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Made in USA | The Nation

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Made in USA

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Of all postwar institutions in the public eye, the United Nations has probably yielded the poorest literature. With the exception of two lucid studies of its foundation, Robert Hilderbrand's Dumbarton Oaks (1990) and Stephen Schlesinger's Act of Creation (2003), each the work of a serious diplomatic historian, little or nothing of analytic interest exists about the organization, which has proved a kind of intellectual sinkhole, down which swirl the drearily self-serving memoirs of its onetime functionaries and mind-numbing pieties from assorted well-wishers in the universities. There is a reason for the peculiar deadness of this output. The UN is a political entity without any independent will. If we set aside its specialized agencies, most of which perform useful practical services of one sort or another, the core of the institution--that is, the General Assembly and Security Council--is a legitimating, not a policy-making, apparatus. Decisions reached by the organization are in essence embellishments of the relationships of power operative at any given time. Virtually by definition, where legitimation alone is at stake, the quotient of euphemism and mystification on all sides will be very high. So, predictably enough, it has been with the United Nations.

About the Author

Perry Anderson
Perry Anderson teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Readers approaching James Traub's The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power and Stanley Meisler's Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War thus have reason to expect the worst. But though in some ways the expectation is amply fulfilled, in others the two books--each by a journalist--cast more light on the UN than is normally allowed to fall on it. The purpose of both is straightforward: to offer an oleograph of the former Secretary General for public devotion. Here The Best Intentions is unbeatable. Kofi Annan, writes Traub, is "the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful, yellowing eyes," "the UN official nonpareil," "perhaps the most popular figure ever to occupy the office," embodying "modest charm and moral gravity," "the most gracious of men," who--not least--would "usually greet me with a big smile and a roundhouse handshake, a kind of domesticated soul gesture," and "rarely failed to ask after my wife, my son, and my parents."

Yet modest as Annan is, he courageously "embraced his celebrity," becoming "something quite new in the history of the UN: a spokesman for mankind who looked wonderful in a tuxedo," plunging into "the social whirl" with a wife who--"like him, quiet, composed, profoundly gracious"--had "the same aura of simple goodness." Together they offered a captivating spectacle: "Kofi and Nane, both enormously attractive and disarmingly modest, the one short and black and the other tall and blond, made for a dazzling couple; they projected a kind of moral glamour." Meisler too dwells on Annan's status as a "social star of New York society," dining and partying three times a week. But disavowing psychology, he otherwise makes do with such comparatively humdrum passages as: "I tried to analyze why the secretary-general's words so often seem eloquent. He speaks simply in short sentences that sparkle with clarity and never jar because of a slip in grammar. His measured tones have a slight cadence. His use of words is subtle yet careful. He never postures. And, most important, he projects an air of sincerity that could not possibly be faked."

Fawning of this sort is no doubt in part payment for access. Annan invited Traub to sit in on his meetings and travel with him on his trips, speaking to him "regularly and candidly." Meisler tells us that the Secretary General "helped me immensely by passing the word to associates and friends that this project has his blessing," though fifteen years of intimacy with his press officer, Fred Eckhard, unique among his kind as one who was "completely incapable of spinning," knowing only "how to hand out the truth in all its nuances," was of no small assistance too. But, on venturing further into each work, it becomes plain that such effusions are also there in compensation for what the authors are obliged en route to divulge. In effect, the further the image from reality, the more strained and cloying it becomes.

The facts of Annan's career are clear enough, and in practice neither writer casts much of a veil over them. The academically ungifted son of a manager for Unilever in colonial Ghana, he was spotted as likely material by a scout for the Ford Foundation and dispatched to Minnesota to study economics at a local college. There, Traub explains, he learned something of more lasting value: "Annan himself had become persuaded of the merits of capitalism, and of the American way generally." Perhaps with this in mind, the Carnegie Foundation got him to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, where he failed to take any degree, leaving instead for a low-level job in the World Health Organization. For the next twenty years, he gradually moved up the bureaucratic ladder in the UN system, with a stint at MIT to acquire management lore, finally landing a post in the services department of the Secretariat in New York in the early '80s. From there, shortly before the Clinton Administration came to office, he edged his way toward the number-two position in the department for "special political affairs," with subordinate responsibility for the Middle East and Africa. When Washington pressed for UN troops to be sent into Somalia, his superior opposed the mission. Annan took the American line. His chief was duly ousted, and Annan was put in charge of all peacekeeping operations, as they were now called, in February 1993.

A year later, in January 1994, he received an urgent cable from Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant general in charge of the UN force in Rwanda, warning him of impending slaughter of the Tutsi population in the country and explaining he planned to intervene by raiding Hutu arms caches. Not only did Annan refuse to allow any measures to be taken to stop the unleashing of genocide; he insured that the fax informing him of what was in store did not reach the Security Council. Approximately 800,000 Tutsis died in the ensuing massacre. Measured by consequences, the culpability of Kurt Waldheim, exposed for concealing his service as a Nazi intelligence officer in the Balkans, was puny by comparison. Annan remained quite unmoved until it became too impolitic to deny any remorse. The extent of his contrition is summed up by all he would say to Traub, after a long pause, about his part in the fate of Rwanda: "In retrospect, and this is also the culture of the house, we should have used the media more aggressively, and exposed the situation for them to see. Of course, at that time this organization was media-shy." Read: Don't blame me, I'm the one who became media-friendly. As banalizations go, Arendt might have had some words for it.

Far from being an impediment, however, Annan's performance regarding Rwanda was in a way a condition of his further ascent. The Clinton Administration, gearing up for intervention in the Balkans, was determined not to allow any distractions over killings in Africa to deflect public attention from Bosnia--where the scale of death, though high, was neither proportionately nor absolutely near that in Rwanda. But strategic interest, not to speak of skin color, made the region altogether another matter. As a Pentagon memorandum about Rwanda put it at the time: "Be Careful. Legal [department] at State [department] was worried about this yesterday--Genocide finding could commit USG [the US government] to actually 'do something.'" Clinton and Albright, naturally, did nothing. When, on the other hand, they pressed the button for action in Bosnia in the summer of 1995, Annan sprang to life and, at Albright's request--without consulting Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General--he authorized NATO to start heavy bombing of Serb positions. This was the alacrity that made him. Boutros-Ghali, although a former foreign minister of Mubarak's regime in Egypt, one of America's most loyal client states, had riled Washington with an increasing lack of deference, dragging his feet over Bosnia and talking too much about Africa. By the time his mandate came up for renewal the following year, the Clinton Administration was determined to oust him and parachute Annan into his place. The most valuable sections of Traub's book, as of Meisler's, describe how this was done.

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