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Excerpt: The Best Intentions

Chapter One: A Greater Magna Carta

Institutions of global order are an American invention. A nation that occupied and swiftly conquered a continent of its own had little need of the intricate and perpetually shifting web of alliances that had bound European sovereigns since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648; a nation that understood itself as having been formed and guided by Providence naturally viewed its national interests in universalistic terms—even as it asserted its dominion, brutally at times, over that continent. American leaders scorned the calculations of a Metternich or a Palmerston—the philosophy known as raison d'état—as cynical and corrupt. And when that old order came to an abrupt and shocking end with World War I, a hideous and thoroughly avoidable conflict that made the old treaty system look like a death pact, the United States, which had emerged from the war as the world's supreme power, was prepared to impose its idealistic vision on the exhausted combatants. A war that had begun on European terms would thus end on American ones. President Woodrow Wilson, the scholar and Chris-tian moralist who had led a reluctant America into war to save Europe from itself, sought a peace in which the victors would not carve up the spoils and territories of the vanquished but rather would band together in a League of Nations designed to end war itself.

The League failed, of course, but not only because the U.S. Congress refused to ratify it. The body had been designed as a kind of circuit-breaking institution to prevent nations from marching blindly into a war none of them really wanted. But that nineteenth-century diplomatic minuet had disappeared forever in Flanders field. The authoritarian and militaristic states that arose in the ensuing vacuum were bent on crushing weaker neighbors or picking off helpless colonies. Only the threat of a greater force could stop these aggressors, and the League, which had no such mechanism, proved helpless in the face of Japanese, Italian, and German expansionism.

Planning for a new organization began inside President Franklin Roosevelt's State Department in 1939, more than two years before the United States was drawn into World War II. To FDR, an earthier and more tough-minded figure than Wilson, the League demonstrated the absurdity of trying to counter aggression by summoning men to their better angels. Wilson had rightly recognized that only America could, or would, subordinate its own supremacy and limit its own freedom of action in order to ensure world peace. But FDR's vision was to place might at the disposal of right. The president was open to all sorts of variations in design, but he "adhered unswervingly," as the historian Stephen C. Schlesinger writes, "to one central realpolitik tenet derived from his disillusion with the League's enforcement operations, that the four powers—China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States—should act as policemen and provide security for any world organization."

FDR became the driving force behind the establishment of the United Nations, a name he had dreamed up soon after Pearl Harbor, when he had gathered twenty-six nations in Washington to sign a United Nations Declaration vowing to defeat the Axis powers. By the end of 1943, he had persuaded Stalin and Churchill to accept a world body with the "Four Policemen," as they were known, at its heart. In August 1944, American, Russian, British, and Chinese diplomats met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington to flesh out the proposal. Working from a State Department draft, they agreed on an organization that would have an eleven-member Security Council with five permanent members. (France, second only to Germany among the Continental powers, had by now been added to the original four.) The Big Five would have a right of veto over all substantive matters—a critical distinction from the League, which depended on consensus and thus effectively awarded the veto to all. A General Assembly consisting of all members would discuss non-security questions, and the whole would be guided by a professional secretariat.

As the war drew to a close, Roosevelt became consumed with establishing the world body. In February 1945, he put his increasingly frail health at risk by traveling to Yalta, on the Black Sea, to meet with Churchill and Stalin and overcome Stalin's remaining objections to the UN. Several weeks later, in one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Roosevelt told a New York Times reporter that "all his hopes of success in life and immortality in history were set on getting an international organization in motion." It's just as well for Roosevelt that his place in history does not depend on the UN, but he is, without question, the institution's progenitor.

The signatories of the United Nations Declaration, in the global equivalent of a constitutional convention, gathered in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, to write the UN Charter. The world press descended on this charming seaside city and relayed breathlessly to readers the portentous debates over the hatching of this great instrument of peace. The issues that most agitated the delegates mattered less than the very public narrating of the debate, for during those weeks, and in the ensuing months, a world public exhausted with fighting came to believe, or at least to hope, that mankind really had begun to put the savage madness of war behind it.

At its core, the UN was, as FDR had always wished, an institutionalized form of the wartime alliance. It was understood that the Big Five would provide the bulk of the troops available to the UN; Article 47 of the Charter established a Military Staff Committee, consisting only of delegates of the five, which was responsible for the "strategic direction of any armed forces placed at the disposal of the Security Council." Attempts by smaller countries to limit the veto largely failed, which both ensured the supremacy of the Big Five and allowed each of them to block any use of the council's enforcement powers that they opposed. The council and the General Assembly would be served by a professional secretariat, with a secretary-general functioning as the UN's "chief administrative officer." But unlike the League of Nations's chief executive, who had been expected to tend strictly to internal affairs, the UN secretary-general, according to Article 99 of the Charter, was empowered to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." Precisely what this vague assertion meant was in no way clear.

The United Nations was much more than an instrument for global policing; the new body also aspired to affirmatively shape a new and more just world order. An Economic and Social Council would seek to alleviate the poverty and injustice that often lay at the root of conflict; a Trusteeship Council would promote self-government in colonized states, with an ultimate eye to sovereignty; and a World Court would adjudicate international disputes.

The UN Charter was bequeathed to, and greeted by, the world public as if it were the Decalogue brought straight from Mount Sinai. The most sober figures described it in the most intoxicated language. John Foster Dulles, an adviser to the U.S. delegation and future secretary of state, called the Charter "a greater Magna Carta." Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican and former isolationist whom President Truman had shrewdly included in the team sent to San Francisco, presented the document to the Senate as "a new emancipation proclamation for the world." The Senate, which a generation earlier had rejected the League of Nations and which continued to harbor a good many men deeply suspicious of the world beyond America's borders, ratified the Charter by the astonishingly lopsided total of 89 to 2. Men, including hardheaded men, so ardently wished to put an end to conflict between nations that they allowed themselves to believe that this mechanism they had built might actually make war, at least catastrophic war, obsolete.

The General Assembly held its opening session on January 17, 1946. The meeting was held amid the rubble of war-torn London, but two months later the UN moved to New York, where it occupied the Bronx campus of Hunter College, a municipal college for women. Workmen hurriedly redecorated the college gym to make room for the deliberations of the Security Council. The UN's first important order of business was choosing a secretary-general. The Americans wanted Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador to Washington and future prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, but the Soviets would not accept a figure close to the United States. They wanted someone from a country not aligned with the United States, and so settled on Norway's thoroughly undistinguished foreign minister, Trygve Lie, who was then swiftly approved. "There was no consideration of who might be best for the job," writes Brian Urquhart, one of the UN's most illustrious civil servants as well as one of its leading historians. Urquhart served as one of Lie's personal assistants and describes him as a simple and simpleminded man "out of his depth" as head of the new world body, "jealous of his position and at the same time nervous of it." Ralph Bunche, the American diplomat and high UN official, records his first impression of the new SG: "a huge, flabby-looking man" said by British colleagues to be "a politician first, last and all the time." In its initial act the UN thus established an implicit rule of the lowest common denominator, an early sign that this new organization might not live up to the noble ideals with which it was forged.

The Soviets were under no illusions about the supposed commonality of interests between themselves and their former allies; they wanted a weak Secretariat, because they feared that a more activist one would abet the Western cause. In fact, the spirit of comity to which so many hosannas had been dedicated began to dissipate almost as soon as the UN, and especially the Security Council, opened its doors. In mid-February, the Soviet ambassador, Andrey Vyshinsky, cast a veto, a weapon the framers had expected to be used only in hopelessly intractable situations, on an American resolution calling for the withdrawal of British and French troops from Syria because he found the language too weak—an act of almost calculated insouciance. Soon thereafter, his successor, Andrei Gromyko, stormed out of the council when he failed to block a discussion of the Soviet troop presence in Iran.

The hardheaded FDR had, it turned out, misjudged the future almost as thoroughly as Wilson had, believing that the antifascist coalition which had fought World War II would continue to make common cause after the fascists were gone (though FDR's insistence on the veto had much to do with his fears of Soviet intentions). In fact, the world was as implacably divided over Communism as it had been over fascism. In the Security Council, the Soviets opposed the other four permanent members on almost every question of importance and made liberal use of the veto to block action. They also reneged on the promise to make troops available to the council, thus reducing the Military Staff Committee to a meaningless appendage, as it would remain forever after. The euphoric expectations of 1945 did not even survive 1946. By 1950, a Gallup poll found that only 27 percent of Americans thought that the UN was doing a good job; 36 percent judged its performance "poor."

And yet during those rare crises when the Soviets did not cast or threaten their veto, the UN showed that it had potential far beyond that of the League. Both the United States and the Soviet Union supported the creation of the Jewish state, and in November 1947 the General Assembly voted to accept a British plan to divide its mandate territories into a Jewish and an Arab state—a soul-stirring triumph for the cause of Zionism. The following year, after war had broken out between the new nation of Israel and Egypt, Ralph Bunche, an indefatigable and endlessly resourceful figure, negotiated an armistice between them. Bunche then spent months hammering out agreements between Israel and deeply reluctant representatives of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, an achievement for which he was ultimately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Security Council took one momentous decision in these early years. On June 24, 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel into South Korean territory. That line of demarcation was monitored by UN observers, who had been dispatched several years earlier to supervise elections meant to reunify the country. The invasion was thus not only a violation of the Security Council resolution establishing the mission; it was precisely the kind of naked act of aggression the UN had been created to prevent or to reverse. Trygve Lie reacted to news of the invasion by blurting out, "That's war against the United Nations." It was also war against an important American ally, which is to say that the core principles of the UN coincided with the strategic interests of its most powerful member. The State Department asked Lie to call an emergency session of the council on the following day, a Sunday; the secretary-general eagerly complied.

By this time, the forces of the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Tse-tung had overthrown the Chiang Kai-shek government. But the UN continued to recognize the so-called Nationalist regime, which had close ties to Washington, as China's rightful representative. For the previous six months the Soviets had been boycotting council sessions to protest the refusal to seat the Communist Chinese. The Soviets continued to absent themselves during the discussion over North Korea, thus sparing the council an almost certain veto. And so the Security Council swiftly adopted an American resolution condemning the attack. Two days later the council adopted another American resolution, calling on all members to help South Korea repel the invasion. The American-led force that would fight the Korean War would thus be acting under UN authorization. President Truman made it clear that he would have gone to war with or without the imprimatur of the Security Council. But the imprimatur was no mere afterthought. Another UN historian, Stanley Meisler, quotes Truman as telling a diplomat, "In the final analysis I did this for the United Nations. I believed in the League of Nations. It failed. Lots of people thought it failed because we weren't in it to back it up. Okay, now we started the United Nations. It was our idea, and in this first big test we just couldn't let them down." Even if Truman was only half sincere, it's startling to hear an American president worrying about letting the UN down, rather than the other way around.

The Soviets were furious over Lie's collaboration with the United States, and in mid-1950, as his five-year term was drawing to a close, they announced that they would oppose a second term. In fact, Lie's ties with Washington went far deeper than the merely diplomatic. For the last year, he had been secretly cooperating with the FBI in order to ensure that the Secretariat hired no Americans with alleged Communist sympathies; it was he, in fact, who had approached the Truman administration about the idea. The Americans would not have anyone but Lie. He may have been a mediocrity, but he was their mediocrity. Ultimately, the General Assembly awarded him only an additional three years. (The Charter had not fixed a secretary-general's term of office.) The Soviets refused to recognize him, torturing Lie's vanity by refusing to invite him and his wife to Eastern bloc receptions and declining to present to him their diplomats' credentials. In November 1952, not quite two years into his second term, Lie abruptly tendered his resignation.

No consensus candidate had emerged by the following March, when the Security Council convened to nominate a successor. (The General Assembly formally elects the candidate.) The Soviets were not prepared to accept anyone acceptable to the United States (and vice versa). In order to break the deadlock, the French ambassador submitted a list of names to his Soviet counterpart. The only one the Soviets did not reject out of hand was Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat known to almost no one. Hammarskjöld must have seemed like the very definition of harmless neutrality; and so, in the single greatest misapprehension in the history of this selection process, a brilliant, fearless, and deeply self-willed man became the UN's second secretary-general.

Dag Hammarskjöld is the standard against which all successive secretaries-general have been measured, and found wanting, for the very simple reason that the Security Council did not make the same mistake twice. Hammarskjöld was a man of high intelligence as well as deep convictions. It is true that he lacked many of the conventional attributes of leadership: he was solitary, melancholy, introspective, sensitively attuned to the eddies of his own consciousness. And yet there was nothing in him of the indecisive Hamlet; he was always prepared to thrust himself into situations where he believed he could make a difference. And his formidable intellect allowed him to pick his way nimbly through situations that would have frustrated a lesser man.

Hammarskjöld first demonstrated both his gifts and his understanding of the job in late 1954, when the Chinese shot down an American B-29 bomber and a C-47 transport plane and captured eleven Air Force crewmen and two civilians, whom they accused, probably rightly, of being CIA agents. American public opinion was outraged, and the General Assembly, at that time still highly pro-American, condemned the decision of the Chinese to try the crew members as spies rather than release them as prisoners of war. What made the issue yet more inflammatory was that the Nationalists continued to occupy China's seat in the UN and on the Security Council, thus effectively barring the Communist regime from the debate. Hammarskjöld, however, had gotten the delegates to insert in the resolution a request for him to "act in the name of the United Nations" to free the airmen. Lie had never sought such an opportunity, but Hammarskjöld sensed that his unique status as impartial representative of the world body might allow him to act in a situation where neither adversary could make concessions to the other but both feared escalation. Hammarskjöld wrote to Chinese prime minister Chou En-lai for permission to come to Peking, not as an emissary from the Security Council—and thus from the chief belligerent—but in his own right as secretary-general. Chou agreed, and the airmen were ultimately released.

By his dramatic and highly personalized intervention, Hammarskjöld loosened the stays that had bound his own office, and indeed the entire Secretariat. His so-called Peking Formula stipulated that the secretary-general had an affirmative obligation to act when peace and security were threatened. The authority for such acts lay not in the actual words of the Charter but in its penumbra—or rather in Hammarskjöld's own quasi-mystical sense of calling. FDR's vision of an organization that would coordinate the use of force to deter or defeat acts of aggression had already receded into history. Hammarskjöld offered an alternative understanding of the UN as the institutional embodiment of the idea of the neutral or disinterested position. The UN's strength, in effect, arose from its weakness: what it had lost in coercive power it had regained through its unique, supra-partisan status.

Hammarskjöld never lost sight of either the delicacy or the power of the UN's mediatory role. He was outraged when, in 1956, the French and the British secretly conspired with Israel to drive Egypt from territory it had occupied along the Suez Canal and to smash its military capacity. In the course of a Security Council meeting over the so-called Suez Crisis, he loosed one of his most majestic rhetorical blasts. "The principles of the Charter," he said, "are, by far, greater than the organization in which they are embodied, and the aims which they are to safeguard are holier than the policies of any single nation or people." As a servant of the organization, he went on, the secretary-general has a duty to maintain neutrality in disputes between states, but that obligation "may not degenerate into a policy of expediency," above all when members violate the terms of the Charter. The secretary-general was the defender of the Charter, much as the pope was the defender of the Church.

It was in response to Suez that Hammarskjöld invented UN peacekeeping. The General Assembly had passed a resolution demanding that foreign forces withdraw from the area and instructing the secretary-general to draw up a plan to establish "an emergency international United Nations force to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities." Nobody really knew what such a force would look like. Finding soldiers was not the problem, for many countries were eager to staff this novel UN force for peace. But what were they to do? Hammarskjöld stipulated that the troops would supervise the withdrawal of all combatants and then patrol the disputed area, but they would not seek to settle, or in any way prejudice, the underlying political question, which would have to be settled among the parties. This allowed the British and the French to withdraw without formally admitting defeat. The UN Emergency Force, or UNEF, as it was called, would report not to the various national authorities but to a UN "force commander"; they could be identified by the blue helmets and blue berets they wore. And though the soldiers would be armed, they would use their weapons only in self-defense.

Excerpted from The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power by James Traub. Copyright © 2006 by James Traub. Published in October 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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James Traub