A heartbreaking book about a hardworking idealist’s frustrated attempts to restore the stature of the cumbersome United Nations in a world dominated by “the preemptively belligerent America.”
New York Times Magazine contributor Traub (The Devil’s Playground, 2004, etc.) offers a detailed account of Kofi Annan’s 1992–96 tenure as head of UN peacekeeping and then as the Secretary-General whose battering from the Bush Administration during its invasion of Iraq sent him into “something like a nervous breakdown,” and left the UN seriously weakened. The author depicts Annan as a modest and charming career civil servant. He joined the UN in 1962, taking a low-grade job in Geneva, and assumed his present leadership post in 1997, lionized as a peacemaker. After 9/11, things changed: The U.S. invaded Iraq without Security Council approval, and the UN’s failure to find a multilateral solution underscored its seeming irrelevance in an era of conflicts involving stateless terrorists. Written with Annan’s cooperation, the book traces the Nobel Peace Prize–winner’s struggle to build consensus and achieve reforms in the face of U.S. indifference (often shading into outright hostility) and the scandal over corruption in the UN’s Oil-For-Food program, which left him devastated. Traub’s hundreds of interviews produce stories of well-intentioned bureaucrats caught up in endless politicking and paper-pushing; sharp portraits of ineffectual, careerist aides in the Renaissance court-like atmosphere of Annan’s office on the 38th floor of the Secretariat Building; and many glimpses of the low-key Secretary-General in action as he searches for elusive common ground in meetings and on tours abroad. Annan sometimes seems emotionless to the point of being strange. He is unable to comfort a colleague upset by the deaths of 22 UN workers in Baghdad; he sits quietly, compulsively taking notes in a secret three-hour meeting called by former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke and other intimates to warn Annan that the UN’s grave situation requires a complete management overhaul.
The good news? “The UN will muddle along in the future.”