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.