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UN: Assessing A Secretary-General's Impact

Can Ban Ki-moon (right) have the impact Kofi Annan did? (epa) NEW YORK, December 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In his new book, "The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power," James Traub, a contributing writer for "The New York Times Magazine," presents a detailed account of the inner workings of Kofi Annan's administration. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke with Traub, who had unprecedented access to the outgoing secretary-general and observed the decision-making process at the UN's highest levels.

RFE/RL: What are Kofi Annan's biggest achievements in his 10-year tenure at the UN?

James Traub: The biggest achievements clearly come in the first term [1997-2001]. The second term has been so difficult and painful and he has been diminished in many ways. And it's even hard to remember that he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 and that he actually was considered an extraordinarily successful secretary-general.

He didn't have any great diplomatic successes, where he brought peace to war-torn places. What he did is he spoke up for what he believed should be global norms of behavior that all had to do with the rights of the individual. And especially because he came form the Third World, it was very important that he was willing to speak that otherwise Western language of individual rights.
"I think probably no secretary-general succeeded in making the UN a place to advance economic rights in the Third World to the degree that he did."

So, I think on this level, in terms of political rights he made a big difference. I think probably no secretary-general succeeded in making the UN a place to advance economic rights in the Third World to the degree that he did. We now talk routinely about the Millennium Development Goals as the way to judge whether or not a country is succeeding in terms of getting people out of poverty. That comes from him.

RFE/RL: What was Annan's biggest failure?

Traub: Clearly the great failure was Iraq. And Iraq was a failure from his point of view not simply because he thought it was wrong for America to go to war in Iraq, but rather because for him the supreme goal was to make sure that the UN, the Security Council, was the means whereby these decisions were ultimately taken. And so the failure from his point of view was not only that he thought the wrong course of action was taken, but that he tried very hard, with no success at all, to bring about some kind of consensus on the right course of action.

Part of the painfulness of it for him was his utter helplessness. This was all carried out well above his own head. And so he was constantly talking to heads of states, and ambassadors, and foreign ministers and so forth in an attempt to bridge the differences, but it wasn't in his power to do so, if wouldn't have been within the power of any secretary-general.

What Can Ban Do?

RFE/RL: What can the incoming secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, do in terms of the reform process?

Traub: He can streamline the very, very bureaucratic process whereby decisions are made. He can cut down on the ludicrously complicated paper flow, which makes the whole place feel like the British civil service circa 1950. All that stuff, which no one has really looked at, and which helps to cripple the organization -- he can do something about it.

But there's a great deal that he can't do without the consent of his members. That's what Kofi Annan tried to do within the reform package and that's what he failed to do. And that process has gotten so politicized now, has become so much of a zero-sum game where the West is seen to win, the developing world is seen to lose, that it will be very hard to find a common ground there and to bring the skeptics over to accept the idea of reform.

RFE/RL: Can you make a comparison between the two, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon?

Traub: When Kofi Annan became secretary-general, people thought [that] he was kind of a harmless character. And frankly, that's how you become a secretary-general -- the major states see you as being harmless. If they see you as being a powerful, towering figure, you will not become secretary-general because then you will be taking up their space and they don't like that.

So, Annan was thought to be kind of inoffensive. And in fact he turned out to be a much more passionate figure, a more motivated figure, more ambitious figure than people thought. And he strove always to expand the dimensions of his office and to make himself a spokesman who could stand above the nations and speak directly to people.

It's important to bear in mind that our first judgments may be wrong because certainly Ban Ki-moon also leads one to assume that he will be, as they say at the UN "more secretary than general." He has lived for 40 years inside the organizational bureaucracy and seems quite comfortable with it. There's little sign in him of a really passionate spark, passionate inspiration in terms of human rights issues. Now, he has said the right words but that's not what matters. It has to really come from deep inside him.

In Kofi Annan's case we can see where it came from. His own experience as a head of [UN] peacekeeping [operations] and the horror of Bosnia and Rwanda, I think, really changed his way of thinking. Whether it was guilt at his own failure, or a broader sense of the UN as an institution that had failed, he had to overcome that, that drove him, I think, to care about those issues. I don't see that in [Ban's] case. But that may be simply because I don't know.

Breaking North Korean Impasse

RFE/RL: Do you think the fact that Ban Ki-moon is Korean will give him an advantage in breaking the impasse on North Korea's nuclear aspirations?

Traub: I am really very skeptical. He has said, "I want to go to North Korea if it will be helpful." But, as I said about Iraq, these are issues that are above the pay grade of the secretary-general. These are issues that are decided upon by the world's great states according to their own calculus of national interest. And so, if it's been impossible for the six powers who are engaged in the six-party talks to reach a meaningful agreement with North Korea, I don't see how the secretary-general -- just because he speaks the same language and has the proper cultural experience -- is going to be able to break that logjam. He should try, I wish him well, but I wouldn't be all that confident.

RFE/RL: What is Kofi Annan's personal reflection on the Srebrenica massacre in 1995?

Traub: He feels that the UN failed in the profoundest possible way in Srebrenica. He feels deeply that the European countries that promised to protect the Bosnian people failed them in the case of Srebrenica. They didn't want to go there, they didn't want to have sufficient firepower, they couldn't provide sufficient [numbers of] men.

And during this whole period of 1994-95, when he was the head of the [UN] peacekeeping [operations], he was trying very, very hard to persuade countries to join the UN peacekeeping force there, and he found it incredibly difficult. And one reason why there was such a small Dutch battalion at the time, was that nobody wanted to go to Srebrenica. So, this is a failure that was shared both by the members [states] and by the UN itself.

Power Of Personality

RFE/RL: With different UN secretaries-general, does the influence of the post fluctuate depending on personality?

Traub: The secretary-general's power is very, very limited. He is the chief administrator of the organization, so he has power over the organization, but even there the General Assembly controls the budget and controls personnel to the nth degree. So, even as the CEO of the organization, he's not a CEO, he's very much at the whim of his members [states].
"The size of that job changes with every secretary-general depending on
his ability to use his own personal gifts to make that job matter."

But when it comes to larger political issues, his power is purely subjective, his power is rhetorical, his power is persuasive, his power is moral. And so, what happens is that the size of that job changes with every secretary-general depending on his ability to use his own personal gifts to make that job matter.

And so, some secretaries-general, the more important ones like Dag Hammarskjold [1953-61], the second one, and like Annan in his first term, made it a bigger job, they made the job matter more. Other secretaries-general, like the notorious Kurt Waldheim [1972-81], reduced it to much smaller dimensions because they lacked either the ambition or the ability to make it large.

So, when people ask me about Annan's legacy, I always point out [that] he may have expanded the dimension of that job but it can snap back to what it was before. Ban Ki-moon is not inheriting a bigger job. He will make it what it is.

Cold War Over?

RFE/RL: Russia continues to be a permanent member of the Security Council but it is widely acknowledged that today there is only one global superpower -- the United States. What is the standing of Russia within the UN after the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

Traub: Russia's own policy and standing in the United Nations has undergone a series of changes over the last 15 years, 20 years. A crucial moment was the [President Mikhail] Gorbachev commission and that article in "Pravda" in 1987, which basically said, "we should begin using the United Nations, we should stop having this totally adversarial relation to it." That actually began the end of the Cold War inside the United Nations and the Security Council.

Now you see Russia adopting a much more aggressive posture. Clearly, Russia sees itself as an ascending power, not a declining power. And they are perfectly willing to stand in the way of what are quite important Western objectives, as they do, for example, in Iran. Russia is clearly Iran's most important defender on the Security Council and probably the biggest reason why the council has not yet been able to come to an agreement on a program of sanctions, in the hopes that this will get the Iranians to end their nuclear proliferation program.

RFE/RL: There's often a sense of deja vu watching how united are China and Russia over important matters on the Security Council. Could that mean that both countries somehow coordinate their policies there?

Traub: In many ways it looks like the Cold War again on the Security Council, right? France, the U.K. and the U.S. on the one side, Russia and China on the other. Just as during the Cold War, Russia and China were rarely actually coordinating policy but rather were taking the same hostile view of the West.

So now you very often have Russia and China on the same side, but there is not a great deal of active collaboration, so far as I can tell. That is, I don't think that there are lots of quiet phone calls between the Russian ambassador and the Chinese ambassador here in New York to work out joint policy. I think rather there is an almost total agreement when it comes to issues that involve sovereignty -- that is to say acting inside a country against the wishes of that country -- Russia doesn't like that and China doesn't like that. So, on a whole range of issues both, human rights issues and then, for example, on Iran's nonproliferation issues, Russia and China make common cause even if they're not coordinating their actions.

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