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.
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.
Within a few months of Annan’s green light in Bosnia, a team of top officials in Washington, headed by Albright, was working on a secret plan, Operation Orient Express, for a coup at the UN. As America’s designated candidate, Annan was, of course, party to the scheme. In the Security Council itself, Boutros-Ghali was supported by every member state, with the exception of the United States, which vetoed him. Seven ballots later and following tireless pressure by Albright, every state except France had realized, as Traub remarks, that “there was no percentage in blocking the will of such a powerful figure.” Decisive was Washington’s ability to call Russia to heel, bypassing its foreign minister for direct instructions to Yeltsin, on whom it could rely for submission. Once the Russian vote had been pocketed, France caved in, and Annan was home and dry.
Satisfaction in Washington was unconcealed. For Albright’s assistant James Rubin, the UN now had a Secretary General able “to understand the importance of cooperation with the world’s first power.” More pointedly still, another of the architects of Orient Express, National Security Council officer Robert Orr, explained: “Very few secretaries-general had worked with the U.S. military. Here we were in an era where the U.S. military was going to be a big part of the equation. You needed a secretary-general who understands that the U.S. military is not the enemy.” Or more tersely: “Kofi could do it.” Annan duly did it. When NATO launched its aerial attack on Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999 over Kosovo, in patent violation of the UN Charter, the Secretary General, far from condemning the action of the United States and its allies, informed the world that it was legitimate. For services like these–he “courted the wrath of the developing world by rejecting anticolonialism in favor of moral principles cherished in the West”–he was much feted and, not surprisingly, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The invasion of Iraq, however, would pose a severer test. Annan had presided over the sanctions regime without a qualm and not demurred at Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign Clinton oversaw in 1998. When the Bush Administration began its push for war with Resolution 1441, which declared Iraq in material breach of all past resolutions on its disarmament, Annan swung into action to pressure all members of the Security Council to vote for it, personally phoning Syria’s President Bashar Assad to insure that there would not be a single abstention. Unanimity was secured, but a hitch arose at the next stage. The French told the White House that while they could not accept a second Security Council resolution explicitly authorizing an attack on Iraq, which would implicate them, they had no objection to a US invasion based on an American interpretation of 1441–the course that Cheney was urging within the Administration. But Blair, who wanted to join in the attack, insisted that a second resolution was necessary to protect him from criticisms at home, and got Powell’s support for a futile attempt to circumvent a French veto in the Security Council. Such mutual hypocrisies put Annan in an awkward spot. Blessing the Balkan War was one thing: In 1999, the West was united in the attack on Yugoslavia. But now the West, to all appearances, was divided. What should he do? If only the French had come round, we learn, all might have been well. “He would have accepted, and perhaps even embraced,” Traub tells us, “a resolution authorizing war so long as the council was firmly united behind it.” But unity was not forthcoming, and an embrace remained out of reach. Operation Iraqi Freedom rolled ahead. In March 2003, “shock and awe” hit Baghdad.
Annan, aware that his inspectors had failed to come up with any evidence of WMDs in Iraq, the pretext for war, and that his own position would be weakened by an attack that opened up a line of division between the United States and leading Western allies, indicated his unhappiness at this unfortunate turn of events, but he refrained from condemning the invasion–which, having endorsed an identical bypassing of the Security Council over Kosovo, he was anyway scarcely in a position to do. Once Iraq was conquered, however, he hastened to the assistance of the occupation, for which Bush and Blair wanted backdated cover from the UN. In May, at Annan’s urging, the Security Council ratified the Anglo-American seizure of Iraq, voting unanimously for Resolution 1483, which endorsed Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, and pledged that the UN would play a “vital role,” as requested by the White House and Downing Street, in helping it out. Rice and Powell had already chosen the functionary in the Secretariat they wanted for the job, Sergio Vieira de Mello, its human rights commissioner. Vieira de Mello was reluctant to go, but an audience was arranged with Bush, and Annan dispatched him. On arrival in Baghdad, Vieira de Mello’s task was to help Bremer arrange a puppet advisory body to give the Anglo-American armies a local facade. “Over the course of six weeks, he persuaded reluctant leadership figures to identify themselves with the American regime” and got Bremer “to change the name of the body to the more dignified Governing Council (even though it remained powerless).” Traub goes on: “This was just what Annan had had in mind when he argued for a serious role for the UN.”
Inevitably, the bid to create a network of collaborators for the occupation made Vieira de Mello a target for retribution by the Iraqi insurgents. In August, in politically the single most effective strike of the war, he and his staff were obliterated by a truck bomb. Annan, who had sent them to their death, did not flinch. To the incredulity even of intimates and the fury of subordinates, so determined was he to do his duty by Bush and Blair that he refused to withdraw the UN mission from Baghdad. It took another bombing, a month later, for him to change his mind and pull UN personnel out of the country. But his commitment to providing cover for the occupation had not altered. Within a few months Lakhdar Brahimi–Algeria’s foreign minister at the height of the voided elections and military repression of 1991-92–was dispatched to Iraq as Annan’s special representative, in the hope that he could repeat his performance of stitching together a client regime for the United States in Afghanistan. Brahimi got out alive, but his mission was no more successful than Vieira de Mello’s, ending in the humiliation of having to announce that the CIA’s Iyad Allawi, picked by the United States, would lead the new Iraqi democracy. Allawi lasted less than a year in his position.
Back in the West, cornered by a reporter from the BBC, Annan was in the end forced to admit, under repeated questioning, that the invasion of Iraq was illegal–“if you wish,” he grudgingly added. How little he wished it could be seen from a poignant lapsus in the same interview. Asked if he was “bothered that the United States is becoming an unrestrainable, unilateral superpower,” Annan replied: “I think in the end everybody is concluding that it is best to work together with our allies.” Our allies. Identification with the United States could not be more innocently complete.
Annan ended his tenure lowered by scandal, when it was revealed that his son Kojo had received a rake-off of some $450,000 for helping to fix up the Swiss-based company Cotecna with an inspection contract under the Oil for Food program attached to the sanctions regime against Iraq. Annan, denying any knowledge of the contract, hired Clinton’s defense counsel in the Jones-Lewinsky affair to ward off charges of corruption. The Volcker Commission, set up by Annan to investigate profiteering from the Oil for Food program, was obliged to look into the matter. Despite the incontestable fact that Annan had met with Cotecna executives, one of whom testified they had indeed discussed the UN contract with him and that documents had been rapidly shredded by one of Annan’s confidants, Volcker–whose sense of establishment solidarity was not matched by an ear for literary meaning–concluded that the evidence that Annan knew of the contract his son had so coincidentally set up was “not reasonably sufficient”: a formula in which the redundancy of the adverb destroys the denial of the adjective. For what would “unreasonably” sufficient be? Even sympathetic reporters like Traub and Meisler can hardly conceal their view of this verdict. Still, anyone who thinks Clinton told the truth about Paula Jones is entitled to believe Annan did so about Cotecna. It would, in any case, be unfair to judge a political record by such episodes. Annan was not personally greedy, and the venality at issue was trivial by comparison with the moral enormity of the sanctions themselves.
What is one to make of the career as a whole? Annan was never a strong figure, or an independent agent. As a UN bureaucrat, he obviously had his share of vanity and ambition, but it was probably no more, and in some cases less, than that of others. There is no reason to suppose his Americanism was purely calculating, a mere means of self-advancement. It belonged to his formation. He achieved high office as a creature of the Clinton Administration, with ties that swaddled him to the end. Although personally fond of Bush and Blair, he never had a comparable rapport with the Republican Administration, which lacked the same confidence in him. When he came under attack over the Oil for Food scandal, the Democratic coterie that had elevated him rallied round. The campaign was led by Richard Holbrooke, imposing the changes in Annan’s entourage that were deemed necessary to save him. In fact, what is really striking about Annan’s tenure as Secretary General is less his personal characteristics than the nature of his inner circle. From the start, it was overwhelmingly Anglo-American, with a sprinkling of figures from the Anglophone zones of the First and Third World–Canada, Pakistan, India, Gambia–trained, like Annan himself, in the United States. A token Frenchman. Not a Russian, a Chinese, a Japanese, even a German or Italian, in sight. The provenance of figures like Robert Orr, head of “strategic planning,” lifted straight from the National Security Council in Washington, Louise Fréchette, Deputy Secretary General, dispatched from the Defense Ministry in Ottawa, or, lower down the scale, theorists of humanitarian intervention from Harvard and Princeton like John Ruggie and Michael Doyle, speaks for itself.
But since the real work of the UN is the manufacture not of actions but of legitimations, the two key figures were the set’s ventriloquists, who wrote the speeches and articles furbishing the Secretary General with his rhetorical image–much needed, since Annan’s own powers of expression were wooden in the extreme. This pair, Edward Mortimer and Nader Mousavizadeh, came from the Financial Times and The New Republic, respectively. Not surprisingly, Annan’s various pronouncements, applauded for their eloquence by like-minded colleagues across the West, were little more than lofty versions of editorials in these publications, whose political profile needs little specification. Mortimer, from a high clerical background in England, was a founder of the International Committee for a Free Iraq along with Ahmad Chalabi. Relations between them remained sufficiently close, Meisler tells us, for Chalabi to tip him off in advance of the Oil for Food affair. Mousavizadeh, editor of The Black Book of Bosnia, though technically a Dane, “was essentially American”–so says Traub–“and, like Ruggie, could not view international law as the summum bonum.” Later, Mousavizadeh was elected a Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Ruggie once conducted Annan as “the first Secretary-General to speak to the annual conclave of capital.” Mousavizadeh now adorns Goldman Sachs, presumably pending higher things.
Few episodes are more revealing of the part played by this Anglo-American duo than the way in which the world came to learn that NATO’s blitz on Yugoslavia in 1999 was legitimate. Annan, unsure how to react, had to be manned up by his mentors to issue the absolving words. Rejecting a first draft submitted to Annan that expressed regret at the outbreak of war, Mortimer and Mousavizadeh handed him their own document, lauding the attack, to sign. According to Traub, “Mortimer says that when he delivered the new version, Annan gazed at it fixedly and finally said, ‘This is the most difficult statement I have had to make as secretary-general.’ And then he agreed to issue the statement.”
In his second mandate, floundering in the Oil for Food crisis, Annan was summoned by Richard Holbrooke to his residence on the Upper West Side for a secret meeting, attended by Orr, Ruggie and Mousavizadeh, and three other Democratic insiders. There Annan was enjoined to fire unwanted colleagues and accept a more competent minder in the shape of Mark Malloch Brown, a former journalist for The Economist–whose main claim to fame was to have been campaign manager for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a Bolivian ruler so hated by the population for his neoliberal zeal and subservience to Washington that he had recently had to flee the Presidential Palace by helicopter, and make for Miami. Without a murmur, Annan accepted him as the power in front of the throne. Holbrooke was pained that news of the arrangement had leaked out. “The intention was to keep it confidential. No one wanted to give the impression of a group of outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a secretary general.” Impressions, apparently, are everything.
Schematically–simplifying a mottled tale–there have been three distinct periods in the history of the UN. The organization was from its inception an American creation, as Stephen Schlesinger has shown in abundant and admiring detail, the product of Roosevelt’s vision of a postwar world in which the USSR and Britain would retain delimited spheres of influence within an international order whose overarching power would be the United States. Its founding conference at San Francisco was meticulously controlled and choreographed by Washington, with a special unit of US military intelligence in the Presidio intercepting all cables to and from the assembled delegates, the FBI tracking their movements on the ground and a large bloc of Latin American satellites assuring majorities when issues were put to the vote. Soviet compliance was purchased with promises of noninterference in Eastern Europe and a watered-down right of veto in the Security Council. With its headquarters planted in New York, where surveillance would be permanent, and a large majority of members–principally European and Latin American–at the beck and call of Washington, the UN, whose first Secretary General, Trygve Lie, even illegally collaborated with the FBI in purging his own staff, was an all-but-infallible decoration of the American will. For more than twenty years, the United States never had to cast a single veto in the Security Council, so relentlessly did its resolutions coincide with whatever Washington wanted. The landmarks of the UN in this period were approval of the creation of Israel (the Jewish third of the population was allocated more than half the territory of Mandate Palestine by Ralphe Bunche, the “ghost-writing harlot,” as he described himself, of the UN plan for partition, which was rammed through the General Assembly by the United States with every bribe and blackmail at its disposal); provision of a flag of convenience for American intervention in the Korean civil war, checked short of complete victory only by Chinese entry into the conflict; and induction of Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship in the Congo, after Hammarskjöld and his American advisers had connived at the murder of Patrice Lumumba.
Decolonization, multiplying new member states from the Third World, brought such unimpeded utilization of the UN by the United States to an end. The General Assembly resolution of December 1960, calling for independence of the colonies–the United States, in the company of Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and South Africa, refused to vote for it–marked the dusk of European imperialism. In the Middle East, Israel’s pre-emptive war of 1967, on the pretext of Cairo’s request that UN forces, ensconced in Egypt ever since it was victim of the three-way attack by Britain, France and Israel in 1956, finally exit the country–naturally there were none on the Israeli side of the border; why should the aggressor put up with any?–was a turning point for Arab opinion. In Southeast Asia the Tet offensive of 1968 emboldened opposition to American power across the Third World, and a group of seventy-seven ex-colonial countries started for the first time to offer organized resistance in the UN. The belated seating of the People’s Republic of China in 1971, to Washington’s fury–this was before Nixon’s visit to Beijing–amid scenes of wild rejoicing in the chamber, made it clear that the General Assembly had escaped American control.
The first US veto had been cast shortly before, in defense of Ian Smith’s racist regime in Rhodesia. Since then, in a complete reversal of the pattern of the previous period, the United States has vetoed more than eighty resolutions in the UN, many of them critical of Israel, others of South Africa, and not a few of its own actions in Nicaragua and elsewhere–products of the conjunction between the Soviet bloc and Third World in the 1970s and ’80s. The acute dislike of the UN on the American right, lingering to this day, dates from these years. Unlike the first phase of UN history, however, this second phase was for all practical purposes an exercise in futility. There was no risk of the United States suffering an Israel, Korea or Congo in reverse. Washington was not going to be ambushed, as Moscow had been more than once, in a structure it had itself designed. The United States remained master of what the UN could do, however many impotent resolutions were passed in the General Assembly or proposed to the Security Council and then killed by it. No UN decisions of any significance mark these decades. In the resultant limbo, symbolic gestures like the denunciation of Zionism as a form of racism made do instead.
This period came to an abrupt end in 1990, with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the collapse of the USSR the following year. As late as 1989 the United States–along with Britain and France–had to veto a resolution condemning the American invasion of Panama. By early 1991 the Gulf War could be launched with Soviet assent and Arab participation, under cover of a deliberately vague Security Council resolution, passed with just one abstention. Victory in the cold war, knocking the USSR out of the ring, and the concomitant eclipse of nationalism by neoliberalism in the Third World, henceforward gave the United States more thoroughgoing real power over the UN than it had enjoyed even at the height of its postwar ascendancy, since it could now rely on the compliance, tacit or express, of Russia and China with its imperatives. Annan’s Secretariat was one product of this change. The multiplication of UN peacekeeping missions in the ’90s, offloading policing tasks of lesser strategic importance for the American imperium was another.
Paramountcy does not mean omnipotence. The United States cannot count on always securing UN legitimation of its actions ex ante. But where this is wanting, retrospective validation is readily available, as the occupation of Iraq has shown. What is categorically excluded is active opposition of the UN to any significant US initiative. A Security Council resolution, let alone a Secretary General, condemning an American action is unthinkable. Ban Ki-moon, whose appointment required Chinese assent, may keep a lower profile than Annan, but his role is unlikely to be very different. The US grip on the organization has not relaxed, as can be seen from recent UN resolutions on Lebanon and Iran, which the White House could never have obtained so easily before. Anxious voices from liberal opinion, worrying that the organization might become irrelevant if Bush’s “unilateralism” persists, and plaintive appeals from the left to defend the UN from distortion by Washington, are regularly heard today. They can be reassured. The future of the United Nations is safe. It will continue to be, as it was intended to be, a serviceable auxiliary mechanism of the Pax Americana.