William Shawcross spent much of the 1990s observing the innumerable activities of the United Nations in close proximity to Kofi Annan, a man constantly to be seen wringing his hands at the imperfect state of the world and at his infinite capacity to allow things to get worse. Based on his privileged access to Annan and to other movers and shakers in the so-called "international community", Shawcross has written a firsthand and readable account of the dramas in which the UN has been involved recently, from Iraq to Bosnia, from Somalia to Sierra Leone, from Cambodia to Rwanda, and from Kosovo to East Timor. In so doing, and without that being his primary intention, he has found himself chronicling the UN's twilight years, the sad prelude to a decline into irrelevance and senility.
Shawcross has too many residual liberal reflexes, and is too close to the world of UN officialdom, to take such a radical view himself. But as he describes the succession of "peacekeeping" crises from his ringside seat as a participant observer, few readers would fail to receive the implicit message loud and clear. These shameful episodes of bungled humanitarian intervention will never be repeated in quite the same way. The archaic and malfunctioning organisation that allowed them to happen will eventually, like Esperanto, that other great utopian dream of the 19th century, wither quietly on the vine.
Shawcross believes that he has been a witness to the emergence of a new phenomenon in the post-cold war era. He sees a world in which evil warlords fight over the territory of once viable states, terrorising their own populations and spoiling the night-time entertainment of more distant populations watching their television screens. He joins in the simplistic demonisation of these opponents of western globalism, perceiving them as warlords, satraps, dictators and demagogues, though he is careful not to follow Blair and Clinton in calling them "new Hitlers".
The names are all familiar from the newspapers of the last decade: Saddam Hussein and Milosevic; Tudjman and Karadzic; Pol Pot and Mohammed Aideed; Foday Sankoh and Raoul Cedras; Jonas Savimbi and Laurent Kabila. Like the old music-hall audience, the reader is expected to boo and hiss at every mention of their names. This has become the shorthand of much contemporary journalism, and some people clearly think that this is the only way in which the complicated politics of foreign countries can be portrayed to the casual viewer and reader.
Yet, when seen in a longer time frame, the phenomenon that Shawcross identifies seems strikingly familiar. The old European empires were also faced with seemingly bizarre potentates who behaved in strange ways and danced to the beat of a different drum. In dealing with recalcitrant leaders, the colonial powers had a similar technique to that used today. They too would demonise the enemy, accusing him of slave-trading, piracy, human sacrifice, and the slaughter of Christians. Then they would invade and lay waste to the territory of this subhuman foe, attacking from the sea or bombing from the air, to the accompaniment of enthusiastic plaudits from leader-writers at home.
The League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN, was essentially a league of colonial powers, set up to ensure that intercolonial disputes did not affect their interests or lead to a general war of the kind that had occurred in 1914. The UN was the heir to this legacy, and over the years, rather to its surprise, it has taken up the white man's burden, exhibiting many of the characteristics of a traditional imperial power. UN representatives in Bosnia and Kosovo now act as colonial governors. Proliferating non-governmental organisations (NGOs), replicate the quarrelling and sectarian missionaries of an earlier epoch. The Security Council often meets as though the Congress of Berlin of 1884-85, which started the "scramble for Africa", were still in permanent session.
Dean Acheson, one of the architects of the cold-war world, titled his memoirs In at the Creation, and Shawcross has a similar theme as he records the Security Council's resurrection of the colonial pattern. Deliver us from Evil has a comparably scriptural title and serves as a reminder of the power of the religious themes that still lie beneath the surface of our secular world. "Onward Christian [or Muslim] Soldiers" still powers many of the world's conflicts, and not least the intervention forces of the UN itself. Romeo Dallaire, the UN general from Canada who watches helplessly as Rwanda slides towards genocide, notes evocatively how he feels "the ghost of Gordon of Khartoum watching over me . . .", and Shawcross tells us that Kofi Annan is a "practising Christian".
Beyond the immediate circle of UN personnel, there stands the great sentimental mush of western public opinion, heir to centuries of missionary brainwashing and easily preyed on by leader-writers and the producers of television programmes. This was the input into the new world order that its creators had not reckoned on, and it now serves to destabilise the efforts of diplomats (mostly the British and the Americans) to finesse solutions behind closed doors. Shawcross is right to blame the gung-ho members of the Security Council for often promising more than Annan's team could possibly deliver, but the blame lies equally with the exaggerated expectations of the television audience in the west and with the over-inflated hopes of oppressed peoples everywhere.
During the colonial era, the subject peoples often remained in a state of subjection because they had been led to believe that the European empires could summon up forces for immediate deployment in any part of the globe. This was not so, but the belief was deeply imbedded and invited passivity. In the past half-century, their heirs have been fed with hope by a comparable fable about the United Nations. Its existence and its inflated rhetoric conjures up the notion that well-meaning soldiers in blue berets can easily be called up to come to their rescue. This, too, is a myth. Salvation lies in local struggles, not in international intervention.
Shawcross, sadly, has lost the polemical touch that animated some of his earlier books, and he keeps his powder dry. This is, ultimately, an uncourageous book. Time was when Shawcross would excoriate Henry Kissinger for paving the road towards Pol Pot. Now he is obliged to faintly admire the old rogue, who has plausibly suggested that the construction of the nation state was a useful corrective to the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Overriding it may prove to be an error. Shawcross seems to nod with tacit approval. He does so, too, when quoting a comment of Edward Luttwak, who argued that governments should resist "the emotional impulse to intervene in other people's wars". Such wars may eventually bring a more satisfactory resolution to a political conflict than the interim peace that outsiders impose.
Shawcross's conservative instincts, and much of his reportage, might have led him towards a non-interventionist position of this kind, and would have turned his book from a bland account of innumerable aeroplane journeys into an important contribution to a continuing debate. He has so many chums in the international aid agencies and the NGOs, as well as in the diplomatic services, that he gives the impression of finding it hard to declare their work to be fruitless or counterproductive.