Air Date: March 12, 1996 Program 9611
David Rieff, Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute
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
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 Institute.
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 possible.
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
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
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
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
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 humanitarian side?
RIEFF: Sure. I have always defended, and indeed I've spent a lot of time
praising, UNHCR in particular.
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
PORTER: That is David Rieff, author, journalist, and Senior Fellow at the
World Policy Institute. For Common Ground I'm Keith Porter. Cassettes of
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