David Rieff, Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute
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DAVID RIEFF: You are not going to get peace in Bosnia until Ratko Mladic and Radovan
Karadzic are in jail. And the United Nations, throughout its three and a half ignominious years
in the former Yugoslavia, was more concerned with keeping on the good side of General Mladic and
Mr. Karadzic than they were in denouncing these people for the war criminals that they were.
KEITH PORTER: A critique of the UN role in Bosnia on this edition of Common
RIEFF: An institution that has no principle of refusal, an institution that can’t say no,
is an institution whose yes, as far as I’m concerned, has very little value.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
For three and a half years the United Nations carried out an unsuccessful effort to keep peace in
Bosnia. Our guest today, David Rieff, says the failure reveals a deep moral problem in the
international system. Rieff is an author, journalist, and Senior Fellow at the World Policy
RIEFF: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I began my life reporting
the Bosnian war in the summer of 1992 as with the conventional liberal sympathies, liberal in
quotation marks perhaps, but liberal nonetheless, for the United Nations. And I must say after
three and a half years of watching the United Nations operate, I feel the United Nations is
fundamentally a waste of hope as the principal world organization for insuring international
peace and security. In other words, as the organization that was set up in San Francisco in 1945,
I have nothing against the United Nations existing as a secondary organization, a kind of larger
version of the organization of African Unity or the Organization of American States. But the
kinds of expectations that the peoples of the world had of the United Nations, as basically the
guarantor of peace and security, have been dashed in Bosnia. Bosnia is the UN’s Vietnam, and I’m
not at all persuaded that the United Nations will recover morally from it.
The problem is fundamentally that the United Nations—as an organization, as a structure, as an
institution—is a walking contradiction. It is meant to be both simply the organization of the
world’s states and, at the same time, it’s moral legitimacy rests on the UN Charter, which is not
a national document but which binds the United Nations to a higher standard of conduct from that
usually undertaken by states. What happened in Bosnia was that the United Nations decided that
the great states concerned—ourselves (Americans), the British, the French, and the European
union to the extent that that organization can be said to exist in any serious sense—had such
contradictory wishes (Russian Federation too of course) that the United Nations in effect
practiced the kind of lowest common denominator politics. It attempted to do as little as
The mandate it received, it should be said in fairness to the United Nations, was internally
contradictory. People wanted the United Nations to help with the provision of humanitarian aid.
At the same time, they wanted this aggressive war. And the Serbs are named as the aggressors in a
number of Security Council resolutions. It’s not simply that people like me, who are sympathetic
to the Bosnian government’s side, thought of them as the aggressors, the Security Council itself
in a number of resolutions and presidential statements, name the Serbs as the aggressors. The
United Nations was expected at once to practice impartial peacekeeping and, as it were, to take
sides and help the Bosnians out. That was an entirely contradictory mandate that would have
failed in any case.
Now in practice the United Nations actually was more sympathetic to the Serbs than it should have
been. What really happened in Bosnia was that the United Nations wanted peace at all costs. The
secretary-general himself has said on a number of occasions that if the choice is between
continuation of war and a settlement that is unjust, he himself believes that an unjust
settlement is preferable. An organization whose chief executive officer can make that statement
has no moral credibility whatsoever. That seems to me a phrase taken out of the worst kind of
conflict resolution mush that has gotten us, frankly, in a lot of trouble. Not all differences
can be resolved by splitting the difference.
PORTER: In the article you wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, you ended that with a
discussion of this concept of peace and justice, whether or not the two can exist. You had your
quote from Judge Goldstone in there. Do you remember that?
RIEFF: It’s not from Judge Goldstone. I believe it’s from the quote that I used directly,
although Goldstone would certainly endorse this quote, is a phrase when an Egyptian legal scholar
who worked as the UN’s war crimes investigator until he was fired by Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
PORTER: You’re correct, it was Cherif Basiouni. You’re right.
RIEFF: Yes. He said, if you want peace, work for justice. The fact is that the UN’s view
is not only amoral, but it’s also fruitless. There’s a phrase attributed to Napoleon about one
particular act where he’s supposed to have said, “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”
Without minimizing the UN’s moral collapse in Bosnia, because frankly that’s really what I think
it was, you can’t have a durable peace without a measure of justice. You couldn’t have had a
durable peace in Europe without Nuremberg. You’re not going to get a durable peace in Rwanda and
Burundi without war criminals, the authors of the genocide, being brought to account, without a
principle of accountability. You’re not going to get peace in Bosnia until Ratko Mladic and
Radovan Karadzic are in jail. The United Nations, throughout its three and a half ignominious
years in the former Yugoslavia, was more concerned with keeping on the good side of General
Mladic and Mr. Karadzic than they were in denouncing these people for the war criminals that they
They made this decision on the basis that they had been mandated by the Security Council to
provide humanitarian aid. The provision of humanitarian aid, they argued, depended on keeping
good relations with all sides and making sure that UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping forces there,
were perceived to be impartial. Therefore, it was just as important to be on good terms with, and
not rile up, these war criminals as it was to remain on good terms with say the Bosnian
government. In other words, to absolutely chart an impartial course between victim and
victimizer. In terms of the strict letter of the mandate, they may be right. At that point,
people like me began to think (and as I said I came from a position of relative sympathy for the
United Nations), if that’s all they can do, what do we need them for.
PORTER: One of the questions I had for you was whether or not peacekeeping as an
instrument was the proper instrument to choose in this case and if that can be labeled as one of
the early mistakes, perhaps, in the UN’s involvement in Bosnia?
RIEFF: Sure. Obviously it was one of the mistakes. You can’t send peacekeepers, at least
as peacekeeping is conventionally defined, to enforce a peace that doesn’t exist. But you see the
Security Council is always going to want to use the United Nations; and, if the secretary-general
is more concerned with his own reelection than with saying publicly—because it doesn’t matter
what people say privately (for all the talk of private diplomacy and back channels), as long as
you don’t engage the public. The great powers are always going to have their way. UN officials
often say in mitigation of their own behavior, well of course in private we said this was a lousy
idea. I’m sure they did. In fact, I know they did. But that doesn’t matter, because that’s like
saying its a kind of pro forma declaration in real terms. That’s already acceding to the idea
that you’re going to do what you’re told.
Again, an institution that has no principle of refusal, an institution that can’t say no, is an
institution who’s yes, as far as I’m concerned, has very little value. Of course peacekeeping was
the wrong tool. Lots of people in the Secretariat knew it, as well as the Department of
Peacekeeping Operations; but they continued to insist throughout the Bosnia mission that, in
terms of the mandate they’d been given, they were succeeding. Then you said, but look, things are
worse in Bosnia today than they were two years ago. They would say, yes. But we weren’t asked to
solve the Bosnian war; we were asked to fulfill this mandate, and just because this mandate is an
unimportant element in this story doesn’t mean we failed.
That may be all very well in a kind of Whitewater hearing when Mr. Ickes doesn’t deny but doesn’t
confirm that the memos, statements attributed to him, are his and may be a very wise way to
proceed when being cross-examined by a hostile attorney. They really don’t complement an
organization which depends on its moral legitimacy, its moral credibility, to survive. The UN
people have lost sight of that, particularly under the present incumbent Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
The United Nations is really very little more than a servicing Secretariat. It just does what the
great powers tell it to do.
There is a kind of complacency around there. The UN officials will actually tell you in private
that they think they’re the real victims of the Bosnian war. This strikes me as a bit of moral
grotesquery, which makes it very hard for me to care very much whether the United Nations
survives or collapses. I must say, although I’m probably not critical of the United Nations for
the same reasons that the American right is critical of it, I take a certain pleasure in the
bashing that the United Nations is taking from the American right and from the Republican Party;
because I tend to think that they richly deserve it.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with David Rieff. His most
recent book is titled, Slaughter House: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. Audio
cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
I have two paths I’m going down here. One of them is still more specifics on peacekeeping. So I
want to ask you one more question about that, because you write in that article, “The
peacekeeping function of the United Nations in general, not just in Bosnia, is morally bankrupt
and an idea whose time has passed.” Does it include the other peace elements that Boutros-Ghali
spelled out in an agenda for peace: peacemaking, peace enforcement, all of that stuff? Are those
ideas morally bankrupt as well?
RIEFF: No, I don’t think they are. What makes peacekeeping a morally bankrupt idea is
precisely the thing that peacekeeping officials insist is its essence, and that is impartiality.
If what you’re saying is, can we have peacekeeping along the lines we had in Cyprus? That is, can
we have a cease fire and afterwards have United Nations blue helmets patrolling a quiet
confrontation? Well sure, of course we can. But does anyone seriously think that that is a
function that will be very important in the conflict we face today or the conflicts that are
coming? I would submit that that is a very trivial function and one that frankly regional
organizations could fulfill just as easily.
Incidentally, I’m not at all persuaded that a world body in a decentralized world is the smartest
way to go. We moved in some ways rather unwisely from the correct perception that the problems of
the world could not be solved by each nation individually to the idea that one world body could
solve those problems. My own view would be a series of regional organizations with some kind of
coordination, which is much more likely to make a difference than an organization in which the
views of the delegate from Sri Lanka on Bosnia or the views of the delegate from Iceland on Sri
Lanka have to be taken seriously. I really don’t see how that makes the world a better place,
either functionally or morally. But, look, the secretary-general’s agenda for peace is a wildly
ambitious document, and I think that he misunderstood the nature of the world we live in. The
fact is that peacekeeping was extended in the mind of the secretary-general and the minds of his
subordinates, and in the minds of many foreign international diplomats and politicians, to be a
kind of cure-all. At best, it can be a very small part of a solution to any serious crisis.
The reason I think it is an idea whose time has past is because of what was revealed in Bosnia,
and frankly in Rwanda as well (I spent a fair bit of time in Rwanda during the killing period),
was that a solution which entails the absolute inability to make moral distinctions between
victims and victimizers? It seems to me it is an absolutely useless (or largely useless) tool,
because what we’re going to face in what I’ve called in other contexts an age of genocide are
situations where moral criteria, the claims of each side are going to have to be weighed. You’re
not going to be able to do this kind of international relations schools splitting the difference,
saying everything is fungible, insisting that if people just are cooped up long enough in a room
they can come to an agreement. You can get an agreement. There’s no trouble locking people up in
a room, assuming there’s a great power to do it and getting some kind of deal. The issue is
whether that deal will hold. The deal based on this kind of moral blindness can’t hold. So I do
think peacekeeping is finished as an idea.
If we’re going to talk in properly detailed terms about the United Nations, Chapter VII
operations are simply a UN warrant for some coalition of great powers unopposed within the UN
structure by some other coalition of great powers, in other words unvetoed, to go and kick ass
somewhere. That’s what Chapter VII amounts to. It amounts to simply a group of powers with the
accent of the Security Council doing what great powers have always done, which is intervene and
work their will. And that can be for good or for ill. I see no reason to think that a Chapter VII
operation, just because it has a blue flag covering it, is going to be morally superior to just a
power deciding that its interests are at stake in some region and intervening. A term like
intervention, as far as I’m concerned, is a fairly value-neutral term. The question is what’s the
content of the intervention. Just as a term like war or peace to me is a term that I want much
more attached to, unlike the people at the United Nations or a lot of diplomats. What kind of
peace? What kind of war?
As far as conflict resolution or preventive diplomacy, in all candor, I think these are the buzz
words of this period. I don’t think they amount to much. You’re never going to have a world, I
don’t believe, any usable time frame. You can tell me in 400 years we might, and I could say to
you I think in 400 years we’ll have some kind of space age feudalism that’ll make today look
civilized. But you know, in the usable future whose outlines we can already to some extent see,
although obviously there are many surprises in store, it seems to be self-evident that countries
are not going to care very much about the fate of too many foreign places. And preventive
diplomacy only works if the people on the ground feel that these far away great powers are really
concerned. Just because Jimmy Carter shows up doesn’t mean people are going to stop killing. What
matters is if Jimmy Carter shows up as in Haiti and people know that unless they make a deal with
him the 82nd Airborne is on its way. That’s when, for all my disagreements with him, a guy like
Carter can play a useful role. My friend Herb Oken, who is Cyrus Vance’s deputy in the Vance-Owen
period of the Bosnian negotiations, often says that diplomacy without a threat of force is like
baseball without a bat. I’m afraid in the savage world we live in that’s simply an accurate
PORTER: Let’s talk about the secretary-general more or less as a physician instead of a
man. You said that in this case the secretary-general showed no moral passion, not a breath of
indignation in regard to the Bosnian tragedy. If a future secretary-general were to show moral
passion or indignation over any situation he or she faced, would it make a difference?
RIEFF: It could make a difference. It’s not written in the stars that it must make a
difference. I would take a minimalist approach in answering that question and say that it’s at
least possible it could make a difference. Any secretary-general who wants to be reelected is
never going to make a difference. To those unlike myself, who care if the United Nations
survives. I’m agnostic. It can disappear. It’ll be bad for the economy of New York, the city I
live in, but apart from that I don’t think it’ll affect very much. Institutions like UNICEF and
the UNHCR can exist perfectly well as stand-alone institutions. So it seems to me within the UN
system they’re the ones doing a good job.
PORTER: I was going to ask you about that, because we’ve been focusing on the security
side of this. What about the humanitarian side? Do you cut the United Nations some slack on the
RIEFF: Sure. I have always defended, and indeed I’ve spent a lot of time praising, UNHCR
PORTER: The High Commission for Refugees.
RIEFF: UN High Commission for Refugees.
PORTER: And UNICEF, the Children’s Fund.
RIEFF: And UNICEF, the Children’s Fund. Those two institutions do extremely good work.
The record of the UN Development Programme is much more mixed. There I really do fully subscribe
to the right wing critique of development aid. Development aid simply doesn’t work. I’m not sure
again that the right wing solution, which is of capital formation, is really practicable. I’m not
persuaded that this notion that you just give the market democracy and presto you’ve got civil
societies. As one sometimes hears that in its more extreme and caricatural form really works. The
example of China should teach us that capitalism is a very complicated, multifaceted structure of
social organization and that it comes in many forms. It comes in the sort of liberal democratic
form that Western Europe and North America pretty much enjoy, but it also comes in a very
authoritarian and antidemocratic form as in China. I’m not sure that one necessarily leads to the
other, which is the sort of hopeful view of some people.
Those who want to preserve the United Nations and the institution of the secretary-general should
first and foremost campaign for the term to be limited to one term, even if it’s longer than its
current term. You could make a one seven-year term. But one of the biggest problems is that
whatever they say before they’re elected to their first term, once they’re in office and both
Perez de Cuellar are and Boutros-Ghali came into office saying perhaps they would only have one
term. By the end of that first term they were campaigning like crazy. Once you’re campaigning
like crazy, you’re just going to do what the great powers tell you to do and keep your mouth shut
when opening it would displease the great powers.
Again, given the fragmented nature of our world, the fact that we don’t live anymore in a bipolar
world in which you only have perhaps two masters to please. Now if opening your mouth in this
fragmented world, it’s bound to offend somebody. That creates kind of inertia and conformity. So
it seems to me realistically the first thing to do is to get that term limit. At that point at
least you have the possibility that someone can grow in the office. I don’t want to give the
impression, having attacked the United Nations, that I’m naive about what the great powers want
it to be. The great powers also want a compliant, weak secretary-general. Certainly Dag
Hammarskjold, the one independent secretary-general, would never have been allowed to assume the
post had people understood what he was going to do. They thought they had a kind of faceless
Scandinavian bureaucrat, and instead they got this great man. I grant that the person appointed
to the secretary-generalship is always going to be less than a perfect choice. But at least as
happens so often in this country with Supreme Court Justices, and not always but certainly from
time to time (regularly)…or with John the XXIII, you can have someone elected who then grows in
the job. That person has to have the freedom to act.
You asked before whether I thought that certain of the specialized institutions, the aid
institutions, were better. I would insist that they are better, but having said that the United
Nations was constructed as Senator Moynahan has said on more than one occasion, as an
international security organization, not an international seed distributing organization. Whether
we need this vast structure, and frankly this kind of internationalization of political life
simply to do development aid, I am not entirely persuaded by it. I think that a lot of the
NGOs—Medcins san Frontiers, the International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children—are doing
very important work. I don’t know that they need the United Nations to do this work. In fact, it
seems to me if they really need the United Nations, they’re in trouble. In those instances where
they need either the military protection of UN peacekeepers as in Bosnia or the logistical help
of national armies as in Rwanda, the mission is bound to be a very unsuccessful one or at least
it’s going to have mixed results. That also needs to be factored in when one is talking about
some future international system.
PORTER: That is David Rieff, author, journalist, and Senior Fellow at the World Policy
Institute. For Common Ground I’m Keith Porter.
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