Chasing the Flame
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In the introduction to her towering biography, Chasing the Flame, Samantha Power quotes a fellow journalist who compared her subject, Sergio Vieira de Mello, to “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.” Fantastic as this combination may sound, it is a fitting encapsulation of a suave, fearless, and idealistic man who, throughout his career, did more than almost anyone else alive to ease political tensions throughout the world. A dedicated servant of the UN from the age of twenty-one, Vieira de Mello was dashing, charismatic, and supremely well-educated. He spoke half-dozen languages and, thanks to his studies at the Sorbonne, was steeped in the philosophy of Kant and Hegel. A person of astonishing cultural range, Vieira de Mello was as skilled in discussing fine wines or the latest album by R.E.M. as he was in seeking political common ground in Cambodia or East Timor. His field experience in the service of humanitarianism and human rights carried him to far-flung corners of the globe and brought him face to face with the most intractable political crises of his time.
Yet, as Pulitzer Prize-winner Samantha Power demonstrates, Vieira de Mello’s story only begins with his glamorous image and sterling resumé. He was an extraordinarily resourceful political thinker, one with an unusual ability to look beyond the dogmas and impulses of the moment and see deeply into the conditions and feelings that lead to violence and social breakdowns, a man who was drawn to international service by his innate idealism, but whose urge to help was tempered by an acute practicality and a willingness to consider all points of view. Despite his life-long dedication to the UN and political reform, Vieira de Mello placed individuals above institutions, and he valued dignity more than democracy. A person of flexibility, creativity, and empathy, one who was never too proud to learn another lesson, Vieira de Mello sought solutions where some saw only problems. Sadly, his tireless efforts to serve humanity were brought to an end by an act of senseless violence: in August 2003, Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed by the first major suicide-bomb blast in American-occupied Baghdad, Shortly thereafter, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was heard to lament, “I had only one Sergio.”
Despite the unique talents of its central figure, Chasing the Flame tells of more tragedies than triumphs. While allowing the reader to share in radiant moments of victory, it also reveals how, despite his unquenchable energy and brilliant vision, Vieira de Mello often failed to bring about the peace and justice that he fervently desired to give to the people around him. Ironically, these failures were often due to the clumsiness, intransigence, or restrictive policies of the UN itself, the very institution he was so proud to represent. Vieira de Mello gave his best efforts to resolving crises in Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. In none of these places can the UN’s efforts be counted as successful. At the end of Chasing the Flame, Vieira de Mello himself lies defeated, buried in the rubble produced by a terrorist’s bomb. Yet it is precisely in observing the intertwinings of success and failure that Chasing the Flame makes its greatest mark. With piercing insight and relentless logic, it reveals the pitfalls of international politics and details an intricate struggle between individual and institution. It haunts us with the poignant truth that even a great man can do only so much to reinvent the world. At the end of this epic life story, as Power sets forth her own recommendations for the managing of future international conflict, the reader not only feels a powerful sense of our past losses, but also acquires a better understanding of how our future battles for justice and dignity can best be won.
A native of Ireland, Samantha Power moved with her family to the United States at the age of nine. She holds degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School and is currently the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership as the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Power supplements her career as an academician with her work as an active journalist. Like Sergio Vieira de Mello, she has dedicated much of her life to questions of international justice, and her work has taken her to the front lines of the global struggle for human rights. She has reported from Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, as well as many other nations. In 2003, her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
Q. Sergio Vieira de Mello lived to the age of fifty-five, and his career with the United Nations spanned almost thirty-five years. Although Chasing the Flame offers a richly detailed look at Vieira de Mello’s entire career, the last third of the book is devoted solely to the year or so that preceded his death. Why did you decide to dedicate so much of your work to this relatively brief period?
A. Because Iraq was the last mission of Sergio’s life, it was the place where he probably had the most insight to offer. By the time he landed in Baghdad in 2003, he had worked in a dozen conflict or post-conflict situations—Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and East Timor. Yet because Paul Bremer’s U.S.-led Coalition (and not the UN) was governing Iraq at the time of his deployment, Sergio had almost no formal power. While he offered the UN’s help in planning elections, training police, establishing an independent judiciary, settling property disputes, facilitating refugee returns, and reintegrating Iraqi army officers into society, Bremer and the Bush administration took very little of his advice.
Iraq is perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy. It is a war whose strategic, economic, and human consequences will be felt for decades. I felt that the least we could do at this stage is learn absolutely everything we could about what might have been done differently not for the sake of re-litigating the past but for the sake of applying the lessons Sergio had to teach to future conflict areas.
Q. You knew Vieira de Mello personally, though you tell his story principally through the accounts of those who worked with him more closely. Did your personal knowledge of Vieira de Mello complicate or facilitate your task as his biographer?
A. Honestly, the man I now know—after 4 years and some 400 interviews with people on just about every continent on the globe—bears very little resemblance to the man I thought I knew in the Balkans in the 1990s. They had some of the same qualities certainly: razor-sharp wit, a seemingly genuine regard for individuals (as distinct from abstract “human rights”), intense professional ambition, great personal courage, and widely-hailed negotiating gifts. But the Sergio I now know had a vastly more varied background than I understood (he would never have mentioned he had not one but two doctorates from the Sorbonne); he was more self-critical than I would have imagined; he was more capable of conducting in-depth policy analysis on the fly than I would have thought any crisis-manager capable; he was more conscientious than I thought (I would not have dreamed he would maintain contacts with his drivers and house-cleaners years after his missions); and in the end he was probably also lonelier and more insecure than he let on (having played up his love for women his whole life, it was only at the end of his life that he began to confess his fears—of aging, of dying, of being alone).
Q. What do you consider to be the strongest points of Vieira de Mello’s character? And, conversely, what would you identify as his most besetting flaw?
A. My favorite trait of his—and one we can all learn from—was his intense regard for individuals. He noticed individuals of all classes, professions, and nationalities. This was evident in his willingness to circumvent UN rules to smuggle Sarajevans out of the city in his car, his effort to help find the nephew of the Kosovar cleaning lady at UN Headquarters in New York, his conscientiousness with the family of Leonard Manning, the first UN peacekeeper killed in East Timor, and countless other cases. Another strength, which he developed later in his career, was his capacity for self-scrutiny and his willingness to alter course if his plans were not working. He was far more pragmatic than ideological, and if he found something wasn’t bringing about the improvements he hoped for, he was prepared to alter course. This is surprisingly rare, and especially rare in large institutions.
I suppose his obvious flaw was his weakness as a husband and a father. He was immensely restless and seemed to need to keep in constant motion. Professionally, this meant moving from one challenging mission to the next. Personally, it meant rarely remaining still at home, putting his career first and, I suppose, often putting the welfare of other families’ ahead of his own. Most of the girlfriends he had outside his marriage—to whom he never committed—had surprisingly positive things to say about him, as he was generally upfront about his insistence on staying in his marriage and they did not feel misled. But that said, there is no question that a man who did a great deal to ease suffering in his professional life caused considerable suffering in his personal life.
Q. One of the troublesome traits you identify in Sergio’s character was his desire to be liked by everyone. How much of this desire do you think stemmed from personal insecurity, and how much of it do you believe arose from a pragmatic realization that maintaining allies is crucial in a business where one never knows whom one may have to ask for the next favor? Or did this trait have another origin?
A. Even after having spent four years with him, I’m not confident about answering this. There is no question that the Machievellian idealist in him shrewdly tried to keep allies on his side. He went to great lengths not to make enemies, in part because he never knew who would be up and who would be down (and when). He also felt he could lead from within the UN more easily if he had the good will of the staff on his side, as well as the trust of the senior managers and member states. But it also bothered him when people had a low opinion of him. He wanted to bring them around, show them his charms. In a sense, as Jean Pierre Hocke, the deposed UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who felt betrayed by Sergio, said, “Sergio was a seducer.” Perhaps as balm for his insecurity, he needed to seduce people intellectually, emotionally, and politically.
Q. People with extraordinary skill sets can become unspeakably frustrated by institutional structures that prevent them from achieving the results they want. Your biography offers a long litany of situations in which Vieira de Mello’s extraordinary abilities went virtually for naught because of UN red tape and institutional inertia. Why, then, do you think Vieira de Mello never gave up on the UN?
A. He was tempted to give up on the UN on several occasions, but he was too familiar with all the good the UN humanitarian agencies were doing in violent, broken places—refugee assistance, vaccinations, shelter provision, election assistance, even peacekeeping. There was enough good being done by the UN that he focused his attention on ridding the Organization of the bad rather than walking away from the good. He also saw that what really needed fixing were UN member states—the countries that sent peacekeepers into harm’s way with shoddy equipment, too few troops, or lousy mandates; the countries that used military force unilaterally or recklessly; the countries that treated the UN as a place to reward political favors rather than as a place to deal with the world’s most vexing problems. He thought that the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, the five countries on the Security Council, as well as dozens of middle powers at the UN, needed to alter their approach to global ills if the UN as an organization was to change. But he knew that those countries were unlikely to make those changes if a compelling case were not made by UN officials. And especially in the last decade of his career, he saw that he was able to make that case better than most of his colleagues.
Had he given up on the causes of mending the world and reforming the UN, I’m not sure where he would have gone or what he would have done with himself. He had a tremendous—but not easily transferable—skill-set. Perhaps once he reached his 60s he might have returned to Brazil to launch a long-deferred writing and teaching career, but I’m not sure how long that would have sustained him. The tug of “the action” would likely have been too great for him to resist.
Q. Throughout Chasing the Flame, you illustrate the continuing evolution in Vieira de Mello’s thinking with regard to international conflict and human rights. Is it possible for you to speculate as to how his thinking might have continued to change if he had lived?
A. What I find most helpful about his core concepts7mdash;service, adaptability, dignity, curiosity, humility, security—is how timeless they are. He would have had to adjust to the erosion of U.S. influence in the world and of course the rise of China, but I’m not sure his core concepts would have needed much amendment. Applying them would yield a very different approach in Darfur (if he were sent to mediate a long term peace settlement) than applying them in Afghanistan (if he were asked to help develop a strategy for preventing the return of the Taliban). They were rules of thumb that didn’t translate into specific walking orders, but constituted something of a compass to come back to.
Q. More than four years have now gone by since Vieira de Mello was murdered. How do you think subsequent events, in Iraq and elsewhere, may have been shaped by his absence?
A. I don’t think Sergio or the UN could have “saved” Iraq. The Bush administration had made too many decisions that contributed to the collapse of the country that could not be reversed by the time of his arrival in Baghdad: bypassing the UN Security Council and inflaming anti-Americanism, muzzling dissent within the Bush administration so that only “yes men” remained, sending too few troops to control Iraq’s borders and too few police to maintain law and order, ignoring the planning that had been done by the State Department’s “Future of Iraq” project, shunning the expertise that lay within US Aid and the UN system, issuing a holistic De-Bathification order that gutted Iraq’s most important ministries, demobilizing the Iraqi army, and failing to do any meaningful planning for the post-Saddam transition. These decisions made it very likely that Iraq would implode after the U.S. arrival. But if Sergio had lived, he probably would have salvaged what could have yet been salvaged. He could have eventually prevailed on the Americans to reverse their worst decisions, and he might have convinced skeptical governments in the UN to contribute more resources to aid in reconstruction or even policing. Sergio could not have saved Iraq, but he could have helped it. But the only time he might have done that was when the Americans were ready to listen to him, which they were not ready to do in the summer of 2003.
Q. Much of the United Nations’ legitimacy and credibility can be traced to its refusal to take sides in international disputes. However, the current administration in the United States has repeatedly declared, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Do you perceive ways in which the United Nations can preserve a semblance of impartiality while simultaneously securing support from power governments that are seemingly bent on polarization?
A. This is hugely challenging. The United States is one of the most vocal critics of the UN. Americans do not like giving up our sovereignty, and naturally they do not like organizational waste of the kind that the UN is known for. The irony is that the UN is seen in many parts of the world as a tool or even a stooge of American power. It is seen as too American-dominated because of the disproportionate weight Washington has had on the Security Council and because the hefty U.S. share of the UN budget gives it extra sway in appointments and rule-making. The key going forward will be for UN civil servants like Sergio to try to interpret and apply the Charter as impartially and consistently as possible. But by the same token they should no longer assume that the UN flag offers them protection against political prejudice or against violent attack. UN aid workers and diplomats can not retreat into the kind of isolation that U.S. embassies and military bases have chosen in the last decade or two. But they must be far more conscious of the associations people make between them and the major powers.
Q. The United States has traditionally been quite skeptical about the ability of the United Nations to exert a favorable influence on world events. What, in your view, have been the fallacies of America’s perception of the UN, and how does this perception need to change in order to create a more effective UN and a safer, more stable world?
A. The key to UN reform is giving Americans a clearer picture of what the UN is and what it isn’t, what it can be and what it can’t be. The UN is largely a collection of states, so if you want to throw blame around—and lord knows there is plenty of blame to be thrown around—the best place to lay the blame is with the governments who make decisions that undermine peacekeeping missions, fail to sanction abusive governments, underfund AIDS care, etc.. In other words much of what one sees playing itself out through the UN is a symptom of geopolitical dynamics that need to be altered or political priorities that need to be shifted.
I hope that Sergio can serve as a new face for the UN with the American public. But I also hope he helps us understand what can be fixed in New York, by UN bureaucrats, and what has to be fixed by powerful governments. The UN Secretariat can hire better staff and undertake management reform to get rid of some of the waste and sloth within the system, but the most lean and efficient UN in the world wouldn’t have prevented the Rwandan genocide or stopped the United States from going to war in Iraq. For that to happen world leaders are going to have alter their foreign policies, and for that to happen their citizens are going to have to pressure them to do so.
Q. Your closing recommendation of “Complexity, Humility, and Patience” as three qualities necessary in managing international social and political conflict seem almost the antithesis of the values that are currently expressed in American foreign policy. How do you think one begins to reverse the trend of simplification, arrogance, and impulsiveness that many of us have found so troubling?
A. Well, Iraq has served up a great reality check for many Americans. The average U.S. voter probably has a greater appreciation of the need for humility and the need for multinational support to deal with transnational threats like global warming, terrorism, proliferation, disease pandemics, and refugee flows than he or she had before the Iraq war. I think Americans generally see now that military force can not be the only tool in the U.S. tool box. I think they see that problems that span the globe or can spread across the globe are not ones that a single country—even one as powerful as the United States—can handle alone. What Americans are probably less prepared for are the sacrifices—in terms of resources and behavior—that Americans will have to make in order to tackle these problems. After Iraq and Katrina, Americans see our government as more fallible than we have in some time, but I don’t think that this crisis of confidence has translated into patience. We see that the problems facing us are complex, but we still want quick solutions. I don’t blame Americans outside of Washington for this disconnect. I believe our political leaders have failed to level with the American people about just how much will be required of them if we are to make a dent in facing these challenges. Improving fuel efficiency or getting out of Iraq are tempting short-term fixes, but our leaders haven’t dared to broach the depth and difficulty of the compromises we must learn to make in the 21st century. Maybe Sergio can play a small role in sparking that overdue conversation.
Q. After the death of Vieira de Mello, Secretary General Kofi Annan lamented that he had had “only one Sergio.” At Harvard’s Kennedy School, you are involved in educating some of the people who will have to take Vieira de Mello’s place. What, in your view, would be the best training and education for someone who desires to follow in Sergio’s footsteps?
A. Since 9/11, there has been a huge leap in people wanting to get personally involved in public service and international affairs. One of the many tragedies of the Iraq war was that only one segment of our society—soldiers and their families—have yet been summoned to duty. I think Sergio’s life is instructive because it can introduce readers to the vast array of problems out there that need tackling. For young people, I hope it inspires a hunger to learn foreign languages and to spend time overseas volunteering for a church, a medical clinic, or a non-governmental organization. For older people with well-honed skills, I hope it inspires a desire to inject their wisdom into the public sector in some fashion, whether part-time or full-time. I don’t think people who read this book and want to follow the “Sergio principles” need to go back to school or go overseas in order to channel that impulse. They could tutor after school or spend time offering care to a returning war veteran; they could partner with a refugee family from Iraq or Haiti; they could educate themselves about a particular domestic or international challenge and call their state senator or U.S. Senator to try to increase policy attention toward it; they could write a check to an organization working on a cause that moves them or join the board of such an organization and get involved in improving the group’s effectiveness. A surprising number of people long to make a difference, but a) don’t know how, or b) know how, but don’t believe it can make a difference. Yet an even more surprising number of people don’t explore the opportunities (or the potential impact) before assuming there is no role they can usefully play. I’m hoping Sergio’s story will remind people of the scale of suffering that is out there, but also of the range of ways one can be useful in addressing harms—at home and abroad.
- One of Vieira de Mello’s most controversial practices was negotiating with all factions regarding a given dispute, even those whose track records were, from a humanitarian point of view, repugnant. Do you agree that all sides to a dispute have an equal entitlement to be heard? If not, what do you think should be the criteria for including a party in the discussion? What is the price one pays for excluding a rogue party? What are the dangers of including persons or organizations with a history of criminal behavior?
- As a representative of the United Nations, Vieira de Mello was not constrained by the need to protect the interests of any particular government. By the same token, however, he lacked the leverage and resource base that goes along with working for a powerful nation-state. Which seems to be more important in international politics and peacekeeping—the ability to act independently or access to power?
- Vieira de Mello was known to admonish his colleagues against approaching situations “on [the] great white horse of moral principle,” insisting that it is more important to “solve the problem.” However, do you think that moral principle is an essential part of solving problems? Is amoral problem solving better or worse than morally informed problem solving, or does it depend on the situation?
- During the time that Vieira de Mello spent in Cambodia, he was a strong believer in “black-boxing” the political issues he confronted, that is, setting aside the errors and even the atrocities of the past and dealing with the situation solely as it existed in the present tense. What are the advantages and drawbacks of this kind of approach?
- Vieira de Mello maintained that respecting and preserving the dignity of individuals mattered more than making sure they lived under a democratic regime. Which do you think matters more in the life of a typical human being—dignity or democracy?
- In both Cambodia and Serbia, Vieira de Mello was criticized for currying favor with the powerful instead of championing the causes of the neediest people. To what extent did he deserve the criticism he received? What are the alternatives to allying oneself with power, and how likely are they to work?
- Vieira de Mello discovered that, paradoxically, humanitarian action and agitating for human rights are sometimes incompatible. For instance, sending supplies to an oppressed nation can sometimes help to prop up a corrupt regime, while economic sanctions often hurt the common people more than they harm the ruling elites. Which objective should matter more in international relations: supplying the basic needs of people for food and shelter, or establishing and maintaining the rule of law?
- Vieira de Mello’s mentor Thomas Jamieson operated according to the adage, “If you can find a way to close a [refugee] camp, take it.” Yet some of the refugee settlements depicted in Chasing the Flame appear to be rather highly functional places, like those in Zaire that were replete with cinemas, pharmacies, and hairdressers. In a situation where going home was likely to mean death for countless refugees, did even repatriation take on a relative value? In Chasing the Flame, are there any values that remain absolute, or must everything be evaluated in context?
- Chasing the Flame often depicts instances in which United Nations intervention was either ineffectual or, in some respects, counterproductive. What appear to be the main reasons for the UN’s failures? Do you think the UN’s weaknesses can be fixed, or do you believe that any international body with the same set of objectives would encounter the same frustrations?
- Vieira de Mello was an enthusiastically unfaithful husband and, in more ways than one, a distant father. He was an atheist and, in his final moments, he cursed God. How, if at all, do these facts influence your perception of him as a hero? Should they?
- How does Vieira de Mello’s interest in philosophy, particularly his early attraction to Marxism, appear to have influenced his growth and inclinations as a political thinker and actor?
- Vieira de Mello and President Bush seem to have had very little in common with respect to ideology or background, yet the meeting between them in March 2003 seems to have been very cordial. Why?
- The life stories of many persons dedicated to the improvement of the world—Gandhi; the Kennedys; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Vieira de Mello, to name a few—have tended to end in dauntingly similar fashion. Have their sacrifices been justified? Why is the price of justice and reform often so dreadfully high, and why are some people always prepared to pay it?