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The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power Paperback – October 30, 2007


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Editorial Reviews

Review

Engaging, nuanced, and often fascinating. The Best Intentions is proof that the phrase 'U.N. page-turner' is not hopelessly oxymoronic. (The Wall Street Journal)

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. . . . Beautifully written and meticulously researched. (The New York Times Book Review)

One of the most definitive and accessible studies of the U.N. and its chief executive ever published. (Foreign Affairs)

Fascinating . . . 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.com)

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

About the Author

James Traub has been a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine--where he writes about international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, and national political issues--since 1998. He has written three books, including City on a Hill and The Devil's Playground. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (October 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312426747
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312426743
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,746,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Pranay Gupte on November 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I have been a longtime fan of the writings of James Traub, so my view of his books is obviously somewhat biased. Nevertheless, I was astonished by the depth of his reporting about the United Nations and Kofi Annan. In view of the immense access that the U.N.'s outgoing secretary general gave him, Traub would have been surely tempted to write a hagiography. But he shows himself to be the consummate professional. This book is as much about Annan's setbacks and mistakes as it is about his triumphs. If Annan is as fair-minded as he's reported to be, then he is bound to be impressed by Traub's efforts. I doubt there's ever been such an extensively detailed work about the U.N., that beleaguered 192-nation body that has so much potential and yet has been handicapped by the mismanagement, corruption and straying from its mission of promoting global peace and security, and sustainable economic development. Traub captures it all -- the daily drama of development, the anguish of peacekeeping forces, the thankless grind of the U.N.'s field workers, the haughtiness of some of the organization's top povertycrats. Traub's narrative also makes for marvelous reading -- it's an unputdownable book. I predict that even those who might not be necessarily friends or critics of multilateral diplomacy will enjoy "The Best Intentions."
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Format: Hardcover
I give this book five stars instead of four, which I would normally assign, because the shortfalls in the book, most especially a lack of context, notes, and additional detail, are out-weighed by the timeliness, relevance, utility, and able original presentation.

This is an important book for our time. Indeed, I put it down thinking that the author has presented us with a meal of worms--and only those visible at the top of the planter box--but when you are starving--when there is no other viable alternative for peacekeeping--worms can be appetizing.

Before I present some details that made it to my fly-leaf notes, a few "big points" that stayed with me:

1) UN is a grotesque failure in many many ways, but also the closest thing we have to a viable global enterprise, hence, a good starting point for all its flaws.

2) Not addressed at all in the book, spoken of only in passing, the rather important point that most UN agencies are not at all subordinate to nor responsive to the Secretary General and his Secretariat.

3) The UN suffers from two major impediments: first, that the contributing or Member nations do not really want it to be effective, and ham-string it, particularly the Security Council members, although the author is vitriolic on China and Russia vetoing votes, while strangely silent on the US and its constant veto; and second, that personal relations built over decades far out-weight actual job titles and responsibilities, and can be blamed for many things including the Oil for Food corruption nightmare.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The strengths of this excellent book far outweigh its weaknesses. It is especially compelling as a case study of leadership in a deeply flawed but essential institution. Traub's had access to Kofi Annan, as well as Annan's chief lieutenants at the UN, over an extended period of time that included his early successes, the events prior to the Iraq war and the Iraq "Oil for Food" scandal. Through the text we gain an understanding of the inner workings of the infamously cumbersome UN bureaucracy as well as the impossible constraints placed upon it by the United States government and the 191 other member states. Annan's early successes as Secretary General were substantial; yet his passive style of leadership made him very vulnerable. He ultimately paid a severe price. Traub documents Annan's physical and mental breakdowns and the blow to his reputation caused by his failure to properly monitor the Oil for Food program.

The book would have benefited from a section with further details on the overwhelming complexity of the UN organization and the lack of power of the Secretary General to control it. Traub also occasionally feels compelled to engage in weak, superficial "fair and balanced" analysis that is not helpful to the overall narrative. Overall, however, this is a fine book that is a useful way to learn about the challenges of running the UN.
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Format: Hardcover
FDR was a leading proponent of the U.N. after WWII had proven the League of Nations (formed in response ti WWI) ineffectual. His vision was that the "four policemen" (U.S., Nationalist China, Russia, and Britain) would be able to prevent WWIII.

Unfortunately, it is hard to think good thoughts about the U.N. as it currently operates, given its consistent failures in Darfur, Iraq, Serbia, Congo, Zimbabwe, and the Mid-East, as well as in the areas of nuclear non-proliferation, global warming, and HIV/AIDS. However, it is much harder to think of a realistic and better alternative, given the high-level and intense jockeying for power by the U.S., Russia, and China, and Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, India, and others taking advantage of every opportunity to increase their own agendas.

In the midst of this never-ending squabbling, Kofi Annan, with little personal power within the U.N. and tarred by his son's role in the "Oil for Food" scandal, tries to convert his best intentions into constructive action. Predictably, he fails.

Hopefully "The Best Intentions" will lead the way to effective reform of the U.N., and we won't need a WWIII to come up with a better alternative.
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