The Best Intentions Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power

James Traub




Trade Paperback

528 Pages



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A man who had won the Nobel Peace Prize, who was widely counted one of the greatest UN Secretary Generals, was nearly hounded from office by scandal. Indeed, both Annan and the institution he incarnates were so deeply shaken after the Bush Administration went to war in Iraq in the face of opposition from the Security Council that critics, and even some friends, began asking whether this sixty-year-old experiment in global policing has outlived its usefulness. Do its failures arise from its own structure and culture, or from a clash with an American administration determined to go its own way in defiance of world opinion?

James Traub, a New York Times Magazine contributor who has spent years writing about the UN and about foreign affairs, delves into these questions as no one else has done before. Traub enjoyed unprecedented access to Annan and his top aides throughout much of this traumatic period. He describes the despair over the Oil-for-Food scandal, the deep divide between those who wished to accommodate American critics and those who wished to confront them, the failed attempt to goad the Security Council to act decisively against state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in Sudan. And he recounts Annan's effort to respond to criticism with sweeping reform—an effort which ultimately shattered on the resistance of U.S. Ambassador John Bolton.

In The Best Intentions, Traub recounts the dramatically entwined history of Kofi Annan and the UN from 1992 to the present. In Annan he sees a conscientious idealist given too little credit for advancing causes like humanitarian intervention and an honest broker crushed between American conservatives and Third World opponents—but also a UN careerist who has absorbed that culture and cannot, in the end, escape its limitations.


Praise for The Best Intentions

"Is the United Nations boring and irrelevant? This book certainly is not. Call the organization a 'haven of hypocrites' or 'humanity's best hope,' tote up its many miseries and few glories. But if you want to understand this vexing creature with its 192 heads, The Best Intentions is one of the finest guides around, indeed, the best in recent memory . . . Traub, always the dispassionate analyst, neither condemns nor condones. His is a melancholy tale, beautifully written and meticulously researched—about a hero who was not so much flawed as indecisive, whose clout could never measure up to his lofty purpose. How could it? A secretary general is precisely what the title says: a secretary beholden to 192 bosses, all seeking power while pretending to serve the common good."—Josef Joffe, The New York Times

"With a wide canvas and fine brush, The Best Intentions details a record Traub believes places Annan on the short list of great secretary generals . . . Traub credits him with grappling honestly with . . . the recurring nightmares of the post-Cold War."—San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Because the United States needs help, and because the United Nations is the lone body that gathers all of the world's countries in one place, reflections on the organization—how to love with it and how to reform it—seem suddenly urgent . . . [Traub] serves up a nuanced . . . insider's account, arguing that the United Nations cannot change until the countries within it change first."—Samantha Power, The Washington Post Book World

"The first impression one gets from . . . James Traub's excellent account of Kofi Annan's last years in office, is that the UN is distinctly well served by its senior staff."—Tony Judt, The New York Review of Books

"Engaging, nuanced and often fascinating. This is no small achievement for a book about an institution so wasteful and corrupt that it tends to attract intense interest mostly from its detractors. The Best Intentions is proof that the phrase 'U.N. page-turner' is not hopelessly oxymoronic."—Niall Stanage, The Wall Street Journal

"A highly readable account of the infighting and drama that have gone on behind the scenes over the past 15 years, along with often amusingly acerbic thumbnail sketches of several prominent characters."—The Economist

"One of the most definitive and accessible studies of the UN and its chief executive ever published."—Foreign Affairs

"Fascinating . . . thrilling . . . The book works, not just as a portrait of Annan but as one of the UN itself, in part because Annan personally encapsulates many characteristics of that inspiring but maddening organization."—Salon

"We watched as the UN failed the people of Iraq in the Oil for Food scandal. We watched as the UN failed innocent people in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur in the Sudan, and in the Congo. And we are watching the results of UN failure in South Lebannon. Jim Traub supplies the critical insights for anyone seeking to make sense of the challenges we face."—Newt Gingrich

"This book is arguably the best contemporary case study of the UN's inner workings. Kofi Annan emerges from Traub's chronicle as a man of immense decency and dedication, but also as someone vulnerable to the successive right-wing attacks of Jesse Helms and John Bolton . . . [The Best Intentions] should therefore be required reading for members of Congress, diplomats, soldiers, university students, and those in the Senator Helms tradition of contempt for this flawed but indispensable ‘parliament of man.'"—George Jaeger, America magazine

"Kofi Annan is, without question, the most significant UN Secretary General in 45 years. He is also a complex man occupying a very complicated post. To this important subject, James Traub brings great intelligence, balance, and insight. The result is a book well worth reading."—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom

"Some want the world to be reformed by getting rid of the UN. That would be catastrophic. What the world needs is the UN reformed. In this book, James Traub tells the story of how difficult that is—and why it is so important."—Bono

"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.' Traub 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.'"—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



  • James Traub

  • James Traub has been a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine since 1998. He has written three books, including City on a Hill and The Devil's Playground. He lives in New York City.

  • James Traub Greg Martin