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!