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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - David Shorr

RealClearPolitics - Articles - David Shorr

Last Build Date: Mon, 16 Apr 2007 00:06:18 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Dysfunction and Potential at the U.N.

Mon, 16 Apr 2007 00:06:18 -0600

To his credit, Traub tours the recent history of the UN with a scrupulously reasonable set of expectations. In each episode, he is mindful of practical and political constraints. He sifts through the options that were at hand -- separating the feasible from the illusory and weighing the trade-offs. What emerges is an organization caught in the middle. Traub shows the UN pushed and pulled between rigid principles and power realities, ground-level facts and diplomatic detachment, and most of all, history's greatest superpower and, well, everyone else. As to the author's assignment of blame, he is unsparing, yet without a tinge of righteous indignation. His book was written with the cooperation of (and privileged access to) the United Nations' seventh secretary general, Kofi Annan, and Traub places him at the center of the story. It is a sympathetic portrait of a career functionary who boldly challenged the UN upon assuming the helm of the organization he had served for his adult life, and the author acknowledges his sympathies. Given the scorn heaped upon the United Nations, such a stance may be justified, if only as a corrective. But of course the struggle to achieve global peace and freedom (i.e., the highest intentions) is itself inherently compelling. Traub's greatest service is to bring the lofty struggle down to earth and show its poignant messiness. And crucially, he highlights the roles played not only by Annan and his UN staff colleagues, but also officials of the 192 national governments that comprise the UN -- the true rulers of the system, who have much more leverage than the staff does over the problems of the world. In keeping with the book's careful reporting and rigorous accountability, U.S. and other national policymakers are named, with minimal use of anonymous sources. Among the most tragic "failures" popularly ascribed to the United Nations, perhaps the greatest is the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Traub reminds us that the international community's offense was not merely a sin of omission. It was a matter of policy to recoil from the mass slaughter, and that policy was made in Washington, not New York. When the UN Security Council was deciding whether to maintain or withdraw its peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, President Clinton's Secretary of State Warren Christopher instructed UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright to insist on a withdrawal. That said, while the staff of the United Nations serves national governmental masters, it does maintain the apparatus through which collective international action is organized. Staffers are thus liable for the performance of that function, and their record with respect to Rwanda is not much better than that of member states. One key responsibility is to take the measure of situations on the ground and tell UN member states what it will take to rectify them. UN officials, including Kofi Annan, who was then head of peacekeeping, did not sound the siren of an impending Rwandan genocide despite clear warning signs. This was detailed mercilessly by the United Nations' own investigation. Traub gives an incisive description of the UN Rwanda report's verdict, covering both the staff and the member states: a "collective cognitive failure, or act of willful blindness . . . the insistence on characterizing a situation as amenable to traditional UN instruments despite the increasingly transparent reality that it could only be resolved by force." The root pathology of optimism at the UN is not idealistic naïveté, but self-deception. The Best Intentions does cite purists in the organization who argue that added violence from the outside will always worsen a situation, but they are not credible. Hesitance to act really stems from the difficulty of acting. The right course of action is always politically difficult and logistically formidable, and sometimes demands the investment of blood as well as treasure. Rather than facing up to these realities, UN staff and diplomats tailor their assessments, options, and recommendations to fit the will to act, instead of the other way around. T[...]