Steven Erlanger

Death and Diplomacy

VTR Date: September 26, 2003

Guest: Erlanger, Steven


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Steven Erlanger
Title: “Death and Diplomacy”
VTR: 9/26/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and whenever it is you see this program, we record it here in New York at the end of September, 2003 … even as world leaders gather as they do each year just blocks away from us at the United Nations, whose so-called bureaucracy, whose career employees have so long now been an object of opportunitistic derision by self-serving American commentators and politicians.

Last month among two dozen other United Nations workers and international aid specialists, two in particular died in Baghdad, crushed under the rubble of the Canal Hotel, the makeshift headquarters of the UN in Iraq.

As my guest, Steven Erlanger wrote in the incredibly moving piece in the New York Times: “One, a Brazilian, looked like Hollywood’s notion of a diplomat … slender, graying, elegant with a touch of an accent in the many languages he spoke. One and Egyptian, a hard living, hard drinking, hard smoking, hard thinking specialist in managing chaos.

Further Mr. Erlanger wrote: “He, the Brazilian, Sergio Vieira de Mello 55 and she the Egyptian, Nadia Younes , 57 were career employees of that United Nations bureaucracy, cheerfully despised by so many Americans. Yet they were in Baghdad very reluctantly in the service of a war the United Nation’s Security Council refused to sanction, trying to organize the post-war mess and help Americans and the British create a new, democratic life for Iraqis.

Well, I didn’t realize when I read and was so moved and so angered by his piece, that Steven Erlanger is now Cultural News Editor of The Times and he’ll forgive me at what so scanned much so much better for me is the fact that he is in fact, Hollywood’s notion of the classic foreign correspondent … at various stages of his career, The New York Times Berlin correspondent; its Bureau Chief for Central Europe and the Balkans; it’s Moscow Bureau Chief; its Bangkok bureau Chief and Southeast Asia correspondent.

Well, earlier, Mr. Erlanger had run more or less the same gamut for the Boston Globe, and I feel no wonder than that his familiarity with and his feelings for the man and women of the UN, who most recently give their lives last month, should be so poignant.

As he wrote about the Brazilian and the Egyptian … “over the years both have been transformed in that strange and careful dance of journalists and sources into cherished friends of mine”. And I, I guess what occurs to me to ask you first is what your own feelings must be when you come back to this country and find that these people, United Nations employees are so poorly thought of by so many Americans.

ERLANGER: Well we have our own politics here. Every country has it. And our politics get wrapped up … because we only really have two parties we contain lots of fringe ideas, lots of passions get articulated and then over the process of our elections softened.

But one of the ways Republicans and Democrats yell at each other and compete with each other is over the American role in the world and the role of the United Nations.

And I just find it very bizarre, I mean, as a country after the Second World War we were instrumental in setting up the United Nations. We understood the failures of the League of Nations … from which we kept our distance, and Congress kept its distance. And we thought, you know, as a nation, a bipartisan thought that the world would be a safer and better place tied, as best as possible into a network of international law and international organizations.

But as we’ve become, you know, a more hyper-powered country as the, as the Cold War ended, as our great rivalry with the Soviet Union fell apart and we sit on the stage unchallenged, unchallenged by anyone in terms of our economic and, and military might. Suddenly we seem to be less generous in our instincts; less willing to comprehend what the rest of the world wants and thinks of us.

And in a way more vulnerable; more vulnerable to small groups, to groups of terrorists; more vulnerable at home through technology and in a way, more frightened. So coming back after 9/l1 which, I think, changed this country quite a great deal …I, I’ve come back to what I feel is a kind of defensive nationalism, which is, is not always thoughtful and not always generous. And what we have as part of that was a long-standing Conservative Republic attack on international organizations and institutions, the UN being among them.

And I’ve always found it ironic because, in general, the UN is dominated by the United States. It’s dominated by the Security Council, which is dominated by the West. And you know, it’s … it is looking for ways, largely to help us. And these two people were quite remarkable people … came from different ends of the earth; had one real belief. Not in the United Nations as the supreme authority of the world, but in the belief that international law helped, that it was an answer to places of tyranny; that it was a; it was a way to create a little bit of amelioration in a very nasty world. And they gave their lives for it. And they gave their lives, as I said, which you so nicely quoted, for a war that the United Nations itself never sanctioned.

Why were they there? They were there in a way to help us clean up the dirty dishes that every war creates. They were there because the United States needed a wider mandate, a wider moral mandate to try to build in Iraq a country worth having fought a war to have. And they died for it. And I felt their deaths should be honored and not despised.

HEFFNER: You did, indeed, honor them in that piece. And yet it leaves my puzzled as a I began to understand more about your own background as that classic … I couldn’t help but think of Joel McCrae … in “Foreign Correspondent” … is there a certain mindset that makes for these two international public servants and the kinds of journalists they come to know? People who do find themselves overseas, so to speak …


HEFFNER: … and very much more involved in the mechanisms of other countries and the interrelationships. Is there, is there a mindset?

ERLANGER: Well there is and there’s probably a kind of personality. You know, I mean, obviously they tend to be people, it’s certainly true of myself … who really are uncomfortable at home; who are uncomfortable with a certain kind of stability; who just think the world is bigger than what we knew it was when we were growing up. And who have a kind of insatiable curiosity and fascination with the exoticism of “out there”. And I, I think that’s what drives people to travel and it drives people to travel outside the bounds of the travel industry.

And, you know, I grew up, you know, with the Vietnam War raging and, you know, the world imposed itself on me, but I embraced it. I grew up in a very kind of stable, suburban family in Connecticut. And I, I loved it, you know, I couldn’t wait to leave it. And so, one embraces the world and its problems. There’s something also about societies in chaos, in transition, they’re very instructive.

I mean, everyone has problems and it’s problems with the boss or problems with, you know, the sister, or problems with whatever. But you see a society with real problems and it’s a kind of useful perspective. I mean it’s better than any psychiatrist, I should have thought. You know, it’s … you see people with their super-egos stripped away in war. You see people as they are, as human material. Sometimes you see them blown across the landscape; that teaches you a certain lesson. But you also see them with their lives spun around, turned upside down, without homes, without clothes … children without enough food. And there needs to be, somehow, an agency, some sort of mechanism to nurse these societies and help them restore a semblance of real life.

And that’s true about politics; it’s not just about charity here. And so I, I watched these people … Sergio, Nadia and their kind … drawn to the world as an interesting thing … drawn to the UN as an idea of betterment. You know they are very cynical people, they know what’s possible and what’s not. But, but drawn simply to this very strange notion that the world is a needy place and they could do their part.

I mean Sergio I met when he was dealing with “boat people”, with Southeast Asian refugees. Nadia was an Egyptian, who had, you know, worked a lot in health issues, refugee issues. And I, you know, she I met mostly in Kosovo, you know. And Kosovo, if you read Madeline Albright’s book, you know, she thinks it was the best thing that ever happened. If you listen to Wesley Clark, you know, it’s the basis on which he’s running a Presidential campaign.

But Kosovo like every war was a mess and it was very confusing and it was morally ambiguous; and it’s end results were morally ambiguous and, you know, and the UN was thrown in to try to make it better, but also to try to get it off the political screen of, of governments with other things to do; it’s what happened in Bosnia, too.

So, you know, they had no, no misplaced idealism at what they were doing, but they knew Kosovo, like Bosnia, like Southeast Asia, like Cambodia, like many of the other wounded spots of the earth, you know, needed outside help, not just to feed themselves, but to govern themselves; to understand how, what it meant to be free societies. That’s an on-going process.

HEFFNER: Did they, and do you, see the United Nations as a kind of, kind of the agency for ambiguity? For cleaning up messes, as you write here?

ERLANGER: Well, I do. I mean, you know, it’s a big institution and it has its bureaucratic necessities and, you know, it probably has far too many people in New York compared to the number of people it has elsewhere. It’s also, you know, an organization that I think has developed a bit of hubris, which it needs to be careful about. It has tried to take on too much. I think Kofi Annan also has tried to take on too much.

HEFFNER: Take on too much or been assigned too much?

ERLANGER: Well, a little of both. I mean it is only … you know, you know, it can be assigned, but it also has to willingly volunteer. And I think, you know, what it tried to do in Cambodia, it didn’t do a very good job at it. And it’s not done a wonderful job in Bosnia. It’s done a slightly better job in Kosovo. It’s sort of learning its way. But what it needs to understand is, you know, unless the commitment from the big powers is there to sustain that kind of, of activity and development, the UN can be stuck with the blame that goes with the failure or the “not-very-well-carrying-out” of this assignment that it so cheerfully took on.

HEFFNER: But it seems to me that that’s the nature of the question that I asked. That we know that great nations will come and will go in terms of their interests, their concerns; their local … their own politics and political drives. Haven’t we here created this gigantic agency for handling ambiguity? When the others take us into these messes, we know they’re going to withdraw as well, and there is the UN.

ERLANGER: You know, I agree with that. And I, I’m … I’m not trying to dodge the question; it’s just that you can be an institution, handle ambiguity, but it doesn’t teach you how to handle it.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Then you do believe there are better ways than the UN has learned thus far?

ERLANGER: Well, I think the UN is learning. I mean it’s question… I mean the UN is taking on a nation=building role that it actually hadn’t done in its short history, let’s remember. I mean there were UN protectorates, you know. I mean that sometimes worked better than others. The UN took on the mission of protecting enclaves in Bosnia and not only failed, but failed so deeply; the moral failure was so extreme …

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “moral failure”?

ERLANGER: Because it promised people protection and it did not protect them and thousands of them were murdered.


ERLANGER: And there’s a moral responsibility there. And, and you know, frankly I surprised most of the top leadership of the UN didn’t resign immediately. But they did at least take lessons seriously …Koffi Anan, you know, later one did a serious investigation into the failures of what the UN had done in Bosnia and important lessons were learned. And I think, you know, like every institution it learns from its failures.

HEFFNER: Were they the failures of the UN? Or the failures of the nations that make up the UN?

ERLANGER: Well, to be sure … both. But the UN should not have taken on a job if it did not have the support to carry out its promises.

HEFFNER: But you know, in a sense I saw that in this piece that you wrote about your friends and their death; that they understood; that this was in the nature of the beast.

ERLANGER: Yes. That’s true. I mean they understood there was no ultimate protection. They were very nervous about this mandate that they had. They were coming into, into a situation where basically … I don’t want to, you know, infer too far … but Kofi Annan was under great pressure from the United States and Britain, who after all both sit on the Security Council to try to give some kind of wider world mandate to the occupation of Iraq and to try to, as they did in Kabul after the Taliban was driven out, to try to create transitional Iraqi that would have the world support and would feel less like an administration imposed by occupying powers.

He understood that as his task. And he understood he needed to help the US and Britain out of this quandary they’d put themselves in. And his agent to do that was Sergio Vieira de Mello, who I was in a lot of E-mail contact with had just taken on a new job in Geneva, which mattered … he was the Secretary General’s Chief Representative for Human Rights, which is a big task.

And he was asked by Koffi Anan to go in and do this very difficult, ambiguous job, which required a politician’s skill and he agreed to do. But with great, great, great, great misgivings.

So one of the reasons, you know, the UN Canal Hotel had so little protection is he wanted to try to keep a bit of distance from the American and British troops. He wanted to show the Iraqis that the UN was not the same. I mean that it was allied, to be sure, with the Americans and the British, but it was not, itself, an agency of the occupation.

And he worked very hard, particularly with the British to make the Americans and Paul Bremmer the American representative broaden Iraqi representation to create this Iraqi transitional council that would at least make it look as if we were moving more quickly to Iraqi control and Iraq’s sovereignty … that’s the fight at the UN right now. It’s the fight that continues. But he, he knew the ambiguity of it, as you say. He knew the dangers of it. He almost embraced the dangers, but he had a lot of misgivings about whether it was “do-able”.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that … “he almost embraced the dangers”.


HEFFNER: the two of them

ERLANGER: … this is in the personality, I think, you know. The Chinese conquer what they fear by eating it, you know. And many people … many foreign correspondents, many people work for the UN. You know, you go into what you’re a afraid of; it’s the best way to make yourself strong. It’s also the best way to convince yourself you’re still alive; that you life is challenging and that it has meaning. I mean, these are not couch potato people.

HEFFNER: Not couch potato people. What a wonderful way of putting it. Are there, as you look around today at your former field … well I can’t even say that “former field”, you’re still, to me, the foreign correspondent … same motivations? As many people … talking about Americans, in particular.

ERLANGER: Well, I must say I think after the Wall fell …

HEFFNER: The Berlin Wall.

ERLANGER: Yeah, I’m sorry. After the Berlin Wall fell … I mean after Communism began to collapse in ’89 and there was reunification of Germany in ’91, I think we as a country, to some degree went to sleep. A lot of people did. I mean somehow we thought foreign policy didn’t matter and we trust in our own altruism. For some reason we think we’re an altruistic power. No power is altruistic. We think we do things for other people’s good and never for our own. Even when we bomb people, we think we’re delivering medicine, not munitions. And we began to feel that, you know, that our model of Liberal Democracy, you know, as Fukiama was by hook and crook, by trial and error … the answer for the world. And we, I think shut our eyes to the world’s complications. We also shut our eyes to the anger created in less fortunate, poor, more mistreated parts of world at our influence, our arrogance, our un-touch-ability.


ERLANGER: Part of what 9/11 was about was touching the nerve of America and reminding it that the rest of the world existed, had issues, was angry and wasn’t necessarily appreciative.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s funny you put it that way because I was thinking of the “Ugly American”. Now that dates back a long, long, long time. And I wondered whether you … we aren’t talking about something indigenous …

ERLANGER: Well, I wouldn’t say any more it’s the “Ugly American”. I mean there was a kind of naivete to “The Quiet American” of Graham Greene …


ERLANGER: … you know that is long gone. We’re not a naïve power and we have a very sophisticated government and we have a very sophisticated State Department and National Security Council and military. There’s a lot of knowledge in the government about the dangers of the world. But we have not as, I think in our system, our politicians have not always done a very good job explaining to the nation the costs of empire, no matter how benign and … the risk.

For example, take support of Israel. I think the United States should support the State of Israel. Other people in the world think we go too far. But once we decide we’re going to do it, we should not pretend that that support is without cost, without risk. I think it’s a risk worth paying. Other people could debate it.

But we never, often enough, have that debate in this society. I mean empire is not costless. And protecting Taiwan from, you know, being re-absorbed by China, if that’s what we want to do as a nation, that’s risky. Trying to be the cop of the world that wants the North Koreans not to get nuclear weapons, that takes a lot of time and energy, money and taxes.

So, I don’t think we’re “the ugly American”. I think, in a way, we’re the kind … and we were the “sleeping Americans”. Now I think we’re the “wounded, defensive Americans.” But, you know, at each step I think we understand now that the world is a place where, if we haven’t engaged as a nation, we must re-engage. We have to understand what faces us.

HEFFNER: You say, “we understand” … what are you talking about?

ERLANGER: Well, you know, it’s hard. I mean there are many Americans, as there are many Europeans, and I think a lot of our corporations understand, many Europeans say to me, “oh Americans, you know, are becoming isolationist again.”

And I say “that’s wrong”, I think there’s more sophisticated knowledge about the rest of the world in the United States now than ever before in our history. We have businessmen who travel; we have, you know multi-national …some benign, some not … in every part of the world, they’re great consumers of information about the world, about foreign affairs, about how, how things happen. But as a nation, you know, our debates tend to be more about domestic things. That makes sense. Our elections, you know, are about the economy, they’re about things closer to home, you know.

We, it seems odd to say it, but you know, we’re such a big country, you know. I mean if you live in Berlin you’re … you drive an hour, two hours, in a lot of directions …you’re in different countries. You live in Ohio, you can drive a long way before you get out of Ohio. I mean so, it’s, it’s human nature not to kind of worry too much about what doesn’t touch you. I think 9/11 has not made Americans realize there’s a lot more they need to know. And perhaps these things are also worth debate.

HEFFNER: Are you usually quite so optimistic?

ERLANGER: I’m actually a very cynical person, with a very dark view of human nature. But I do believe that people learn the things they need to know once they understand they need to know them.

HEFFNER: We have less than a minute left. Do you think we, well you obviously do, that we are on the way to learning those things?

ERLANGER: Yes, I do. I mean, you know, I, I think, you know, we … with our European allies, there aren’t many nations in the world that believe in law, that believe in restraining police power, that believe in free press. I mean I think we have a lot of fundamental values. We can’t impose them on people, but we can help other nations learn how it’s done. We just have to be a lot more patient.

HEFFNER: Steven Erlanger thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

ERLANGER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.