No one was ever appointed Secretary General of the United Nations to do great things. From the beginning, the most attractive candidates to serve atop this lofty international institution have been lowest common denominator choices, men whose greatest selling points included the fact that they werent likely to threaten member countries with the prospect of true leadership. Few have disappointed. Trygve Lie, the world bodys first secretary generalor SG, as they are calledwas described as out of his depth and jealous of his position and at the same time nervous of it. Kurt Waldheim, a later two-term appointee who was eventually disgraced because of his Nazi past, was said to have been as solicitous as a headwaiter walking around a restaurant. His successor, the Peruvian diplomat and U.N.-lifer Javier Perez de Cuellar, came into the job with the ringing endorsement of having been everyones last choice.

Of the seven men to have held the United Nations top post, Dag Hammarskjld is the exception. Few suspected the vision, intellect, and ambition that this little-known Swedish diplomat would show once in office. Now, with Kofi Annan concluding his tenure as UNSG, the United Nations chattering classes are offering their early appraisals of his legacy. Although his second term was tarred by scandal, Annan can probably lay claim to having been the second most effective secretary general in U.N. history. If Annan had served just one term, he might have been remembered as Hammarskjlds reincarnation. But he didnt, and the last five years have been among the most grueling in the institutions six decades. Some blame must be apportioned to Annan and his leadership. But most of it is a product of the unique moment in which he helmed the United Nations. Other unremarkable men would have surely fared much worse.

End of an era

The end of the Cold War should have ushered in the United Nations Golden Age. For decades, the diplomatic efforts of the men and women of Turtle Bay had been stymied by the global face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. By wielding the veto power that came with their privileged position on the U.N. Security Council, Washington and Moscow sidelined the United Nations from many of the major battles and crises of the Cold War. Neither side was willing to countenance a secretary general interfering in a matter of national interest. Little could be accomplished unless it fell within that narrow range of issues upon which Washington and Moscow either agreed or harbored no interest.

The conclusion of this chapter of international relations offered the United Nations an opportunity to free itself from these constraints. Suddenly a host of problemssmoldering conflicts in need of peacekeepers, massive poverty and illiteracy, untrammeled population growth, environmental degradationcould be addressed without having to thread the needle between the two superpowers. The world bodys expertise could be quickly mobilized to help the millions who had been forced to wait so long.

But the end of the Cold War didnt simply spell the demise of the Soviet Union. It also catapulted the United States into a position of far and reaching dominance. And although the United States might welcome U.N. peacekeepers and program officers practicing good works in neglected corners of the globe, there was little reason to assume that the United States would be less dogged than any other country in its pursuit of the national interest. But unlike any other country, the United States was now a single, unparalleled (and quite demanding) superpower. At root, the United Nations is a membership organization; it was just a matter of time before it would find itself at odds with its most powerful member.

James Traubs The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power chronicles the United Nations passage from the apparent watershed of the early post-Cold War years to its showdown and uncomfortable peace with the administration of President George W. Bush. The central protagonist in this prolonged drama is the outgoing secretary general, Kofi Annan. Traub, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, knows his subject well, having begun to report and write on Annans tenure as the worlds top diplomat in 1998. With the cooperation of the secretary general and his staff, Traub attended meetings and traveled and spoke with the SG regularly for more than a year. Although he claims not to have set out with this purpose in mind, his book is, in a sense, a biography of Annan and the organization he leads. It may seem strange to offer up a biography of a man and an institution. But one senses that it could not have been any other way as it is sometimes impossible to tell the two apart.

The insider

To say that Annan was an insider doesnt do him justice: He has spent all but a handful of years laboring in the rabbit warren of the United Nations vast bureaucracy. He spent most of his first 16 years in the human resources and budget department, about as far from the high ideals of the organizations mission as a person could get. Nevertheless, his skills as an amiable technocrat and headquarters man led to his promotion within the United Nations back-office until he eventually became the assistant secretary general for human resources and then the head of budget and planning.

Annans career found new life just as the United Nations itself was waking from its decades-long slumber at the end of the Cold War. Annan first distinguished himself in 1990 by negotiating the release of 900 staff members who were being held by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Kuwait in the lead-up to the first Gulf War. Fresh from this feat, Annan was appointed deputy chief of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in 1992, an enormously important assignment given the rapid growth of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the early years after the Cold War. Within five years of this appointment, Annan would serve as the head of the United Nations peacekeeping operations and would then become the successful American-backed candidate to replace Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the rather undiplomatic SG who lost his job once he lost Washingtons confidence.

In Traubs telling, it is clear that he is fond of his subjectboth the man and the institution he has come to represent. (Indeed, at the books outset, Traub asks, So why the UN, and why its incarnational figure?and answers Well, first of all, I just like the place.) But Traub doesnt shy from asking Annan the tough questions. Some day, historians may conclude that the worst stains on Annans U.N. career were not the charges surrounding the Oil-for-Food scandal or his mismanagement of his second term, but rather his responsibility as the head of peacekeeping for the United Nations faint efforts to stop the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. When Traub asks him about his personal culpability for both episodes, Annan responds with surprisingly unreflective and rather remorseless answers. In response to Traubs questions regarding the Rwandan genocide, Annan coolly replies, In retrospect, and this is also the culture of the house, we should have used the media more aggressively, and exposed the situation for them to see. Of course, at that time this organization was media-shy.

More than 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in 100 days, and this is what he can muster? The United Nations should have employed a more sophisticated media campaign? It is as if Annan is incapable of accessing the sense of responsibility that most objective observers believe must fall squarely on the United Nations shoulders. With or without a Nobel Peace Prize, he exhibits a bureaucrats remorse: Decisions were made, and mistakes happened. It is fair to ask whether anyone with such a passive and detached reflection of such tragic episodes should ever be charged with preventing similar devastation from happening again. His reaction suggests the danger of an organization such as the United Nations promoting people from within to its highest ranks. Ironically, it is fair to assume that if he were anything but a U.N. careerist he would have a stronger sense of moral outrage.

For the United Nations today, there is no greater challenge than that posed by American unilateralism in a world where the United States is so wholly dominant. The showdown between the world body and its most powerful member came to a head, of course, in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. The Bush administrations National Security Strategy, published a week after the attacks of 9/11, declared the United States right to what amounted to unilateral preemption. International law had long recognized a states right to defend itself from an imminent attack, but a preventive attack against a mounting threat could only be legitimate if sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council. In seeking the United Nations acquiescence to its war plans for Iraq, President Bush could not have been more pointed than when he asked the General Assembly, Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?

Here it was. The leader of the United Nations strongest member leveling a direct challenge: get on board or risk irrelevance. As Traub reports, during this time, high U.N. officials probably feared the United States more than Saddam Hussein. And why not? The White House could do far more to affect the institutions future than any edict that ever emanated from Saddams palaces. Diplomats in the United Nations corridors began to speak of dual containmentthat is, containment of Iraq and the United States. Of course, the United States, which has long prized its sovereignty above much else, had been at odds with the United Nations in the past. Annans predecessors had been trying to threaten, shame, or cajole Washington to pay its U.N. dues for many years. But here was something different: an unbridled America was striking out in a way that could shake the United Nations to its core. Nader Mousavizadeh, one of Annans speechwriters, summed up the dilemma, telling Traub, The members are facing a very difficult choiceeither they go with the United States on this, and are seen to be selling out on principles of international order and international law, or they block this, provoking the U.S. to go away from the council, and maybe not return.

The risk was certainly there, and at first at least, the United States did go its own way. But in the hours after Bushs address to the U.N. General Assembly in which he threw down the gauntlet, Annan had cautioned the President, saying, Dont bash the UN, Mr. President; youll find you need us later. Those were prophetic words. Two years later, the Bush administration did return to the Security Council to get the stamp of legitimacy offered in Resolution 1546, which endorsed the transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority to Iraqs interim government. And although the episode may have weakened the United Nations, the United States finds itself regularly returning to New York to deal with problems coming out of Tehran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere.