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Kofi Annan has nothing to apologise for

There is a big problem with the United Nations, says Jonathan Powell.

Interventions: a Life in War and Peace
Kofi Annan
Allen Lane, 400pp, £25

There is a big problem with the United Nations. The end of the cold war gave rise to great hopes that it would finally be unshackled and could at last become the body for international action and legitimacy that its founding fathers had intended in 1945. There were a few initial successes, such as the first Gulf war and the peace processes in El Salvador and Guatemala, made possible by the disappearance of the zero-sum game between the US and the USSR. Yet the following two decades have largely been a disappointment. Instead of leading, the UN has too often become an instrument for inaction.

Tony Blair warned of the dangers in his Chicago speech in 1999 in the context of the war in Kosovo and proposed a series of reforms. Those reforms have not happened, despite Kofi Annan’s best efforts as secretary general. As long as the Security Council continues to represent the balance of power as it was in 1950 rather than now, as long as the US uses its veto to prevent the UN playing a role in the Middle East and as long as Russia and China use the veto to prevent it playing a role anywhere else, it is condemned to be a bystander.

You would think, from reading Annan’s unnecessarily defensive autobiography, that he felt the need to justify himself for the tragedies that befell the world during his time at the helm of the UN. But they were not his fault, nor the fault of the UN as an organisation. The blame lay squarely with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5).

The most interesting section is the one that gives the book its title, “Interventions”. Annan gives a passionate account of his efforts to persuade the international community to embrace a new readiness to intervene militarily on humanitarian grounds and of the unfortunately named doctrine of “R2P”, or “responsibility to protect”. Annan’s determination to overturn the old Westphalian rules of nonintervention was born of his experience of working in the UN peacekeeping department in the 1990s, as it stood by while 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in Rwanda in just 100 days, more than 100,000 were slaughtered in Bosnia and untold misery inflicted on Somalia after the “Black Hawk down” episode and the subsequent withdrawal of the international community.

The Rwandans had learned from what happened in Somalia that they could carry out genocide without the risk of international intervention. Annan laments “the international community’s complicity with evil” and writes that he sought to “chart a course that combined a clear defence of the primacy of the Security Council in matters of peace and security, with an equally clear recognition that the UN was never intended as a pacifist organisation and there were times when force was not only necessary but legitimate”.

Implementing this good intention was not so easy. The first challenge was Kosovo and it was not possible to get the UN Security Council to agree on military intervention. The Russians threatened a veto, so driving Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo was left to Nato rather than the UN. The book’s account of how this happened is slightly bizarre. It makes no reference to the deployment of American and British ground troops, nor to the role played by Blair. Indeed, the treatment of Blair in the book is altogether odd. It begins with a chapter that includes an account of the “Yo, Blair” conversation between him and George W Bush and a condemnation of his role in the disastrous Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 2006. Although Annan is a consummate diplomat, you can easily tell from the book who he likes and who he doesn’t: friends are introduced with adjectives such as “skilled and resourceful” or “kind and considerate”; those he is less keen on get no adjectives at all.

The next intervention, in Sierra Leone, was carried out by British troops rather than the UN. The operation had to be undertaken because of the failure of the UN to impose order. The attacks of 11 September 2001 appeared to change everything and the Security Council unanimously endorsed intervention in Afghanistan. It was, however, left to Nato forces to fight the military campaign and to impose the peace.

Then we come to the intervention in Iraq. Blair persuaded the US administration to pursue the UN route in the hope of building an international consensus for action and secured a first resolution but failed to get a second. The US came to see the UN as an obstacle to action and invaded with a voluntary coalition instead. Annan opposed the war and repeats here his view that it was illegal. He suggests the alternative was to wait and to continue with inspections but he illustrates the crux of the problem inadvertently when he writes that Saddam Hussein “clearly had no intention of ever coming into full and verifiable compliance” with UN resolutions. As we now know, Saddam was afraid that if he ever revealed he no longer had weapons of mass destruction, he would be vulnerable to attack by Iran and Israel. If this was the case, then no amount of waiting and no amount of new inspections would have ever solved the problem and, as Annan acknowledges, sanctions were not working and were only succeeding in hurting the innocent population. So for one committed to intervention, it is easier to oppose what happened in Iraq than to suggest a viable alternative.

The conundrum of when to intervene didn’t disappear with Iraq. With Libya, the west was unable to secure a UN resolution for intervention and drove Russia into a fury by massively – and rightly – bending the mandate it did get to allow it to take action. And now there is the situation in Syria, where Annan in retirement bravely had a go at “mission impossible”, as he describes it, and where, once the US elections are over, the question will arise again: to intervene or not to intervene in the face of Russian and Chinese vetoes? Is the international community going to stand by while hundreds of thousands die, as in Rwanda and Bosnia, or are we going to intervene and risk the chaos that followed previous interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan?

I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for. He was and is a good man. He was trying his best. He is a remarkably skilled mediator and has some real triumphs to be proud of – the independence of East Timor and the settlement in Kenya after he left the UN. The problem is not with a man but with the international community. Unless we reform the UN, it will suffer the same fate of irrelevance as the League of Nations. As Annan points out, unless the Security Council is restructured to include India, Brazil, Japan, Germany and the other new great powers, then influence and relevance will bleed away to new organisations where they are represented, such as the G20. The power of the veto in the hands of five countries needs to be abolished. And we need a strong secretary general with an independent power of initiative.

Will reform happen? Not if the P5 continue to think only about their narrow, short-term self interest or unless another cataclysmic conflict like the Second World War forces change. This book makes clear that a good man is not enough. Unless we have a strong institution as well, then we will never enjoy global security, stability, democracy and respect for human rights.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. He is CEO of Inter Mediate.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide