Meditation on a life of mediation

Pilgrimage for Peace
March 20, 1998

Who would be UN secretary-general? Mediation can be a thankless business, as Kofi Annan may be reflecting, in the wake of his recent mission to Baghdad and its less-than-gracious reception in some American quarters. Javier Perez de Cuellar characterises the secretary-generalship as a labour of Sisyphus. But the uphill struggle is scarcely over with retirement. Who would be an ex-secretary general? For Dag Hammarskjold, the second incumbent, mediation was terminal: a plane crash in suspicious circumstances in 1961 ensured that. Trygve Lie and Boutros Boutros-Ghali both stepped down amid disagreement over their ongoing occupancy of the role. Such dissension, however, was nothing compared to the furore which engulfed Kurt Waldheim - Perez de Cuellar's predecessor - concerning his alleged Nazi past.

Whatever else the former secretary-general turns his hand to in retirement (Perez de Cuellar made an unsuccessful bid for the Peruvian presidency in 1995, which left Sisyphus crushed by Alberto Fujimori's landslide), the production of a memoir seems to be de rigueur. As an autobiographical sub-genre, such memoirs have tended to be less than scintillating. Pilgrimage for Peace is no exception, but perhaps this should not surprise us. On his own admission, Perez de Cuellar was not widely regarded, on taking office in 1982, as "an exciting choice for the job". That the polarised Security Council, at the height of the so-called second cold war, managed to agree upon Waldheim's replacement at all was a major achievement.

It is hard to imagine many casual buyers of such a volume, but anyone titillated by the dust-jacket's promise of personal impressions of "the most powerful leaders of the day" should prepare for disappointment. Perez de Cuellar is no Alan Clark, but Clark would have made no secretary-general. Even where he allows himself a moment of mild reproach (Ronald Reagan's ignorance of world affairs was "disconcerting"), Perez de Cuellar is quick to find a redeeming feature. Only Saddam Hussein is less than politely described, as a man of "near maniacal personal ego". Not only did the Iraqi leader famously delay an audience with Perez de Cuellar in January 1991, but, adding insult to injury, made the Peruvian aesthete wait by a giant mural (the beloved leader astride "a distinctly phallic missile in full flight") which "spoke well neither of Saddam's taste nor of his intentions".

These thumbnail sketches, such as they are, form only a minor part of the volume. However, their inhibiting discretion points to a larger problem with the memoir: neither events nor persons, including the author himself, really spring to life. Perez de Cuellar eschews a strictly chronological approach in favour of a continent-by-continent arrangement, foregrounding crises in which he himself played a more substantial role (though he is always modest in evaluating his own contribution). Constantly having to scratch at the euphemistic surface in search of the lifeblood beneath, the reader can be left with the impression that life at the UN was just one damn resolution after another, even if Perez de Cuellar is too polite to put it thus himself. Yet, as he acknowledges, his tenure of office coincided with a period of momentous change in the UN. An organisation that seemed to have foundered against the "slow-moving glacier" of the cold war re-floated as superpower relations unfroze at the end of the 1980s. Perez de Cuellar was thus able to assist in the brokering of a remarkable series of conflict resolutions (some already more durable than others) facilitated by the amelioration in international relations: UN "successes", particularly in southern Africa, central America and Cambodia, are all elucidated.

But the end of the cold war has also given rise to debate about the character and composition of the UN: the legitimacy of "humanitarian interventions", and the complexion of the Security Council being only two of the more contentious issues, even before Perez de Cuellar's retirement in 1992. Ever anxious to avoid controversy, he fights shy of appraisals of the UN's past and speculation as to its likely future. Let us hope Annan combines Perez de Cuellar's ability to steer a middle path with a clear vision of the UN's destination.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Pilgrimage for Peace: A Secretary-General's Memoir

Author - Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
ISBN - 0 333 72242 6
Publisher - McMillan
Price - £29.50
Pages - 518

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