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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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“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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Kofi Annan comes out like the very human and highly idealistic person that he really is, virtues and shortcomings shown alike with compassion and understanding. In fact, the title is extremely apt: "The Best Intentions", they are the ones that guide UN staff in their work, and sure enough, in spite of all their efforts, the end result is often not the way intended, political pressures from member countries, especially from the US, derail them. The life of a UN Secretary General is strewn with frustrations...This is a book that will clarify for you many episodes that fell into deep, public controversy, in particular the Food for Oil Programme for Syria. For anyone interested in understanding what really happened, it's a must read.
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.
The book does not give much indications as to how the many shortcomings of the UN can be solved. If you are an optimist you hope that with a competent leader, like Annan, and changes in attitudes of country governments much progress can be made. If you are a pessimist, you expect that the UN will just muddle along. I am an optimist and think that the book is an excellent starting point to generate practical ideas on how to improve the performance of the UN.
The principal drawback of the book is the over-emphasis of the role of nations, and the minimal mention of the role of NGO's and corporations. Groups like the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and various religious missionary groups all get short-thrifted by this book. And corporations are almost non-existent. This is a big hole in the book's treatment as many countries' domestic and foreign policies are driven by corporations. So overall, an OK book.