Monday, February 18, 2008

Soul of the U.N.

I read this book review more out of interest in the author, Francis Fukuyama, than in the subject, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. bureaucrat killed in a 2003 al Qaida attack in Baghdad.

But I became more interested in Vieira de Mello as I read. And, if Fukuyama is painting him in accurate tones, he could stand as a platonic ideal of the whole type of international bureaucrats since the day of Dag Hammarskjöld. "More than anyone else at the United Nations," Fukuyama writes, "he embodied the organization’s idealism, as well as its limitations."

Vieira de Mello was born in 1948. The son of a Brazilian diplomat, he was a prototypical global cosmopolitan who grew up in Europe and, as a student, manned the barricades during the événements of 1968 in Paris while studying Marxist philosophy. The young Vieira de Mello was instinctively anti-American and cringed when he heard an American accent. After earning his degree, he found work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, traveling to southern Sudan, Mozambique and Vietnam, and passionately embracing the United Nations and international law as the embodiments of global justice.

Emphasis added, for the sake of those who cling to the silly notion that America only "lost the respect of the world" in the time of the current incumbent. There is no indication from Fukuyama that Vieira de Mello ever lost that tic. Or his other propensities.

Samantha Power argues that Vieira de Mello underwent a personal evolution that tracked the United Nations’ experiences. In his early days he carried the United Nations habit of being nonjudgmental to an extreme: he dined with the bloody Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary; he cultivated a friendship with Slobodan Milosevic (which earned him the nickname “Serbio”). “Chasing the Flame” is critical of Vieira de Mello for, in the words of one of his colleagues, “siding with power” when he helped organize forced returns of refugees to Vietnam and Rwanda. But the book is not entirely convincing in its claim that by the end of the 1990s, Vieira de Mello had concluded that the United Nations needed to shift from peacekeeping to peace enforcement as part of a new, global “responsibility to protect.” If he believed such a thing, he never articulated the view or disavowed the earlier United Nations posture as fundamentally broken, as Kofi Annan was eventually to do.

I'm sure Fukuyama will not take it amiss if, after reading all this I am more convinced that the U.N.'s "idealism" and its "limitations" are flip sides of the same coin.

“Chasing the Flame” argues, as Vieira de Mello himself once did, that the United Nations is often unfairly blamed for failures to protect the vulnerable or deter aggression, when the real failure is that of the great powers standing behind it. Those powers are seldom willing to give it sufficient resources, attention and boots on the ground to accomplish the ambitious mandates they set for it. At present, the United Nations is involved in eight separate peacekeeping operations in Africa alone; failure in a high-profile case like Darfur (which seems likely) will once again discredit the organization. Power (who has been a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama) makes the case for powerful countries like the United States putting much greater effort into making the institution work.

Emphasis added, again, this time for the sake of those trying to peer into the hypothetical futures of the possible next administrations.

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