The new US envoy to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, has personal experience of how frustrating it can be to negotiate, even when speaking in the name of that mega-cliché, “the world’s only superpower.” He has a loud voice, and potentially a big stick. One would expect a little more forbearance for the UN, whose negotiating style has perforce to be with a soft voice and a more flaccid stick. However, that did not stop Holbrooke from throwing down the challenge to the UN in Kosovo, implying that it was a make-or-break effort for the world organization. For a different perspective, it is good to turn to Man Without a Gun, a UN chronicle by the soft-spoken but hard-centered diplomat Giandomenico Picco.
I know at least one jaded UN staff member who bought Picco’s book for his children, “To show that you can work for the UN and do some good.” However, the children may well conclude that there are easier ways to save one’s soul than working in an organization that has often required its staff to mouth lofty principles while simultaneously asking them to grovel in the mud before anyone powerful enough to violate those same principles with impunity.
In fact, you could read this account of Picco’s career as a textbook on how to fail in a UN career. Picco’s original sins are having principles and taking initiative. Either one could make life difficult, but the two together can be fatal to professional longevity in the UN, where almost any action or statement is bound to annoy at least one member state. Nevertheless, Picco himself concludes that “one hundred people who believe deeply that principles should be the guiding light of the UN can alter the course of human events and make a difference for future generations.”
He is right in some ways. However, there are far more than a hundred people in the UN system who subscribe to those beliefs, but they rarely have the chance to expose the lights so hermetically sealed under a bureaucratic bushel. As a young Italian staff member, Picco had the good fortune to be spotted by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. The Peruvian Secretary General contrived a contradictory combination of high press accessibility with low media visibility, and Picco’s book helps redress the balance with a much more sympathetic portrait than usual.
A UN Secretary General has a hard time with his management team, most of whose senior members are in fact foisted on him by the permanent five members of the Security Council. Usually, SGs surround themselves with a core team of people they can trust–and clearly in Picco’s case Pérez de Cuéllar chose well. Picco has no romantic illusions about the organization. He began work in a department controlled by a Soviet double agent, and his first experience in “the field” was in Cyprus–where even now the jury is out on whether the UN’s presence has averted a massive catastrophe or artificially maintained an inherently unstable standoff that could explode at any moment. Later he was involved in the complex diplomatic shadow boxing around Afghanistan, where the UN was helping Mikhail Gorbachev make a dignified withdrawal.
Picco soon came across the UN’s unwritten rules dictating the kind of spurious balance that was later to prove so disastrous in Bosnia: to take each side at its face value. He deduces that “impartiality is not a useful concept…. Only later did I come to realize that what both sides of a conflict want from a mediator is not impartiality but credibility–the ability to deliver the goods.”
As he noticed, “accusations of partisanship” are “an easy way to put pressure on the middleman and find out what he is made of.” In the case of the UN, the middlepeople were often found to be made of jelly, and, as Picco says, “relaxing your guard begins an inevitable process: you lose credibility, you lose the issue, you lose control.”