His career with the United Nations began a year after the organization was founded in 191+5. And for 1+0 years British-born Brian Urquhart remained committed to the UN’s peacekeeping role. In his recently published memoirs, A Life in Peace and War, Urquhart, who retired in 1986 after 12 years as undersecretary general for special political affairs, recalls the successes and failures of the UN. He also talks about the organization’s secretaries general, giving a scathing assessment of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who headed the UN from 1972 to 1982 and who has since earned widespread criticism for his attempts to hide his Second World War activities in the German army.
Maclean’s Foreign Editor John Bierman recently interviewed Urquhart, who lives in New York and is now scholar-in-residence at the Ford Foundation:
Maclean’s: Last July the UN’s Security Council passed Resolution 598, which called for an end to the Iraq-Iran War.
Iraq has accepted the resolution, but Iran has not. Is there any way out of the impasse?
Urquhart: The Iranians regard themselves—with a certain amount of reason—as having been grossly discriminated against. When the Security Council finally asked for a ceasefire, it did not even ask for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces, nor did it condemn Iraq as the aggressor. And this is something that the Iranians will not accept. When the war began they were an unpopular member of the international community, and people sat on their hands in the false assumption that the Iraqis were going to win. That was a colossal error. Aggression is aggression whether it is against good guys or bad guys—and we are now paying the price. Maclean’s: A UN budgetary crisis was temporarily averted in November when the United States, after withholding dues because of congressional concerns over the UN’s alleged financial inefficiency, among other things, agreed to pay $120 million in back dues by the end of this year. What is the long-term outlook? Urquhart: At the moment, the U.S. administration is insisting on being assessed for 25 per cent of the UN budget [the maximum percentage a nation may pay in dues,
which are assessed on the basis of its economy]. But in 1986 Congress only appropriated funds amounting to about 12 per cent. In an organization that is not allowed to borrow or go into debt, that means missing a great deal of what you have budgeted to run the thing. Maclean’s: But why was the United States withholding funds, while at the same time insisting on the 25-per-cent assessment? Urquhart: This all has to do with the negative evaluation of the UN in Washing-
ton, which I think is based on unrealistic factors. But the symbolism and international leadership implications of the assessments are important. Which is why, I presume, the United States insists on still being assessed at 25 per cent.
Maclean’s: In light of U.S. complaints about inefficiency, has the UN made an attempt to carry out effective reforms? Urquhart: I think that it is running on a zero-growth budget and has been for about two or three years. Considerable cuts have been made, and an enormous effort is being made to overhaul machinery. It is extremely difficult—this is an organization of 159 independent sovereign states. But there is no secret that the bureaucracy and some of the political practices and attitudes were in need of an overhaul. What I am afraid of now is that if the United States insists on being assessed at the high figure, and you do not in fact get the U.S. assessment paid, it may
well cause a lot of anti-American talk that will compound the trouble. And the fact is that the United States as a global power needs the United Nations. Maclean’s: In what ways?
Urquhart: They would have been a lot better off, for example, if they put the UN into Beirut in 1982 instead of putting the U.S. Marines in. It was a total disaster. A power like the United States, with an interest in stability, has to have means of staying out of some of these things—and it is much easier to put it on the secretary general. In my view, it is in the interests of the United States as a global power to be a leader in the UN and to support it. Maclean’s: But peacekeeping can be onerous. For one thing, Canadian troops went to Cypi'us 23 years ago on a ‘temporary’ peacekeeping operation. Will they be therefor another 23 years?
Urquhart: Cyprus is not just a beautiful island with 680,000 people. The troubles between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish minority are wired like a detonator onto wider problems, notably the situation between Greece and Turkey, and the Mediterranean security balance. So you cannot just dump it. The question is whether a peacekeeping force is an excessive price to pay for not having a crisis. My guess would be that people would come to the conclusion that it is not. Maclean’s: The Soviets are now exhibiting a new, positive attitude toward the UN. Is there an ulterior motive? Urquhart: Everything in politics is in some way to do with propaganda and ulterior motives. I think that the new Soviet approach has to be taken at face value until proven otherwise. If Gorbachev is saying,‘Our idea of the Communist Revolution worldwide has turned out to be a bust; we are now going back to the UN and we want to support it,’ I think that people would say, ‘Good, better late than never.’ And I sort of believe it—I think that it is a complete reassessment of the way they handle their international relations.
Maclean’s: In your book, you said that Kurt Waldheim was an ‘energetic, ambitious mediocrity. ’But you wrote that after Waldheim had been implicated in connection with Nazi atrocities in the Balkans. Was your assessment hindsight? Urquhart: I said that I thought Waldheim’s total disqualification as a public figure comes from his having told important lies about his record for 40 years. And I, having spent 10 years publicly defending him against unsubstantiated charges of this kind, feel totally betrayed. I was defending him on the basis of so-called facts that turned out to be lies. I have tried to do justice to his considerable efforts as secretary general. I do not think he was the ideal person for the job, but he worked very hard. But I tried to say, ‘He made one horrendous mistake—which is not forgivable.’□
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