Mouat, a member ofthe Council on Foreign Relations and the Academic Council on the United Nations System, presents an insightful if overly long look at the eight United Nations secretaries-general.
Since its tumultuous beginning at the end of the fiasco known as the League of Nations as well as the Second World War, the United Nations strove to represent the many varied interests and needs of its participating countries. As the cornerstone of her history of the assemblage’s leaders, Mouat focuses on those attempts and the inherent difficulties with the job: “The secretary-general heads no government. The people of the world did not elect him. He has no standing military forces at his disposal. He has no intelligence service. His bargaining power is limited. He cannot dictate or enforce UN policy.” Additionally, he—the secretaries-general have all been men—has often been caught between the disparate desires of the East and West. After an all too brief but nonetheless interesting accounting of the origins behind the United Nations, Mouat dives into the story of the first secretary-general, Trygve Halvdan Lie. Within each lengthy biographical chapter, Mouat begins with the political machinations behind the relevant election—the Security Council nominates a candidate, who is elected by the General Assembly—followed by some relatively brief discussions about the man’s personal history, several sections devoted to the conflicts and struggles during his term, and finally a summation of his time in office. For the most part, Mouat, who previously covered the U.N. for The Christian Science Monitor, delivers excellent work. Given Mouat’s extensive journalistic experience, it’s surprising that the narrative sometimes becomes tangled, with potentially fascinating tidbits getting buried. In particular, in the pages that follow the death of the second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, the book spends too long reiterating what has largely already been said.
A fascinating, enjoyable history, only mired at times by hiccups in the narrative.