Our Man

Perry Anderson

  • The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power by James Traub
    Bloomsbury, 442 pp, £20.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 7475 8087 1
  • Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War by Stanley Meisler
    Wiley, 384 pp, £19.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 471 78744 0

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 Hildebrand’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 organisation, which has proved an intellectual sink-hole, down which swirl the drearily self-serving memoirs of its one-time 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 specialised agencies, most of which perform useful practical services of one sort or another, the core of the institution – the General Assembly and the Security Council – is a legitimating, not a policy-making, apparatus. Decisions reached by the organisation 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 and Stanley Meisler’s books thus have reason to expect the worst. In some ways the expectation is amply fulfilled, but 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, Traub writes, is ‘the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful, yellowing eyes’, ‘the UN official non-pareil’, ‘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 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 blonde, made for a dazzling couple: they projected a kind of moral glamour’ (sic). 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 analyse 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’ (sic) – was of no small assistance too. But when one ventures further into each work it becomes plain that such effusions are also there in compensation for what each author is 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 dim 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 ‘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 a graduate institute in Geneva, where he failed to take any degree, leaving instead for a low-level job in the World Health Organisation. 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 ‘administrative management services’ department of the Secretariat in New York in the early 1980s. From there, shortly before the Clinton administration came to office, he edged his way into 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, Boutros Boutros-Ghali opposed the mission. Annan took the American line. His superior, Marrack Goulding, was duly removed, and Annan put in charge of all peacekeeping operations, as they would now be 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 the impending slaughter of the Tutsi population, and explaining that 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 ensured that the fax informing him of what was in store did not reach the Security Council. Some eight hundred thousand Tutsi died in the ensuing massacre. Measured by consequences, the culpability of Kurt Waldheim, exposed for concealing his service as a German 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 organisation was media-shy.’ Translated: don’t blame me, I’m the one who became media-friendly. As banalisations go, Hannah Arendt might have had some words for it.

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