Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

For those of us outside “the family” — as career United Nations workers call their own ranks — it is probably impossible to imagine the thoughts and feelings now associated with August 19, 2003. Nor, to tell the truth, do many of us try. On that date, a suicide bomber drove a truck into UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people. By now everyone in the world recognizes the date “9/11,” and the subway attacks in London during the summer of 2005 are now often referred to as “7/7.” But the UN bombing (carried out, like these other two, by al Qaeda) faded from the world’s memory without so much as the trace of a historical shorthand expression.

Among the dead was Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was overseeing the UN’s activities in Iraq: a beloved and rather legendary figure, at least within the family. He had charisma; he was tireless; no one could long doubt his itch to leave the office and go out into troubled areas. His qualities even inspired grudging admiration from within the Bush administration — no small trick. In Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, Samantha Power quotes an adviser to Paul Bremer, the head of the American occupation. “Sergio is as good as it gets,” the adviser said, “not only in the UN, but in international diplomacy. He is the personification of what the UN could be, and should be, but rarely is.”

His biographer is not a member of the immediate family, so to speak, but a kind of in-law. Samantha Power’s earlier (and Pulitzer-winning) book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, is an argument for the doctrine of humanitarian interventionism; that is, the activist defense of human rights by the international community, which in practice has often meant some confluence of U.S. military power and UN relief efforts. Power first met Vieira de Mello in 1994 — not that long after the end of the Cold War, when dreams of a humanitarian and cosmopolitan foreign policy were much in the air. But with hindsight, the circumstances of their initial conversation clearly spelled out the limits of that vision. They met in what was fast becoming “the former Yugoslavia.” She was covering the conflict as a journalist, while Vieira de Mello was part of the UN peacekeeping effort.

I mention these geopolitical and historical markers because without them it seems impossible to appreciate how many issues are at stake in Chasing the Flame — and how many of them are left hanging for the perplexed reader. This is not a book of foreign-policy wonkery. It is a detailed portrait of a man whose career was a hellish itinerary of missions served in Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, and finally Iraq. He did not simply work for the United Nations; he was a UN man down to his cells, almost. So the organization’s inner culture and structural problems are as important for understanding his personality as any element in his personal background. But few of us have more than a vague idea of what goes on within the UN, other than angry speechifying.

Power wants to bring us into a world of action that is heroic (in which literally life-and-death decisions unfold on the world stage) while at the same time constantly bogged down by bureaucratic infighting and hardball Realpolitik. Vieira de Mello, the son of a Brazilian diplomat who was forced into early retirement following a military coup, did not set out to work for the United Nations. He was a philosophy student in Paris during the seismic “events of May ’68,” when radical students and factory workers launched a general strike. A statement he published at the time, full of revolutionary fervor, made it likely that he would be detained by the Brazilian authorities if he returned home. The labor market for professional philosophers being what it is, he took employment with the UN in 1969.

He found a mentor within the organization — a shrewd old functionary who knew how to cover his idealism with a protective, cynical coating. What began as a bureaucratic day job to pay the bills as Vieira de Mello worked toward an advanced degree in philosophy turned into a vehicle for international political activism. “By the 1980s he had come to see himself as a UN man,” writes Power, “but since the organization was both a body of self-interested governments and a body of ideals, he did not seem sure yet whether serving the UN meant doing what states wanted or pressing for what refugees needed.”

Framed so starkly, one supposes that Vieira de Mello finally had to choose between these options. But what Power describes as his growing pragmatism throughout the 1990s was an effort to reconcile them — and to go still further when necessary, doing whatever it took to contain the crises he was sent to manage. He was willing to work with Khmer Rouge leaders or to become so amicable toward Slobodan Milosevic that people nicknamed him “Serbio” Vieira de Mello.

“If his ever-evolving approach could be summed up,” writes Power, “it would be: Talk to rogues, attempt to understand what makes them tick, extract concessions from them whenever possible, but remain clear about who they are and what they have done, as well as what you stand for. Past sins mattered not just intrinsically but because they were predictive of future behaviors.”

Much practical wisdom is condensed in that advice, of course. Yet between the lines of Chasing the Flame there always seems to be a question that remain unanswered because never fully posed: just what legacy did Vieira de Mello leave? His efforts in Asia, Africa, and the Balkans were courageous but doomed; and his role in Iraq, after all, was to mitigate the damage following a war that the UN could not prevent. (Indeed, most of the arguments for humanitarian interventionism were spun, quite successfully, as rationales for Desert Storm.) To be sure, Sergio Vieira de Mello emerges from Power’s book as a heroic figure. But there were times, while reading it, when I thought that surely the League of Nations must have had its impressive personnel, too.