Interview Series: James Traub


James Traub, contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, hit a journalistic jackpot when Kofi Annan agreed to give Traub unprecedented access to the 38th floor. The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power is a sweeping insider account of the United Nations during one of the institutions most tumultuous periods. I recently spoke to Traub about his book, the prospect of UN reform, and the future of US-UN relations.

Goldberg: Your book largely centers on the tenuous relationship between the United States and the United Nations since the Iraq war. Can you assess the trajectory of that relationship now, given that there’s a new Secretary General and potential new US ambassador to the UN in Zalmay Khalilzad?

Traub: I assume that the most important variable in US-UN relations is the attitude that the administration chooses to take toward the UN. The question of whom they choose as ambassador to the UN is more important because it reflects their mentality, not because it is somehow causative of the nature of the relationship. I suspect the same is true with their attitude toward Ban Ki-moon. What is important is not that any particular person is Secretary General, but rather that there is an evolving view inside the administration as to how useful or not the UN is to them. From what I can tell, there was (and I describe this in the book) a clear change in attitude toward the UN at the beginning of the second term of the administration. Secretary Rice tried to make this clear by declaring that the “era of diplomacy is now.” The first term of the Bush administration, however, is probably the low point of US-UN relations–perhaps in the history of the institution. There has never been a time when a US administration was as utterly dismissive of the institution at the same time as it was seeking to use it. The Reagan administration was probably equally indifferent, but it didn’t matter because the UN didn’t really have a formative role in terms of American foreign policy. These days it does.

My sense is that the shift in attitude occurred because the administration got so beaten up as a result of its own unilateral act in Iraq. As a result, there has been a more pragmatic attitude toward the UN. You see this through the administration’s decision to conduct foreign policy with Iran through the Security Council as well as in situations like Lebanon. That is the key thing – the other issues about who the individuals are is kind of ornamental.

This raises a point you bring up in your book. Historically, in areas of great geo-strategic importance, the United States has tended to sideline the UN.

So have other countries. Russia was not about to ask if they could go into Chechnya. The French didn’t ask about Cote D’Ivoire. It’s not that the United States is unique in its willingness to go it alone in matters of great strategic importance.

But you might say that alternatively, the decision to try to get Security Council approval for the war in Iraq was an affirmation that the UN can be useful even in the most supreme geo-political issues. The fact is, however, that the administration placed a bet on the institution, created impossible terms and then lost that bet through its own intransigence.

Given this troubled history, then, how sustainable is the administration’s seemingly newfound affirmation of the UN?

It is going to be a question of the nature of the issues that arise. Iraq set a test that the institution was bound to fail. The issue is going to be much more how much freedom of action this administration is going to be willing to sacrifice in order to be able to act in collaboration with others though the UN. In the case of Iran, for example, there is not much of an alternative to the UN. The US cannot do anything unilaterally.

It will be interesting to see whether Iran remains intractable and if Russia and China refuse to ratchet up sanctions. At this point, will the Administration seek to use NATO instead? Will the administration use some compact of European nations to apply sanctions outside the UN? Would that even be effective? I don’t know.

In your book you described how the polarized atmosphere at the UN following the 2005 summit paralyzed reform efforts during Annan’s final year in office. Do you think that the competition between the developed and developing world south is a fundamentally insurmountable obstacle to reform, or can a new Secretary General shepherd through reform?

Stuff seems insurmountable, but suddenly it isn’t, then you forget that it used to seem insurmountable. For example, China strikes me as an insurmountable obstacle on all sorts of humanitarian issues. At some point, however, the Chinese may decide that it is in their interest to be seen as more of an international partner and become less of an obstacle that are right now. In the same sense, the north-south thing is a huge problem right now. And the suspicion on the part of the G77 countries that management reform is simply a device for increasing the dominance of the US and the west is really pervasive. It has become the pretext for refusing to accept serious reform measures.

Ban has the opportunity to start again – to remove some of that poison simply because he is new and doesn’t bear those old scars. And it may very well be that having appointed a third world person as Deputy Secretary General, and also someone who is so associated with the idea of economic development, means that he can find a way around that logger head. Perhaps by convincing people that there is not a zero sum relationship between what is good for the G77 (i.e. development) and what is seen as good for the developed world (i.e. management reform.) But it is going to be really, really hard because the atmosphere is so poisonous.

It seems that the new US team may also help improve that atmosphere.

Yes–especially on reform issues. Here is a case where Bolton’s aggressiveness really did cause us harm. Khalilzad will have the enormous advantage of following somebody who was so extreme in his unwillingness to compromise. So Khalilzad can just be a traditionally American figure–which is already hard enough for the institution to deal with. But he’ll seem by comparison to be supple and reasonable. I take it one thing he must have learned in all those years in Afghanistan and Iraq is how to deal with people who are profoundly hostile and have a different opinion from yours.