The U.N. For Beginners
By Ian Williams
Writers and Readers Publishing Inc.,
152 pages, $11
DO your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the United
If you feel a yawn coming on but think you really should know
something about how the world body works and what it has or has not
achieved in its first half-century, this crisp account is likely to
keep you both awake and entertained.
Cartoons and photos run through the prose on every page. The
tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the reader constantly on guard.
(Examples: "As the cold war froze on, the UN settled into one of
its most useful roles - the official scapegoat of the world;" or,
"If you have a Secretary-General visiting your home, the way to his
heart is to give him a 21-gun salute as if he were a head of
state....") The book is one in a comic documentary series for
adults that aims to rescue from intellectualism such subjects as
Plato, Nietszche, Islam, and now the UN.
"I wanted to put an 'F' in front of the UN - for FUN - the
organization is much too important to be boring," says author Ian
Williams. Currently president of the UN Correspondents Association,
he has reported on the UN for The New York Observer, The Nation,
New Statesman, and other publications since 1989. He says his
approach to the book is "pointillist," aimed at building an
overview through selective detail.
The author has little patience with UN bureaucracy, including
what he calls "UNspeak," the strange multisyllabled language that
creeps into most UN documents and resolutions. His best news
stories, he insists, have come from employees loyal to UN ideals
who have leaked data on the theory that only outside prodding can
bring needed reform.
The first section of the book, which may prove the most
interesting to many readers, deals with the role and powers of the
UN's six main organs. We learn that the General Assembly, which
controls the UN purse strings and works on treaties, does largely
"unspectacular but useful" work. The Security Council, the focus of
most UN action since the end of the cold war, specializes more, in
the view of many diplomats, in "spectacular but useless" work.
ECOSOC (the UN Economic and Social Council) is not "some
ecologically sound footware," notes Williams, but the "Cinderella"
of the UN that deals with development, business, feeding, and
It takes about $10 billion a year, an amount equal to one-third
of New York City's budget, to operate the UN and its peacekeeping