The Best Intentions (by James Traub) and "Complicity With Evil" (by Adam LeBor)

United It Wobbles

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in his final press conference at headquarters in New York
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in his final press conference at headquarters in New York (Justin Lane / Keystone Via Ap)

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Reviewed by Samantha Power
Sunday, January 7, 2007

THE BEST INTENTIONS

Kofi Annan and the UN In the Era of American World Power

By James Traub

Farrar Straus Giroux. 442 pp. $26

"COMPLICITY WITH EVIL"

The United Nations in the Age Of Modern Genocide

By Adam LeBor

Yale Univ. 326 pp. $25

The new year marks the end of two turbulent terms at the United Nations: that of Kofi Annan, who served 10 years as secretary general, and that of John R. Bolton, who lasted just 17 months as the U.S. ambassador there. When Bolton was asked about a December 2006 farewell dinner that President Bush held for Annan, the departing American diplomat sniped, "Nobody sang 'Kumbaya.' " Clearly, Bolton's familiarity with the United Nations had only bred further contempt. When told of Bolton's remark, Annan laughed and said, "Does he know how to sing it?" After nearly a decade of often futile attempts to tame the United States, it was no wonder Annan had come to question whether U.S. diplomats would ever willingly sing from a multilateral hymn book.

Since the United States helped found the United Nations in 1945, American ties with the organization have often been strained. Because the last six decades have coincided with an epoch of U.S. hegemony -- first as the stronger of two superpowers, then as the lone post-Cold War "hyperpower," now as an economic powerhouse that has been politically neutered by the catastrophic invasion of Iraq -- Americans have generally seen the United Nations as a body more likely to curb U.S. power than to enhance it.

But something appears to be changing in the United States. Poll data show that Americans are at last grasping that the major 21st-century threats -- transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, public health calamities, large-scale refugee flows -- cannot be met by individual nations. For all their frustrations with international organizations, Americans have also come to understand that U.S. policies with international backing are more likely to succeed than those advanced solo.

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 live with it and how to reform it -- seem suddenly urgent. Thus we can welcome the arrival of these new books by two prolific and well-traveled journalists, The Best Intentions, by James Traub and "Complicity with Evil, " by Adam LeBor.


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