Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

The Internationalist Dream

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By Hilary Charlesworth

Kofi Annan speaking at a World Organisation Against Torture meeting in Geneva in 2010. Portrayed in the painting is banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard, Geneva’s ambassador to the Congress of Vienna in 1815.  Image by Pierre Abensur http://tinyurl.com/lj35tr4

Kofi Annan speaking at a World Organisation Against Torture meeting in Geneva in 2010. Portrayed in the painting is banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard, Geneva’s ambassador to the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
Image by Pierre Abensur http://tinyurl.com/lj35tr4

Centre for International Governance and Justice, RegNet, ANU

Regarding Rights is pleased to publish Hilary Charlesworth’s review of two recent books, Kofi Annan’s memoir (co-written with Nader Mousavizadeh) Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, and Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of an Idea. This review first appeared on Inside Story.

Kofi Annan’s memoir and Mark Mazower’s intellectual history of the international realm complement each other nicely. Annan’s book recounts some of his experiences as a senior official of the United Nations, including nearly a decade as secretary-general from 1997, all linked by the possibilities of international intervention. It is a personal account of events such as NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2001, East Timor’s path to independence in 2002 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The focus is Annan’s own engagement with and reflections on these occurrences. The tone is one of pride and, occasionally, ruefulness. Mazower has a more ambitious and critical agenda: to chronicle the concept of international cooperation from its first appearance in the eighteenth century until today. He writes with a sceptical tone, emphasising the manipulability of the internationalist dream. Both books offer substantial insights into the mysteries and contradictions of the international order, but they are especially illuminating when read together.

Examples of the synergy between the two books include their treatments of the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, doctrine and the growth of international criminal law. Annan and Mazower write in quite different registers about these major developments of the last fifteen years. Annan celebrates R2P, which traces to a speech he gave in September 1999, in the wake of the Kosovo intervention. At that time, he identified the potential of and inevitable resistance to the “developing international norm in favour of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter.” He credits the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, set up by the Canadian government and co-chaired by Australia’s Gareth Evans, with the “brilliant innovation” of recasting the idea of a right of intervention to one of a responsibility to protect. For Annan, R2P was critical to the credibility of the UN: “it represents a deep and disturbing challenge to those leaders who wish to treat their people with impunity.” He eventually shepherded a modest version of the concept into his major report on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations in 2005, In Larger Freedom.

Mazower is more dubious about R2P. He situates its development as part of move by middle powers, such as Australia and Canada, to restrain American unilateralism by “reclaiming the right to determine the exercise of [preemptive] force for the UN in the name of a higher morality.” Mazower describes the growing influence in Washington of a group of “moralist-realists,” including Samantha Power, now US ambassador to the United Nations, and how the group deployed the idea of R2P to bolster American influence in international institutions and to promote the legitimacy of regime change. Mazower also charts the strained attempts of Annan’s successor as UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to articulate R2P as consistent with Westphalian concepts of state sovereignty. For Mazower, R2P is little more than a rebadging of the colonial civilising mission, granting “one standard of sovereignty for the civilised world and another for the uncivilised.”

Annan and Mazower’s responses to international criminal law reflect a similar pattern. Annan celebrates the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, or ICC, in 1998, which established a permanent institution to try individuals responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He acknowledges the hostility among African political leaders, which reflects the fact that only Africans have so far gone on trial, but sees that focus as simply a product of weak local judicial systems. Mazower investigates the surprising emergence of the ICC in the face of strong American opposition and notes that the court has since been deferential to American interests. He views the ICC as being in harness with the R2P doctrine, “legitimat[ing] new forms of international intervention in those parts of the Third World that cannot resist it.”

The title of Mazower’s book does not fully reflect its focus. Its first half, “The Era of Internationalism,” offers an engaging, almost racy, account of international affairs from the Concert of Europe in 1815 to the collapse of the League of Nations. It discusses how a range of European scholars and writers, from Kant and Bentham to H.G. Wells, conceived the international sphere. In the legal context, Mazower introduces the members of the Institut de Droit International, founded in 1873, who sought to demarcate international law from diplomatic practice. There is an illuminating chapter on what Mazower identifies as the elements of mid-nineteenth century internationalism, including the peace movement, nationality, free trade and socialism. A chapter on “Science the Unifier” skilfully traces how science was deployed as an internationalising mechanism in this period. But the second part of the book (“Governing the World the American Way”) studies only American engagement, as if this were the defining feature of internationalism in the United Nations era. Other regions become simply background for the fractious relationship between the United States and the international arena.

Mazower’s central argument in the second half of the book is that the United States’ modern take on internationalism is a mixture of universalism and exceptionalism. Annan’s recounting of the pressure he felt from the United States at critical junctures supports this thesis. Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton worked hard to dissuade Annan from leading a diplomatic mission to Baghdad in 1998, for example, because the United States was by then committed to military action in the face of Iraqi obfuscation about its weapons program. With respect to the ICC, Mazower makes the perceptive observation that “its role in American foreign policy since its creation has emerged in a fashion characteristic of the longer history of the American deployment of international institutions, its ‘exceptional’ sponsor extending the power of international law while remaining above and beyond its reach itself.”

Annan’s co-author, Nader Mousavizadeh, worked with him at the UN and is now chief executive of Oxford Analytica, consultants in global politics. The book reads as from a single author, however, quoting extensively from Annan’s speeches while secretary-general. For the most part, Annan’s voice is inflected with the caution of a civil servant. This makes for somewhat dull reading and readers gain little sense of his personal passions and disappointments. For an Australian readership, the most interesting exception to this is his account of Richard Butler’s tenure as head of UNSCOM, the body that monitored Iraq’s dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction and reported to the UN Security Council. Annan refers to Butler’s appointment to lead UNSCOM, on the recommendation of the outgoing head, Rolf Ekeus, as a “colossal mistake and one of the worst appointments I ever made.” He records that Butler quickly alienated the Iraqis as well as the Russians and the Chinese, ensuring divisions in the permanent membership of the Security Council on the issue of Iraqi compliance with Security Council resolutions. According to Annan, Butler was regarded as doing the bidding of the United States in relation to Iraq’s disarmament and treated other Security Council members as “small-town mayors.”

Annan’s report of the scandal involving widespread corruption in the UN “Oil for Food” program in Iraq, which implicated his son Kojo, only hints at the emotions involved. He interprets the allegations of wrongdoing, which first surfaced in early 2004, as a payback by US interests that resented Annan’s criticism of the legality of the Iraq invasion. Annan commissioned the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, to investigate. Volcker’s report into the allegations, which found extensive corruption in the program, was “deeply distressing” to Annan, but Kojo Annan’s involvement was “far more painful.” Annan is proud of his capacity for friendships across the spectrum, from Madeleine Albright and Tony Blair to Paul McCartney and Winton Marsalis, but he also describes how his comment that he could “do business” with Saddam Hussein, after meeting the Iraqi president in 1998, got him into very hot political water.

The title of Annan’s book, Interventions, is intriguing. It captures the idea of verbal interventions in a debate and is the term used in international forums for a delegate’s speech. But the book also seems to endorse military intervention as a method of solving crises at a particular time, for example in Kosovo in 1999. The idea seems to be that there is a moment when armed intervention is ripe and likely to be effective, changing events in a positive way. For Annan, intervention is also a discrete activity: it typically involves a single use of force. Annan does not consider more complex aspects of intervention: how its effects empower some groups and marginalise others, for example, or how its reverberations can destroy progressive local political movements. Nor does he attend to less dramatic but powerful forms of intervention such as those of international financial institutions in developing economies. Mazower, by contrast, observes the unforeseen consequences of intervention, noting for example the chaos and violence following the withdrawal of Serbia from Kosovo.

Annan’s book devotes considerable attention to the eight Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, adopted in 2000 by the UN General Assembly. The goals, which included eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, and ensuring environmental sustainability, established benchmarks and targets to be achieved by 2015. Despite the fact that the MDG benchmarks will not be reached by this deadline, Annan regards them as having transformed the international agenda by placing development “at the top of the pile” and providing a robust accountability mechanism. He recounts a conversation with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, about whether the Bible accepted the inevitability of poverty and the sustenance he drew from Williams’s theological reflections. Mazower’s account of the MDGs is less optimistic, noting the way that development became swept up in the post 9/11 focus on security.

Reading these two books side by side is sometimes like listening to a dialogue in which the participants are at cross-purposes. The authors reference some of the same names and events, but interpret their significance in quite different ways. This is inevitable, given the different goals of the books: Annan’s is to chronicle his legacy (free, unfortunately, of footnotes or bibliography), while Mazower’s is to investigate how the idea of the international is shaped. In Mazower’s book, Annan emerges as a White House favourite because of the perception that he would be amenable to Washington’s priorities. Annan unsurprisingly emphasises his independence and also his influence on Washington. He describes himself as a realist with dreams. While Mazower laments that governing institutions “have lost sight of the principle of politics rooted in the collective values of a res publica, even as they continue to defend the ‘civilisation of capital,’” Annan acclaims the potential of the international arena for individual progress. The function of the international realm may be more complex than either of these books suggests, but they are both important guides to its intricacies and rituals.

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