We gave it a B+
Who killed the UN? Who cares who killed the UN? Not for decades, as most people would agree, has the institution been a major player in world affairs; lately it has been an object of nearly universal derision — and among the least coveted of all journalistic assignments. Shirley Hazzard is daunted by none of this in Countenance of Truth, a brief, mordant study of UN history. She succeeds in making the present state of an irrelevant ”world organization” not only salient and instructive but, at moments, close to fascinating.
Primarily interested in the complicated human and moral factors that figure in UN impotence, Hazzard inserts details of individual psychology, of lifestyle, even of salary scales into the geopolitical big picture. Her narrative traces the fate of the institution to self-sabotage as well as to deeds of superpower Cold Warriors and jingos. The killing emerges as, in significant measure, an inside job — a case of murder by mind-set.
The author’s knowledge of this mind-set derives from experience: She worked for 10 years in a junior position at UN headquarters in Manhattan. But there’s little autobiographical indulgence in these pages. Hazzard focuses on a series of issues arising from the decade-long reign of Kurt Waldheim as secretary-general. How could an official with a Nazi past and knowledge of wartime atrocities rise to such a post? How could a secretary-general with a record of extending ”favors prominently, and outrageously to Soviet interests” escape criticism from within the UN?
The standard answers have been that Waldheim was the Soviet Union’s puppet: The Soviets knew he had a past to hide and assumed he could be blackmailed. Hazzard’s answers begin elsewhere with the UN’s loss of the right to choose its own staff and develop its own criteria for assessing performance. In the ’50s, Trygve Lie, the first UN head, cut a deal with the McCarthy-terrorized U.S. State Department to hire and fire Americans in accordance with secret U.S. directives. The concept of the UN staff as a body of intellectually distinguished and proudly independent workers for the world’s good quickly shriveled; the staff became a dumping ground for party hacks from all over the world.
And the absence of both an impersonal merit system and professionals energized by serious moral and intellectual commitments meant that the values of the neighborhood adjacent to the UN took command. The adjacent neighborhood was chic Manhattan. UN salaries and perks went through the roof. High living stimulated convictions of superiority and instilled certainty that expressions of doubt about UN policies and leaders reflected nothing but the envy of the excluded.
It was vanity, in short, that rendered the UN incapable of achieving self-knowledge; self-love prevented it from facing the facts either about Waldheim’s past and present misdeeds or about the larger problem of its own uselessness.
A first-class fiction writer, Shirley Hazzard is less troubled by inconsistencies than most political argufiers; some details included in Countenance of Truth don’t unambiguously support the book’s conclusions. And although the author comments usefully on ways of starting over with a world organization, profiting from lessons of the UN’s past, her observations aren’t informed by awareness of the extraordinary international events of the past six months.
But this distance from the world’s breaking stories is a source of strength — and of literary distinction. The book is composed in an elegantly cutting prose in which feeling, not rhetoric, drives the blade. At least one of Hazzard’s mini-portraits — of Conor Cruise O’Brien, beamish panegyrist of UN failures — is touched with fine 18th-century ferocity. And the indictment of Waldheim’s deceit, shallowness, and ”fawnings on tyrants” is built on marvelously apposite quotations from Milton and Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot.
Once or twice the author allows herself to remember the intense anticipation with which yesteryear’s youngsters came to their UN jobs, often forgetting to ask practical questions about their pay. Hazzard’s brief against the UN comes alive movingly at these moments. They’re a reminder that shrugging off the ideal of a ”people’s parliament” could amount — even now — to shrugging off the future of hope. B+