Perhaps one of the most fatuous theories ever promulgated was Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History,” put forth just as, in most parts of the world, history resumed its sanguinary progress as soon as the cold war ended. Equally bad was Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” postulate, an attempt to find a Communist threat in another guise to give shape to our worldview.

Despite such failures of metahistorical analysis, one can’t help wishing that William Shawcross had more of an over-arching vision to hold together the gloomy sprawl of his new book, Deliver Us From Evil. Is this a book about the conflicts? Is it about the successes and failures of the United Nations? Does it show how, having sown the seeds of war across the world for decades, the great powers have now left them to grow unchecked and untended? Shawcross touches on all these questions but never truly provides an answer to any of them.

Shawcross, a journalist perhaps best known for his 1979 work on the secret US bombing of Cambodia, Sideshow, had unparalleled access to the UN and its senior officials for his research. The scuttlebutt there was that he was writing a biography of Secretary General Kofi Annan–which would have yielded a much more focused book. As it is, Deliver Us From Evil finds Shawcross forever in the air with the Secretary General, jetting or, more modestly, propelling from crisis to crisis. Yet access is a mixed blessing for a journalist; proximity often breeds too much contentment with the subjects, who in this book are mostly UN officials. And while it is true that those officials are often needlessly and even unjustly vilified, still, their works merit closer scrutiny and occasionally harsher criticism than they get here. Shawcross also suffers from the dilemma Milton found in Paradise Lost: The bad guys are commonly much more interesting than his heroes, many of whom are not exactly acting in the heroic mode when we see them.

“What are the particular problems faced by a Japanese UN official in the Balkans, a Canadian General caught in genocide in Rwanda?” Shawcross asks rhetorically near the beginning, adding, “I hope this book shows in some part how difficult, if not impossible, their decisions are, faced with the conflicting demands of politicians at home, members of the Security Council, generals on the ground and the evil which they attempt to face down.”

Yet it seems inappropriate, indeed almost sacrilegious, to put Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese UN official alluded to, in the same sentence as Gen. Roméo Dallaire. The former was in charge of the UN abandonment of Srebrenica, whereas General Dallaire, as commander of the UN forces in Kigali, had information about the impending genocide in Rwanda and was ordered by UN headquarters officials–ones cast in the Akashi mold, in fact–to take no action, apart from alerting the Rwandan government that its plot had been revealed!

General Dallaire, one of the truly tragic figures of this age, tried to save as many people as possible with the few poorly supplied troops left to him. Shawcross quotes him: “Dying in Rwanda without sign or sight of relief was a reality we faced on a daily basis.” Unsurprisingly, the experience left him suicidal and depressed when he returned to Canada. No such feelings were reported from the UN headquarters staff or from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or President Bill Clinton, who bear primary responsibility for abandoning the UN peacekeepers and the Tutsis to their fate by refusing to allow reinforcement or resupply for them, which resulted in an estimated 800,000 dead.

Certainly, no one associated with events in the former Yugoslavia noticed any excess of remorse from Yasushi Akashi, who continually argued for appeasement of the Serbs and resisted any effective measures suggested against them, no matter what the provocation. When such policies produced the massacre at Srebrenica, Kofi Annan, then Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping, had to write to Akashi to ask for a report on the thousands of Bosnians who were being reported missing by other sources. Shawcross’s report on one of Akashi’s missives typifies the response: “Rather than make an outcry, he suggested that in view of the vulnerable position of the observers, the reports be kept confidential.” Around the same time, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Rohde, Akashi was at a hunting lodge near Belgrade with Slobodan Milosevic, quipping about “a safe area for animals.”

Akashi was, of course, merely reflecting the peculiar UN Secretariat ethos, typified by a private UN memorandum on Bosnia that Shawcross quotes: “There are always two sides to any argument.” Inadvertently, Shawcross reveals what that meant when he describes a visit to Belgrade with Annan in 1996. Annan, who had taken over from Akashi, carried a million-dollar check from the UN to compensate the Yugoslav Army for damage French peacekeepers had allegedly caused to a Yugoslav barracks!

Somehow, Shawcross is not as shocked as he should be by this Alice-in-Wonderland scenario. The UN General Assembly had booted Yugoslavia out of its ranks. Belgrade had been condemned in more than 150 resolutions for the wars it started, in the course of which perhaps as many as 200,000 people were killed, of which 210 were UN staff, and during which its surrogates took UN peacekeepers hostage, shackling them to potential targets. And the UN’s legal department had negotiated compensation to the perpetrators!

We can argue about the appropriate responses of individuals trapped in a system that demands the type of doublethink necessary to convince oneself that the victims are the problem. One of the reasons for this doublethink is that they had to spend so much time with such charming types as Milosevic and Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic. Similarly, one cannot help thinking that Shawcross has spent so much time with senior UN officials that he cuts them far too much slack. That’s not entirely surprising: They are often erudite, charming and humane people. But rocking the boat is not part of their job description.

One particular trope that such officials often invoked was the Mogadishu Line. On one level this refers to the US unwillingness to get involved in UN operations involving possible casualties. In fact, the US conducted a freelance operation in Somalia, without telling the UN commanders, and then blamed the UN for the disaster. As if they were grabbing at a headline-writers’ tag to disguise the absence of any actual principle, UN officials cited “the Mogadishu Line” as an excuse not to take sides, no matter what barbarities were being committed.

Yet the real line is not the Mogadishu Line but the thugs’ line, checkpoints thrown up by local bullies which the UN would refuse to cross. For example, in Cambodia the UN proclivity to kowtowing allowed the Khmer Rouge to chase the UN out of large tracts of the country and Hun Sen to conduct a low-level reign of terror in the rest, setting the conditions for the debacle of an election in 1998.

Indeed, Kofi Annan is a harsher critic of himself and of the UN than Shawcross is. At least Annan learned his lessons from his experiences when he referred to “an institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide,” in his 1999 Report on Srebrenica–a lesson he repeated after the report on the UN’s role in Rwanda. For many UN watchers, those reports were not much of a revelation in themselves factually, but they were remarkable for their unprecedented candor. It is worth remembering that these inquiries were not instigated by a UN desire to learn from its mistakes. One was the product of a General Assembly resolution moved by Bosnia, and the other was the result of an international uproar.

The only prominent UN staff member to resign on principle during this post-cold war period was Denis Halliday, who left in protest over the effects of sanctions on Iraqi civilians. Shawcross does not mention Halliday’s resignation, a striking omission if he really wanted to explore the moral quandaries of working for the UN in ethically and politically dubious circumstances.

The UN Charter is based on a combination of liberal sentiments and stark realpolitik. It says that the rest of the world will use overwhelming military force to stop any country that threatens the peace. Strangely, while many people think bombing is the antithesis of everything the UN stands for, Article 45 in fact envisages that in order to “take urgent military measures,” members should hold ready “national air force contingents for combined international enforcement action.” The context does not imply that they would be used for leafleting.

In the absence of any such intention by the military powers for the past fifty years, the UN Secretariat developed its own particular metaphysical belief in negotiations, even though, over and over again, against Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Milosevic in Serbia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the same painful lesson was hammered home. These were not gentlemen whose word was their bond; speaking quietly was useless without a big stick.

In the end, Shawcross considers but admits he has no definitive answers to the questions posed by Annan’s new doctrine of humanitarian intervention. “Not everything can be achieved, not every wrong can be righted simply because the international community desires it. We cannot suddenly rebuild failed states or failing territories in our own image.” He also correctly points out that such actions may not have popular support in the countries that are carrying out the interventions–and may do more harm than good if carried out in a halfhearted way.

However, as the historian of the effects of the original US intervention in Cambodia, Shawcross could perhaps have made more of how many of these conflicts are the direct result of previous (often inhumane) interventions. The UN’s failures in Somalia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Haiti, even Ethiopia and Eritrea, are all the products of cold war successes and excesses, in which “our sons of bitches” were armed and financed against the others’. Even Saddam Hussein is partly the product of a decade of Western support for a megalomaniac–particularly in his bloody war against Iran, which suited US strategy. In most of these conflicts, it is more than a little hypocritical to start pointing the finger at morally feckless natives, so late in the development of tragedies where outsiders have been the directors and producers from the beginning.

It is odd that the UN should have come closest to this realization under the gentle Kofi Annan, who, Shawcross tells us, concludes belatedly that “there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.” Somehow, Shawcross finds that “overall, this is a hopeful story.” Not if you are a woman in Kabul, a Chechen in Grozny, a multiple amputee in Freetown or a Congolese with half a dozen lawless and armed factions milling about, it isn’t.

Taking up Annan’s provocative call for humanitarian intervention, Shawcross claims that “a new global architecture is being built upon the international system that was constructed after the Second World War.” However, some of that architecture is gingerbread designed to cover the original structure. Yes, the international criminal tribunals established to deal with war crimes are a welcome innovation. But if the original UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been taken seriously, then the crimes they are seeking to try might not have been committed with such seeming impunity.