Why a wounded Kofi Annan suits the US

America doesn't want to abolish the UN, but it does want to remake it in its own image

Adrian Hamilton

31 March 2005

It's only a week since the embattled UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, was introducing a sweeping new reform plan in New York to usher in a new era for his organisation. Now he is doing little but fielding the speculation as to whether he will have to resign in the wake of a deeply damaging report into his son's connections to the Iraqi oil-for-food programme.

The former was meant to pre-empt the latter, of course, but instead it is working the other way round. The personal bruising of the secretary general looks set to destroy any hope for a renaissance of a battered organisation.

Kofi Annan will survive. The continuing support of most UN member countries will do that. Nor does the White House particularly wish him to go at this time, although they wouldn't weep too much if he diddecide that it was all too much for him.

But there's no doubt that Annan is wounded, if not crippled. The report by Paul Volcker, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, cleared him of direct implication in his son's dealings. But it did not clear him absolutely, pointing to shredded papers, gaps in knowledge and initial denials as reflecting badly on Annan senior.

The simple fact is that, in a public position of such high profile as UN secretary general, the incumbent has not only to be above suspicion but to appear to be so. Kofi Annan is now taintedby personal connections to a scandal whose full extent will be revealed when Volcker delivers his final report on the oil-for-food programme this summer.

Which is just the way Washington would like Annan to be, in place but kept there under US sufferance. This is not a cynical interpretation. The view of the Bush administration towards the UN is clear and consistent. It isn't against the organisation as such. But it does believe profoundly that the organisation has failed its own principles, is hopelessly bureaucratic, riddled with corruption and subject to the endless machinations and failings of consensual decision-making. It doesn't want to abolish the UN, but it does want to remake it in its own image - smaller, more focused and implicitly more amenable. Which is why it now plans to appoint quite such a well-known critic of the UN as John Bolton to serve as US ambassador there.

It's exactly the same with the World Bank. So far, all the discussion over Bush's proposed appointment of Paul Wolfowitz as the Bank's new head has concentrated on whether this noted neo-con is a decent man who cares for the poor and believes in aid.

That may all be very interesting, but it is beside the point. Washington sees the World Bank, as it sees the UN, as an international organisation deeply flawed by inefficiency, corruption and all the besetting sins of an institution trying to reflect the interests and views of a myriad of different nations. Wolfowitz's job is to remake it in the US image - slimmed down, committed to free markets as the solution to economic development and wedded to democracy as the essential means of getting there. There is no dichotomy, in Washington's view, between helping the poor and pushing its own world view. In democracy and free markets lie the road to development. Full stop.

For the world outside America, this poses certain problems. The Europeans in particular have consistently underestimated both the depth of the Republican antipathy to international organisations and their sense of absolute justification in thinking so. The outside world may wish a more consensual universe in which the decisions on war and peace and the disbursement of funds is handled in international institutions as equals, but America sees a world of Darfur, Zimbabwe, Iranian nuclear ambitions and corrupt tinpot dictators in Africa, and asks what good has the UN, or the World Bank, ever done to stop them

Of course, it's grossly unfair as an argument. The UN has failed, at least in part, because the US has ensured that it doesn't have the resources or organisation to be effective, and for a country that believes in democracy, with all that this entails in terms of consensual politics and deal making, to denigrate the process of consensual politics at an international level shows just how arrogant Washington now is.

But those who do believe in a more internationalised world, and they include much of the public in the developed as well as the Third World, have to face the fact that bodies such as the UN and the World Bank are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Kofi Annan's plans of last week, based on the report of 14 wise men from around the globe (including Brent Scowcroft from the US), were fine as an outline for a UN operating more effectively as the key world organisation. But John Bolton won't want it in that role. Reforms such as widening the Security Council will be acceptable only so long as they improve Washington's ability to create ad hoc alliances on specific issues, but not as a means of making the council more powerful. Anything that threatens greater authority to the UN will be blocked.

Please, asked the UN secretary general introducing the plan last week, take it as a whole and don't chop it up into bits. But that's exactly what will happen and a wounded Kofi Annan can do nothing to stop it.