Unvanquished: A UN-US saga, Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Random House, 1999, 368 pages, C$28.00 tpb, ISBN 0-812-99204-0

(Read in French as Mes Années à la maison de verre , translated by Simone Dreyfus)

2003 was, all things considered, perhaps the worst year on record for relations between the United Nations and the United States. (Of course, some will say it was also the worst year for relations between the US and the rest of the world.) Even the most geopolitically unaware citizen couldn’t miss the headlines: UN withdraws inspectors from Baghdad. Bush ignores UN Security Council. US invades Iraq. The US, secure in its position as the world’s sole remaining superpower, felt justified in ignoring, even belittling the UN whenever it didn’t agree with the wishes of the White House, even as a majority of Americans we in favour of UN approval. But then again, the Bush administration was never too keen on diplomatic relations where it didn’t get to dictate the results.

UN-bashing is hardly a new thing, though, nor is it an invention of the Bush II administration. Given W’s rotten record on just about everything, it’s hard to remember that the Clinton administration also played a number of dirty tricks on the UN, ignoring and dismissing it whenever it served its purposes. In Unvanquished , former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recounts his five years spent at the helm of the organization between 1992 and 1996, and how the United States did their best to undermine him and his work. Those tensions would eventually lead to the American veto of a second mandate… and a revealing memoir that pulls few punches.

Unvanquished thus doubles as a meaty high-level description of the state of the world circa 1992-1996, a turbulent period stuck between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror. For the UN it’s a period characterized by more ambitious peacekeeping missions and a stronger emphasis on international cooperation on development and environmental issues. Boutros-Ghali’s strong influence as a committed internationalist and a defender of the third-world is not a coincidence to these new roles for the UN.

As a straight geopolitical treatise, there’s little doubt that Unvanquished can be boring, maybe even a bit redundant. It’s as a biography that it shines most brightly. How does one man feel after taking the helm of such an organization? What does he think when he talks to heads of state, when he visits war zones? Boutros-Ghali emerges from his autobiography as a uniquely sympathetic individual, a man at the helm of an organization constantly threatened by the selfish political ambition of people destined for the dustbin of history. US diplomat Madeleine Albright is particularly singled out as a hypocrite; Clinton himself doesn’t shine too brightly from Boutros-Ghali’s perspective. Ironically, then-humbler US diplomat John Bolton (whose 2005 nomination as US ambassador to the UN would create a firestorm of controversy, to say nothing of his scorched-earth tenure) has an amusing cameo with a fairly sympathetic quote. Canadian Prime Ministers also make one-line appearances: Mulroney is criticized; Chrétien is not.

It adds up to a slightly overlong book, but one that contains a surprising number of small nuggets. It’s a must-read for whoever wants to understand the nature of the UN-US antagonism (including the US’s perennial refusal to pay its financial contribution to the organization), and it’s a surprisingly enjoyable primer on high-level diplomacy. Boutros-Ghali is an effective narrator, and his vision of the UN as a global mediator is a ray of optimism.

The French-Language edition of Unvanquished is closer to a revised second edition of the text than a simple translation: Fluently francophone, Boutros-Ghali revised the translation and used the opportunity to revise and clarify some material. The result flows well, within the caveats described above, and proves once more why French has long remained the language of high-level diplomacy.

Reading the book from a perspective five years removed ends up telling us more about the events of the book than a 1999 read would have. As a convinced internationalist (hey, I’m Canadian), Unvanquished does little to disprove the notion that the UN is a relevant body that will only grow stronger. Even latter events tend to support the notion; even the deep wounds left by the madcap rush to invade Iraq have done little to diminish the UN’s reputation outside the United States. Even as I write this, historians are grumbling about Bush being the worst president in a long while, even as the UN seems to be accommodating Bolton’s fiery ambassadorship. In four years, do you want to be who’s going to be left standing? UN-vanquished? Don’t bet on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *