration view was "legitimacy is what we do; we're legitimate." Jesse Helms used to always say this, "What do you mean the UN gives us legitimacy? We have legitimacy. We can give it to somebody else."

But it didn't happen, because it turned out that this irritating old character, Ayatollah Sistani, really mattered to the Iraqis. When he said, "We're not going to accept your vision for how our future should look," the Iraqis said, "Well, then we won't."

And so, by the end of 2003, Paul Bremer was being recalled back to the White House and his plan, which he was going to impose on the Iraqis, was scrapped. Then, lo and behold, the Bush Administration eagerly turns to the United Nations, basically to save its bacon, and Lakhdar Brahimi, who was a seasoned UN envoy, then goes to Iraq, as he had previously in Afghanistan, and talks to Ayatollah Sistani, as Sergio Vieira de Mello, the previous envoy who had been killed in this terrible bombing, had done as well. The fact that the United Nations could talk to this guy mattered.

I think Brahimi told me that when any envoy from the Americans had said to Sistani, "Look, you can't demand an election by the summer of 2004 because nobody can organize an election that fast; it just can't happen," Sistani thought, "They're lying; I don't know why they're lying, but they're lying because they're Americans, and so I don't believe a word they are saying." Brahimi then repeated the same argument. He said, "Well, if you tell me so, I believe you." Now, that's power. That's a certain kind of power.

It was very hard for the Bush Administration to acknowledge that power, but they had no choice. And so they had reached, in effect, the limits of their own capacity to act autonomously. And so, from that time forward, in effect, the United Nations began reasserting itself, because the United States had no choice in the matter. So you see this throughout 2004.

Now, I come along in this story in the middle of 2004. That's when I began writing this book. You couldn't help feeling like there were two different voices speaking simultaneously from Washington, contending with each other. And so, on the one hand, you had this deepening relationship over Iraq and demands by the United States that the United Nations run that election, which was going to be in January of 2005, in a way that was going to make it effective; that it increase its presence in Iraq, even though the security situation was kind of impossible—so there was the wish to have a deeper, richer engagement at the same time as this kind of regular torrent of criticism.

And so, by the late fall of 2004, you had the situation where Kofi Annan seemed to be basically hanging by a thread. You had Norm Coleman, a U.S. senator, calling for him to step down; all the American conservative publications calling for him to step down, concerted critique; and silence from the White House; and the feeling inside the thirty-eighth floor of the United Nations, "Well, if these guys care so much about us, why can't they call off the dogs?"—because all you needed was a signal from the White House and it would stop.

There was a terrible period in early December, which was in the midst of the Oil-for-Food scandal and the sexual abuse scandal in the Congo. Everything bad was happening—real fear that the Iraq election would go south, and this sense of terrible brittleness and danger—and "Where is the White House? Isn't someone going to ride to our rescue?"

In fact, finally—I think it was December 8th or something—the fever broke, and someone at a meeting I attended said, "Something happened yesterday. McCain was authorized to come to our defense, and Danforth (then the ambassador) is going to say something tomorrow morning." No one ever knew what happened, but something or other happened.

A week later, Kofi Annan went to talk to Condoleezza Rice. Now, there had been a fear that she wouldn't even talk to him, but in fact they had a great conversation. She said, "Thank you for Iraq, and thank you for this, and thank you for that, and we want to work with you." It was like, "What's the problem?"

In fact, when I went to talk to her some while afterwards, I said, "Tell me what you were all thinking at that time."

She said, "I don't know what you mean."

I said, "Well, there must have been some internal debate."

She said, "No there wasn't. There was never a problem with the relationship. We were always very happy and comfortable with Kofi Annan. He was always very straight." That's Condoleezza Rice. And this continued. You know, "The election of January 2005 was great, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."

But then the Volcker Commission comes back, the fear that once again Kofi Annan [cell phone ringing interruption]—I'm just going to continue as if nothing is happening.

So this continues, these two voices. Indeed, I would say it has probably continued for the last several years. I mean, in mid-2005 there was a movement in the Congress to basically tie U.S. contributions to the United Nations to, again, a series of unilaterally demanded reforms. And again, silence from the White House.

Then, all of a sudden, mid-June, Nick Burns, the number three guy in the State Department, says, "We think this is a bad idea, we're opposed to it," and it goes away.

Here is something to which I was never a party, which is: What were the fights between Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney—or whomever? I don't know the answer to that. You can just infer it from the external symptoms.

So this whole great drama of John Bolton and his role at the United Nations plays out within this weird duality. At another moment, when Bolton first arrives, in August of 2005, in the midst of this big debate over reform, he speaks to the chief officials involved at the United Nations and the General Assembly and says, "Look, this whole process is a mess, it's a failure. We're going to throw the whole thing out, and we're going to do this and we're going to do that." Everybody is shocked.

And so, Bob Orr, who was the chief liaison of the Annan administration to the Bush Administration, calls up his contacts at the State Department and says, "Bolton just said all these things. Is that policy?" His contact said, "He said what?" So Bob said, "Well, he said this and this." So then, half an hour later, he gets a phone message saying, "Cool it, don't worry," meaning "That's not our policy."

Well, this continued the whole time. It was never easy to say what the policy was, because the fact is there were at least two policies, canceling each other out.

In the end, actually, I think Bolton was given far more of a leash than he ought to have been and was able to use that latitude to do real lasting damage—certainly to the reform process, and arguably to the institution—but all at the same time as Condoleezza Rice, quite sincerely, has insisted that she wants to have this good, pragmatic relationship with the institution.

Indeed, since the beginning of the second term, she has clearly been allowed to trace out a diplomatic path which is very different from the one that was before. Part of that is: "The United Nations is okay. We'll use them for some things and not for other things. But it's a pragmatic relationship."

So I think probably, if you look back at this moment historically, you will say, "We lived through the low watermark of U.S.-UN relations." Now things are getting better, though still with profound bitterness and acrimony present all the time—the wound is exposed again all the time but trending upwards.

An interesting question for the future is the following. I don't think having the same administration with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate changes very much the relationship between the two bodies. It just strengthens the hand of people like Rice and others who argue for a more pragmatic relationship.

But let's say we have a Democratic president, whoever—Hillary somebody—in 2008 and a Democratic Congress, a situation we obviously haven't had in a long time. In effect, you would then ask: What is the positive baseline of U.S.-UN relations? That is to say, what would an essentially multilaterally inclined administration with a multilaterally inclined Congress look like?

I think the hope that it would kind of look like Danish-UN relations is probably misplaced. It would be nice. But the fact is when you are the United States, you are not going to behave like nice, little other small European countries do. And frankly, if France were the United States, they would be a lot worse. It is just in the nature of being a hegemonic power, it is in the nature of being a continental power, where you can feel sovereignty is absolute.

In thinking about the future there is some grounds to be hopeful, if only in a sense that the worst is behind us, I think. But it would be wrong to imagine that there is this kind of doctrinal off/on switch and it is now going to be, "If only we can elect a Democrat in 2008, it is going to be thrown to 'on' and then this deeply problematic, though also shot through with idealism, relationship will become unproblematic." It will never become unproblematic. It is simply the nature of the United States and the nature of its relationship with the institution.

Let me stop there. I'd be happy to take questions on anything.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for that well-balanced presentation.

Questions and Answers QUESTION: Thank you very much. Edward Mortimer from—surprise, surprise—the office of Kofi Annan. I would like to make one comment and ask one question.

The comment is that I think your last point is absolutely right. The very good evidence for this is that the problems all—obviously, problems have gone on ever since the 1950s, or before—but the problems in their modern form, if you like, started actually precisely in the period when there was a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in Congress.

It was October 1993 when Black Hawk came down in Mogadishu, and at the time Morton Halperin was supposed to be writing something called PDD-13, which was all about how the United States was going to go in for constructive engagement and multilateralism and play a big part in UN peacekeeping. By the time that came out, in a sort of incredible piece of poetic justice, at the beginning of April 1994, at the exact moment when the genocide was starting in Rwanda, it was all about how the United States not only would not participate in UN peacekeeping but would not allow a peacekeeping operation to happen, except in very, very tightly defined circumstances. So they didn't wait for a Republican Congress before they turned tail and decided to put the blame on the United Nations for the problems of their foreign policy.

My question is about the current Bush Administration. Obviously, there is not complete harmony within it. I guess there seldom is in any big government, and there are different currents and there are a lot of internal arguments. But you almost implied that you thought—and I just wonder whether you do think—isn't there also a streak of Machiavellianism?

I mean, yes, we deal with a lot of very nice people, starting with the Secretary of State, for whom there is never any problem about the Secretary-General. But, of course, in terms of having a Secretary-General who can't really afford to get far out of line with what they want him to do, having these Colemans and Fox News and all those people baying at his heels day after day, doesn't that suit them pretty well?

Oh, absolutely. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that this was purely on the level of doctrine. I think when you ask why have they allowed Kofi Annan to sort of dangle this way, the answer is because that way he can be really grateful when they save him from the burning pit. And so I can't believe that this is a coincidence.

The other effect it has had is that Annan has always been viewed by a large sector of opinion in the developing world as the puppet of the West, and above all of the United States. Well, this has increased it enormously—first, going back into Iraq very quickly after war, when much of the world was violently opposed to the war; but then, this whole sense of Washington is kind of dancing to their tune because they fire bullet at its feet and say, "dance."

One of the poignant things that I was present for during this period, the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005, was people begging Annan to stand up for the institution and stand up for himself. Why didn't he do so? It's not in his nature. But he also didn't do so because he was advised—I think rightly—that if he stood up for himself and stood up for the institution, he would therefore have to be standing up against something, and that something would be America. And then, instead of having one senator calling for his resignation, you'd have forty senators calling for his resignation.

This is what it means to fight a bully. You can't do what's just, you have to accept unjust rules; or you can fight against them and win a moral battle but lose the important battle. Kofi Annan is the kind of person who, if he has to choose between ego and getting something done, he'll let his ego get beaten up in order to get something done.

QUESTION: In your book, Jim, you indicated that Kofi Annan was basically middle of the road, a not terribly impressive individual, until he found a Ted Sorensen in Ed Mortimer over there. At that point, everything started to change in terms of his presentation, including his appearance, his staff, his clothing, and so on.

But there is a question here too. When Paul Volcker's report on the Oil-for-Food scandal was released, the following day Claudia Rosett asked him a very pointed question: "Mr. Volcker, now that your report is out, can you say, very simply, is Kofi Annan an honest man?" Volcker dissembled, embarrassedly, for minutes and never answered the question.

Now, you have spent a lot of time with Kofi Annan. Essentially, what is your overall evaluation of the man?

Kofi Annan is an honest man. I think that can be stated unequivocally. That's an easy one. I mean that's not a hard one for me.

Yes, I describe a lot of his drawbacks, and it doesn't make Edward's life easier that I say lots of nice things about Edward and other people who work for and with him but I say some tough things about him. I'd be happy to go on about these other aspects.

But I think the first thing to be said is that there really was an orchestrated campaign by people who didn't like the institution to use this Oil-for-Food scandal in order to destroy the institution. I mean it cannot be a coincidence that there were few, if any, people who were generally internationalists who viewed the Oil-for-Food scandal as the be-all and the end-all of the United Nations. It's not even, in a way, like the Monica Lewinsky scandal, where you had plenty of Democrats saying, "This is a terrible thing," so you could say it must be a terrible thing if they think so.

In the case of Oil-for-Food, virtually the entire attack—certainly the spear point of the attack—came from people who didn't like the institution in the first place. Now, I don't want to go on at length about why I think that it was more a sign of a cultural pathology in the institution than it was a sign of criminality and corruption, but that is my view.

I think that it did expose a genuine flaw—problem, whatever you want to call it—in Kofi Annan's nature, which is his own sense of the nobility of his enterprise and of his institution is so great that he couldn't really grasp the terrible urgency of this attack and that it wouldn't do any good to say, "But we're the United Nations, we're good guys, we do good things."

And so this thing quickly overwhelmed the institution. I think that really it will produce some kind of permanent change, that it just doesn't do any good to say, "We're the United Nations; how can you think we did bad things?" That's just not the world that the United Nations or anybody else lives in anymore.

QUESTION: Kind of as a follow-on for that, the two questions that you pointed to—one was the question of the United States' willingness to work with the United Nations and accepting it as an institution and its necessity; the other is the question of reform—basically, you said the United States has changed on the former but not really the latter.

In fact, the answer you just gave, mentioning that there is a cultural pathology which allowed what was a fairly large scandal—even if the United Nations' defenders were often too embarrassed to want to admit that, for reasons of the sort of partisan attack they were facing—that there were the problems with the peacekeepers and others—the basic question of accountability within the institution remains a major one.

For me, the question about a future administration is this: Okay, now that the United States accepts that pragmatically it is going to work with the United Nations; at the same time, it hasn't really been reformed—in part, because of the bungling of Mr. Bolton and for other reasons—how then go forward with this imperfect and problematic institution?

I wish I had a good answer to that question. One of the things I did in my book, at the very end of the book, is the chapter called "Model UN," where I imagine let's create a new United Nations.

One of the reasons I imagined that is because it is very difficult to change the internal state of any culture, whether that culture is General Electric or a public school, or the United Nations. And so, if the United Nations is still dominated by an incredible obsession with process over outcome, if the question of the right of geographical succession to various jobs remains dominant and remains a problem—a million different things—how are you going to change that?

That's why the idea of creating a new institution is attractive. But that's just a hypothetical exercise. It is not going to happen.

So one thing you would hope of the successor, Ban Ki-Moon, who I don't think is going to have the kind of voice on moral issues that Kofi Annan did—I'd be very happy to be proved wrong; people didn't think Kofi Annan would, and he did, and he surprised people—but, for various reasons, I don't think it is likely. But what you would hope is that, because he is an outsider and because he comes from a culture which puts tremendous stress on institutional effectiveness, once he gets in there, he'll think, "Wow! This really doesn't work."

There's a lot that an individual can do, both because there is some scope for action by a Secretary-General, but also because how he acts and how he demands that others act matter. And so, to that extent things can be done.

But the institutional problems that require approval of the other members, that's a huge problem. The one place where the American role does matter is, by virtue of the United States being unyielding on the stuff it wanted, it gave license to others to be unyielding on the stuff they wanted or the stuff they wanted to block. And so, one reason why big pieces of the reform didn't succeed, including management reform, is that the United States made it incredibly easy for the, let's say, three-quarters of the members who actually don't really want management reform, at least the way the United states and others see it—it made it easy for them to block it, because the United States was blocking what they wanted. This comes under the heading of it's not that hard for the United States to get what it wants in the United Nations. It has to be willing to pay that relatively modest price, and in this case it wasn't going to pay any price at all.

I wonder if you could say a little more about what you think the United Nations' side of this relationship should be. In other words, much of your presentation was the United Nations is on the receiving end of what the United States wants or doesn't want. You were beginning to talk about this with the new Secretary-General. But what kind of relationship or what kind of approach do you think the new Secretary-General should take to the United States, particularly bearing in mind that much of the developing world thinks the United Nations is already much too beholden to the United States and sort of attacks the Secretary-General's position from the other side? So what do you think, and then maybe link to that whether you think the pressure is going to be for the next Secretary-General to be more secretary than general?

Maybe there's a connection between those two questions, which is every Secretary-General, in effect, is hired to be more secretary than general, because the members —or most of them, or the ones who count—don't want him to be a big public force out there, because they see that as subtracting from their own authority.

When Kofi Annan can basically whip up public opinion to such a point that he can go to Iraq in 1998 even if Washington doesn't really want him to, that's a kind of power. So he was chosen because people thought he would be an effective bureaucrat but not more.

Ban Ki-Moon clearly fills that bill. Now, I don't know what he said in his private conversations with people, but certainly the vibe that comes off him is pure secretary, not general.

Now, the first part of your question—how do you thread this needle—Well, the way that he can show Washington that he gets it from Washington's point of view is management reform. In a way, the management reform, for all that it's terribly contested, in some ways is less burning ground than the various peace and security issues that arise over Iran, the Middle East, and so forth. Those are pure kind of zero-sum fights.

From his point of view, I think he would say: "Look, I recognize the validity of your complaints about the institution. We've got to find a way to work on this. I personally in the first ninety days will do this and this and this and this."

Having said that, though, what does he then say to the rest of the world? He already is under the assumption, as the foreign minister of a traditional American ally within the American sphere of protection, of being the American candidate whom China signed off on for their own reasons. So he is going to have as big a problem—or more—demonstrating to the rest of the world that he gets it from their point of view.

Now, what is the issue in "gets it from their point of view?" Well, it tends to be foreign aid. I mean you can describe it a million different ways, but the kind of currency is more official development assistance. How much influence does a Secretary-General have over that? Not a lot. But in terms of what he says in the world it matters.

So I would guess that the way you would arbitrage this is that he would become a speaker for—let's say he'd say, "You know, the Americans got it right with this Millennium Challenge Account of theirs. There has to be a bargain, where third-world countries agree to become more transparent, more accountable, etc., etc., etc., and then Western countries have to come through with big-time aid, trade, debt relief, and so forth." So maybe he should focus on that as a way of being evenhanded.

Also, in a way, Kofi Annan has already pushed the humanitarian agenda about as far as it is going to go right now. So there's not much call for his successor, at least immediately, to push harder on things like the responsibility to protect, because we already now have the United Nations accepting the responsibility to protect and not doing anything about it in Darfur. So maybe that would be a way of dealing with what I think is basically an insoluble problem.

QUESTION: I was just wondering if you could amplify what occurred with Venezuela—not so much Venezuela, but what that represented within the United Nations, the vote extended out for so long, and what is that symptomatic of?

JAMES TRAUB: Of course, according to John Bolton, it is symptomatic of the fact that the United States still has the prestige to prevent Venezuela from being seated in the Security Council. I think, though, a couple of different things.

One is Venezuela had a lot of its own currency. As I understand it, they were basically offering oil allocations—kind of like Saddam Hussein during the Oil-for-Food thing— in order to get votes. But it can't be a good thing that a country which was running for this job—essentially what is its platform? Its platform is "I'm going to stick it to Washington," that's its platform—that they could get eighty of the 192 members, including lots of members who themselves would like to stick it to Washington but they know better than to try to do so in public. This was a private vote. So this allowed them to actually accomplish what they'd like to do without getting in any trouble from Washington for doing it.

So it does tell you, I think, how deep is the North/South divide that's between all the developing countries and Western industrial countries, but also how inflamed are the feelings against the United States. To me this does not have the meaning Bolton assigned to it, that Venezuela didn't win. It has the opposite meaning, which is that it was incredibly difficult to muster the two-thirds vote and that there were eighty countries that were always willing to vote for Venezuela.

QUESTION: You said that in your book you have a chapter on a model United Nations. Do you have a page on the model U.S. ambassador to the United Nations?

JAMES TRAUB: As a matter of fact, I do. I am a big fan of Richard Holbrooke, and frankly I actually kind of like his bad qualities as well as his good qualities. He doesn't think I do, but just between us.

You know, he was a really tough-minded guy who beat up the United Nations a lot, but he beat it up to some extent strategically, because he was speaking to the American audience. He found a very good modus operandi. He is, of course, persuaded that all of the problems that have happened have happened because he is gone now. He has explained to me that he had this way of working it out with the Secretary-General and the big problem now is that Secretary-General doesn't have a Richard Holbrooke-type figure—of whom there is only one actually, Richard Holbrooke. But, you know, this is what comes with it. You know, you don't get the ocean without its roar, so you don't get Holbrooke without his ego.

The professionals who have been appointed to this job over time—Thomas Pickering did a fantastic job during the First Gulf War. John Negroponte was dealt an impossible hand and has never gotten much credit for what he did. I think he was actually quite effective in a hopeless situation. There have been a lot of good U.S. ambassadors.

It normally just doesn't matter. I mean it mattered in Holbrooke's case, it mattered in Bolton's case. It matters at least marginally in everybody's case, but not that much. And so, the question is much more the administration. The ambassador tells you something about where they are coming from, which may be as important as what the ambassador does or doesn't do.

I want to congratulate both Barbara and you for really being among the few people who understand the holistic framework of human rights within the United Nations.

JAMES TRAUB: Thank you.

You have recently written in The New York Times about human rights too and the new Secretary-General.

My question is: Do you think it was a decision of the United Nations to get rid of Mary Robinson, who was an excellent commissioner? Then, the other thing is, what do you see the future of human rights at the United Nations?

JAMES TRAUB: Barbara, do you know the answer to the first question, because I don't?


JAMES TRAUB: Yes, right. She was considered—this is exactly what the United States and others fear in a Secretary-General—that is to say, becoming in effect an independent agent and seeing yourself as having an independent platform. She was seen as far too critical of the United States, far too—well, far too critical of the United States probably just about says it.

By virtue of what he said and did over the last decade, Kofi Annan has really succeeded in infusing human rights into every crevice of the United Nations. When you have a peacekeeping resolution, it includes stipulations about protecting human rights.

So the question now is: To what extent is that institutionalized such that it will not unravel in the case of a new person? Now, I don't know the answer to that. But I do think that, in addition to what he said, which I suppose does depend on an ongoing rhetorical commitment—and there I am quite skeptical of what Ban Ki-Moon will do, but one doesn't know—but there are also all these ways in which it became institutionalized. I tend to think that's permanent, but I don't know.

And then, of course, above all that is the question of whether there can be an effective human rights body, whether the Human Rights Council is better than the Human Rights Commission. The answer so far is no.

QUESTION: I was hoping you could comment about the relationship that existed between Secretary Annan and Secretary Powell, what type of relationship there was. And secondly, if you could comment or speculate on if Ambassador Bolton is not reconfirmed, who are the candidates who are being considered?

You know, there is this assumption that Annan and Powell must have had a great relationship because they are both black men. I don't know if that's true. I saw them together only once. There was a videoconference having to do with organizing a response to the tsunami. I was just struck by Powell's kind of military brusqueness. I was struck by the difference in the two men. They could not have been more different as people. This one, impatient: "Here's the agenda, let's get it done. Good talking to you, Kofi. Bye." On the other side, Kofi Annan's solicitousness and the wish to create a nice atmosphere around everything and so forth.

So they had very good relations, but how close they were I don't know. I'm not persuaded—and it may be that in some ways he had more comfortable relations with Rice. I'm honestly not sure. Probably Edward knows the answer to that better than I do, but he's not saying either.

As for the new person, I don't know. There have been several names. One is Zamai Halozad, who was our ambassador in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, which would be, I think, really good. Though I know he's a neo-con and all that, the guy has done great work. He deserves a break. He should be allowed to live in the Waldorf for a couple years after five years of that stuff. He is also a Muslim, which would be very good.

Then, Paula Dobriansky, of whom I have a less high opinion.


JAMES TRAUB: Paula Dobriansky is our assistant secretary, in effect, for democracy promotion and other related issues to that. She's a Washington lawyer who, I guess, is owed a favor or something.

Or they'll find some way to keep Bolton, which would really be dumb, because it would cause so much unnecessary anger. As a payoff to the Right, I think the fact that Bush has said, "I'm going to try to re-nominate him" should be enough. Then he'll fail—"he fought the good fight; let's move on."

QUESTION: You mentioned at the beginning of your talk that the United Nations depends on U.S. engagement in the world to succeed if they want to achieve anything. To what extent does the United States depend on the United Nations to succeed in the world?

I think that was the point I was trying to make in my later remarks, that the United States performed this kind of a test: How far can we go in the direction of acting all by ourselves? Even the United States turned out to have its limits.

So I do think that the previous bipartisan consensus was that this is a mutually beneficial relationship and that this thing called legitimacy actually matters. So I think you had an administration that did not at some doctrinal level accept that notion, but then was forced at a practical level to accept it. So, I think, both operationally—because there are a lot of places the United States doesn't want to do anything but it wants something to be done; it's happy to have the United Nations doing it—and then there is this grudging doctrinal thing where the United States has been forced to recognize that they cannot dispense with that legitimacy thing, even though they think it is unfair that they should have to be seeking it in the first place.

Thank you.

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