Monday, February 25, 2013

The Theory of Cumulative Cowardice

In response to the post on Moral Palsy at the United Nations, a reader sent me a list of books on psychopathology.

I am sorry if I gave the impression that psychopaths run the UN.

That is not the case.

The individuals in the top echelons of the organization are generally people who do empathize with the poor and needy of the world.

The only UN official I would categorize without hesitation as a true psychopath is Kurt Waldheim, who had a Nixonian disconnect from other people.

That assessment is not just because Waldheim lied throughout his diplomatic career about serving with an SS unit accused of war crimes in Yugoslavia during World War II. (He was able to get away with it because the CIA seems to have recruited him immediately after the end of hostilities. For details see the section on the UN in 1001 Things Every Indian Should Know)

My experience of his certifiable insanity was up close and personal.

It happened because early in my UN career, unseen Powers that Be detailed me to the four member team that wrote the official report of the first World Conference on the Human Habitat held in Vancouver, Canada.

Heading the team was Robert Rhodes James, Waldheim’s speechwriter, with whom I had an instant rapport, cemented after he concocted a nonsensical speech by the fictitious leader of a nonexistent country and got back a Unese version from the blonde bombshell member of the team.

After the conference, Robert would occasionally ask me to draft speeches for the Secretary-General, especially about the New International Economic Order, the demand by developing countries for an overhaul of the iniquitous “rules of the game” governing world order.

I never met Waldheim while writing his speeches, but did so at a farewell event in the Secretary-General's offices when Robert was quitting the UN to run for a seat in the British Parliament.

The encounter was memorable for several reasons. Upon seeing Robert standing with a woman at the entrance to the Secretary-General's Boardroom, I assumed she was his wife, a mistake instantly corrected by a murderous look from her chilly blue eyes. She was Mrs. Waldheim.

Shaken and stirred, I repaired to the far end of the room and was seeking solace in a bowl of chips when the Secretary-General emerged from the door beside me.

He offered his hand and I shook it, introducing myself. Waldheim made a slow circle of the room, shaking hands, and within about 15 minutes – there were only about 20 people present including his own staff – he was back where I was. He stuck out his hand again and again I shook it muttering who I was. After another perambulation around the room he reappeared at my side again, and yet again I told him who I was and shook his hand. After a short speech thanking Robert for his services, Waldheim made his way back to his inner office, once again stopping to shake my hand en route. Throughout, he had the same pasted on smile.

I thought it was hilarious then, but in retrospect it is scary.

No one else I met in four decades at the UN, except perhaps a Canadian Under-Secretary-General of Public Information, came close to Waldheim’s level of lunacy.

With the general run of senior UN staff the problem is not pathological; it has to do with what I call cumulative cowardice.

It is a phenomenon readily observable in any UN office – perhaps in any national bureaucracy as well. At the lower, working levels of the organization where staff research and write official reports, the focus is substantive. The authors of reports have no compunctions about defending the integrity of their work; but as their drafts ascend the hierarchy for clearance, the focus shifts. Increasingly, those who read them are concerned not with substance but with the responses of member States. Finely attuned to prevailing political sensitivities, they adapt texts and decisions to minimize negative responses. Their directive principle is cowardice. A call from an influential Ambassador can reduce most Under-Secretary-Generals to jelly.

Because of that, senior UN staff have little integrity. They seek to please governments that could, if displeased, make their lives miserable and crimp their careers. They are unconcerned with morality or the long term impact of their decisions. Their personal moral sense is drowned in the unconscionable collective.

The United Nations does much good and it deserves our respect because it incarnates the universal and enduring hope of world peace.

But we cannot understand its failures without acknowledging that it also exemplifies in its daily life the "banality of evil," the phrase that Hannah Arendt used to describe how ordinary people came to support the horrors perpetrated on Jews in Nazi Germany.

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