It takes less than an hour to fly from Washington DC to New York City. But, if you are a diplomat, you might as well be travelling to a distant planet, such is the gulf in diplomatic culture between America’s capital and the United Nations’ headquarters. Whenever I went to see my opposite number at the UN, Jeremy Greenstock, I felt that I was entering a hermetically sealed universe, where ambassadors marched to an arcane beat governed by the mysteries of multilateral diplomacy. During my time in Washington, a new French ambassador arrived, who had been transferred directly from the UN. He confessed to me that, of all his postings, he had the greatest difficulty getting used to Washington, only 200 miles or so down the road from Manhattan.
There is more than a whiff of an unreal world in Kofi Annan’s memoir of his lifetime inside the United Nations. ‘Stepping into a UN hall’, he says, ‘often felt like entering a time machine.’ It is hardly surprising. In its central mission — to keep, and sometimes make, the peace in violent areas around the world — the UN has largely failed since its creation. Vast amounts of time are spent in the negotiation of documents and declarations. Meanwhile, in the real, Hobbesian world of Darfur, Central Africa or the Middle East, people are slaughtered in murderous conflicts. In the UN’s parallel universe diplomacy has become for the most part a form of air-conditioned displacement activity. ‘I draft, therefore I am’, a young British diplomat at our UN mission once said to me.
Of course, peacekeeping is not all the UN does. It implements huge programmes of variable quality in areas like health, food, and children’s welfare. But this is marginal to the organisation’s founding rationale. The UN is supposed to have learnt the lessons of the abject failure of the League of Nations to stop wars in the 1930s. In some ways it has. Unlike the League, it has universal membership (193 sovereign states, bar the Vatican) and a 15-member Security Council to decide on matters of war and peace, including the imposition of economic sanctions on recalcitrant governments. The curious feature of this otherwise sensible arrangement is that the five permanent members of the Security Council, that is those who have a right of veto, are the selfsame as at its first meeting in 1946 in London — America, Russia, China, France and Britain, the victors of the second world war. No one can agree who might replace them or be added to their number.
Yet the UN, for all the improvements over its precursor, suffers from the same San Andreas fault: it can be no more effective than its member states allow it to be. When there is public criticism of the UN’s impotence, as in the case of today’s Syrian civil war, the target of reproach should really be the nations on the Security Council, who cannot agree what to do. As a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former UN secretary general, it must have been galling in the extreme for Annan to have to admit defeat and resign in August as the UN’s mediator in Syria. But, as he put it, ‘when the Syrian people desperately need action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council’.
Throughout his memoir, Annan kicks against the restraints that sovereign nations placed on his freedom of action. Interventions is a tale of frustration: of how the humanitarian ambitions and ideals of this clever, charming and, perhaps, naive Ghanaian were repeatedly dashed on the rocks of international realpolitik. It is the more poignant for his claiming to have seen at the start of the millennium a spark of hope that nations might change their ways. By then he had been promoted from running the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to the top job of secretary general, the first African to hold the post. ‘A culture of humanitarian intervention seemed to be growing’. For stopping savagery of the most extreme kind, Annan praises Tony Blair for his intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000.
But the spark of hope was soon extinguished in places like Darfur, where, despite the presence of peacekeeping troops, hundreds of thousands of civilians died. In truth, the spark was never there in the first place. Some will argue that Annan is trying to shift the blame for disasters in peacekeeping from the UN to the ‘international community’, that is nation states. It was, after all, on his watch as head of the DPKO that the debacles of Somalia in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994 occurred. In the face of violence, UN troops withdrew from both in disarray. In Rwanda, 800,000 people were massacred in a matter of months.
Annan was accused of complicity in the Rwandan genocide for his failure to respond to urgent warnings from the UN’s local commander. He admits that ‘I could and should have done more to sound the alarm.’ Yet, his accounts are convincing of how his ability to act was constantly circumscribed by the machinations of governments and their perennial refusal, which persists to this day, to supply and pay for sufficient good quality troops with strong mandates.
Colin Powell and the late Richard Holbrooke aside, the Americans are the bullies of his story — ‘ignorant and high-handed’.Though I never came across an American official who actually disliked Annan, the exasperation was mutual. For Washington, he was cautious to a fault and too ready to split the difference in disputes. For his part, Annan waxes eloquent in an interesting passage on the Iraq war of 2003, which ‘I had tried to stop with every fibre of my being’. The invasion was for the US ‘a self-inflicted wound of historic proportions’, wreaking collateral damage on the UN and on the very idea of humanitarian intervention. In a shrewd reading of Tony Blair, Annan observes disapprovingly that he reduced the complexities of the Middle East to ‘a meta-conflict between modernity and the medieval’.
This is a book which, though well-written, often with a light touch, is in its detail unlikely to have much appeal for anyone except aficionados of diplomacy and the United Nations. Its interest for others is in the bigger picture that Annan draws — of a world where, in the vortex of competing national interests, the scope for getting agreement on effective peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention is extraordinarily limited.
The UN is better than the League of Nations, but not by much. Kofi Annan is a well respected man, and deservedly so. But you have to conclude that the world being what it is, the career of a UN secretary general, like that of a British prime minister, always ends in failure.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012