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The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power [Paperback]

James Traub

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Book Description

19 Nov 2007
In 2004, Kofi Annan was nearly hounded from office by scandal. Following the invasion of Iraq, critics, and even some supporters, began asking whether the UN had outlived its usefulness. Do its failures arise from its own structure or from a clash with a US administration determined to go its own way? James Traub, who enjoyed unprecedented access to Annan and his aides from 2003 to 2006, delves into these questions and describes the Oil-for-Food scandal, the failed attempt to act decisively against ethnic cleansing in Sudan, and Annan's sweeping reforms. "The Best Intentions" is both a fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of Annan's two terms as Secretary General and an important critical study of the institution that has carried the best hopes of the world since 1945.

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'If you want to understand this vexing creature with its 192 heads, The Best Intentions is one of the finest guides around, indeed, the best in recent memory ... beautifully written and meticulously researched' New York Times 'A highly readable account of the infighting and drama that have gone on behind the scenes over the past fifteen years, along with often amusingly acerbic thumbnail sketches of several prominent characters' Economist 'Provides a good narrative history of most of the major international crises since Kofi Annan came to prominence ... a worthwhile book' Irish Independent 'Some want the world to be reformed by getting rid of the UN. That would be catastrophic. What the world needs is the UN reformed. In this book, Traub tells the story of how difficult that is - and why it is so important' Bono

About the Author

James Traub has been a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine since 1998, where he writes about international affairs, US foreign policy and national political issues. He has written three books, including City on a Hill and The Devil's Playground. He lives in New York City.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinarily detailed reporting, cannily written 9 Nov 2006
By Pranay Gupte - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have been a longtime fan of the writings of James Traub, so my view of his books is obviously somewhat biased. Nevertheless, I was astonished by the depth of his reporting about the United Nations and Kofi Annan. In view of the immense access that the U.N.'s outgoing secretary general gave him, Traub would have been surely tempted to write a hagiography. But he shows himself to be the consummate professional. This book is as much about Annan's setbacks and mistakes as it is about his triumphs. If Annan is as fair-minded as he's reported to be, then he is bound to be impressed by Traub's efforts. I doubt there's ever been such an extensively detailed work about the U.N., that beleaguered 192-nation body that has so much potential and yet has been handicapped by the mismanagement, corruption and straying from its mission of promoting global peace and security, and sustainable economic development. Traub captures it all -- the daily drama of development, the anguish of peacekeeping forces, the thankless grind of the U.N.'s field workers, the haughtiness of some of the organization's top povertycrats. Traub's narrative also makes for marvelous reading -- it's an unputdownable book. I predict that even those who might not be necessarily friends or critics of multilateral diplomacy will enjoy "The Best Intentions."
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timely, Relevant, Useful, Incomplete, Well-Presented, Lacking Notes & Larger Context 29 Nov 2006
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I give this book five stars instead of four, which I would normally assign, because the shortfalls in the book, most especially a lack of context, notes, and additional detail, are out-weighed by the timeliness, relevance, utility, and able original presentation.

This is an important book for our time. Indeed, I put it down thinking that the author has presented us with a meal of worms--and only those visible at the top of the planter box--but when you are starving--when there is no other viable alternative for peacekeeping--worms can be appetizing.

Before I present some details that made it to my fly-leaf notes, a few "big points" that stayed with me:

1) UN is a grotesque failure in many many ways, but also the closest thing we have to a viable global enterprise, hence, a good starting point for all its flaws.

2) Not addressed at all in the book, spoken of only in passing, the rather important point that most UN agencies are not at all subordinate to nor responsive to the Secretary General and his Secretariat.

3) The UN suffers from two major impediments: first, that the contributing or Member nations do not really want it to be effective, and ham-string it, particularly the Security Council members, although the author is vitriolic on China and Russia vetoing votes, while strangely silent on the US and its constant veto; and second, that personal relations built over decades far out-weight actual job titles and responsibilities, and can be blamed for many things including the Oil for Food corruption nightmare.

4) The author gently explores three major alternatives to the current situation:

4a) the division of the UN into a global body for mobilizing resources and consensus; and a separate global police or gendarme force. I would note, with a genuflection toward Oakley et all in "Policing the New World Disorder," that this needs to be standing force or at least an earmarked force, ideally led by the Dutch, which trains together and has inter-operable concepts, doctrines, and equipment. See also the edited work, "Peacekeeping Intelligence: Emerging Concepts for the Future."

4b) a Democracies body, one that purportedly brings together democracies and ends the domination of the UN by third-rate third-world countries, many managed by dictators and corrupt leaders who loot their commonwealths far more aggressively than Wall Street loots America and the rest of the world. This fails when one realizes that most democracies really are not...

4c) Regional networks that bring to bear regional concerns and resources in the context of the varied global agencies. This has some real possibilities, especially if information is shared broadly to provide a "ground truth" that is undeniable. I am reminded of J. F. Rischard's excellent recommendations in High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them

There is a useful history of key Secretary Generals, one that makes the point that Dag Hammarskjöld was an anomaly, and Annan, for all his flaws, may be one of the few to rise to the Hammarskjöld level of effectiveness..

The author provides a useful history of UN ineffectiveness and UN successes. I certainly recommend that this book be read in tandem with William Shawcross's Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict Interestingly, Shawcross and US diplomat Holbrooke were the only two personal guests at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony.

This book is severely lacking in two ways:

1) It really does not communicate the complexity of the over-all UN archipelago of fiefdoms, most of which are not responsive to the Secretary General, nor does it adequately describe the many problems for the UN created by Third World and other blocs. In this book, China, Russia, and to a much lesser extent than it merits, the US, are the evil doers.

2) It completely misses the role that multinational, multiagency, multidisciplinary, multidomain information sharing, what the Swedes call M4IS, can play in bringing disparate groups to the table. The word "intelligence" does not appear in the index nor as far as I can tell, in the book itself. Overall the book focuses excessively on the Oil for Food scandal, and on Darfur, correctly making the point that Darfur was anticipated, that the Member nations chose to pay lip service to the problem through UN "deliberations," but the book fails to point out that Darfur is one of 17 genocides on-going, and it fails to put the Secretary General's mission in the larger context of what I call the [ten threats, twelve policies, and eight challengers]. See The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political--Citizen's Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs, & Corruption for large context.

The author concludes that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq have weakened the UN; and that most of the world does not see terrorism as a threat. Indeed, since this was written, the High-Level Threat Panel places terrorism as ninth on a list of ten high-level threats.

Throughout the book the role of the US as the 900 lb bully is the subtle and sometimes not so subtle sub-text. My own view, formed by my actual experience as well as my broad reading in non-fiction, is that the US, for all its good, is also the single most negative force on the planet, simply because it persists in virtual colonialism, unilateral militarism inclusive of 750 secret and not secret bases world-wide, and its tolerance for predatory immoral capitalism that has created a class war in which US financial and corporate elites bribe foreign elites, and they both destroy their own middle classes while looting all relatively defenseless economies. See the books Confessions of an Economic Hit Man; The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy; and Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions.

There is PLENTY of money to address the ten high-level threats with twelve intelligent inter-related policies that help the eight challengers avoid American mistakes that today produce a third of the waste on the planet while consuming a third of the energy. What we need now, in support of our new Secretary General, is a commitment to implement ALL of the Brahimi Report recommendations, inclusive of a Director of Global Intelligence (Decision-Support), perhaps sponsored by the UN Foundation, so that every Member nation, and every non-governmental organization, might operate in a transparent, accountable, sensible context. See Peacekeeping Intelligence: Emerging Concepts for the Future and my essays on "Virtual Intelligence" and on "Information Peacekeeping: The Purest Form of War."
4.0 out of 5 stars Doing a good job that is impossible 28 Aug 2009
By laurens van den muyzenberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author has had a unique opportunity to personally follow what Kofi Annan did as a leader of the UN as its leader and acting interacting directly with heads of states of many counties. After reading the book you can become more optimistic or more pessimistic about the future of the UN. The successes like the liberation of Kuwait and dealing with the Tsunami effects in Indonesia are very important successes. Successes are only possible if all of the members of the Security Council agree and see to it that the actions and resources necessary to solve a problem are made available. That, unfortunately, is rare.
The book does not give much indications as to how the many shortcomings of the UN can be solved. If you are an optimist you hope that with a competent leader, like Annan, and changes in attitudes of country governments much progress can be made. If you are a pessimist, you expect that the UN will just muddle along. I am an optimist and think that the book is an excellent starting point to generate practical ideas on how to improve the performance of the UN.
4.0 out of 5 stars Timely study of the UN and the challenges of global leadership 31 May 2007
By L. Geri - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The strengths of this excellent book far outweigh its weaknesses. It is especially compelling as a case study of leadership in a deeply flawed but essential institution. Traub's had access to Kofi Annan, as well as Annan's chief lieutenants at the UN, over an extended period of time that included his early successes, the events prior to the Iraq war and the Iraq "Oil for Food" scandal. Through the text we gain an understanding of the inner workings of the infamously cumbersome UN bureaucracy as well as the impossible constraints placed upon it by the United States government and the 191 other member states. Annan's early successes as Secretary General were substantial; yet his passive style of leadership made him very vulnerable. He ultimately paid a severe price. Traub documents Annan's physical and mental breakdowns and the blow to his reputation caused by his failure to properly monitor the Oil for Food program.

The book would have benefited from a section with further details on the overwhelming complexity of the UN organization and the lack of power of the Secretary General to control it. Traub also occasionally feels compelled to engage in weak, superficial "fair and balanced" analysis that is not helpful to the overall narrative. Overall, however, this is a fine book that is a useful way to learn about the challenges of running the UN.
4.0 out of 5 stars An Impossible Role 13 Mar 2007
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
FDR was a leading proponent of the U.N. after WWII had proven the League of Nations (formed in response ti WWI) ineffectual. His vision was that the "four policemen" (U.S., Nationalist China, Russia, and Britain) would be able to prevent WWIII.

Unfortunately, it is hard to think good thoughts about the U.N. as it currently operates, given its consistent failures in Darfur, Iraq, Serbia, Congo, Zimbabwe, and the Mid-East, as well as in the areas of nuclear non-proliferation, global warming, and HIV/AIDS. However, it is much harder to think of a realistic and better alternative, given the high-level and intense jockeying for power by the U.S., Russia, and China, and Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, India, and others taking advantage of every opportunity to increase their own agendas.

In the midst of this never-ending squabbling, Kofi Annan, with little personal power within the U.N. and tarred by his son's role in the "Oil for Food" scandal, tries to convert his best intentions into constructive action. Predictably, he fails.

Hopefully "The Best Intentions" will lead the way to effective reform of the U.N., and we won't need a WWIII to come up with a better alternative.
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