The Best Man

Brian Urquhart is a unique public servant, and in several ways. He is the only living person to have served in senior political positions in the Secretariat of the United Nations from its beginnings in 1946; he has, more than anyone else, been responsible for the success the UN can claim in organizing forces to keep the peace in Cyprus, the Middle East, and Africa. Yet among all the “realists” who run governments today, Urquhart has remained a man who insists that moral principles must count in the affairs of the world, and that decent behavior toward the powerless, the poor, and the homeless would advance the interests of nations further than the hard-headed Realpolitik they usually espouse. There is, I think, a danger that his moving and beautifully written memoir will be read with respect and a knowing regret that, with few exceptions, the world powers did not behave the way the author would have wished. After dutifully praising him, the “realists” are likely to ignore his experience and turn back to their preoccupation with short-term competition for power. Urquhart’s book will have been read as the reflections of a nice, frustrated gentleman of good intentions who was condemned to live among savages.

On the evidence of his book, Urquhart was often frustrated and defeated, but he was never simply well-intentioned or “nice.” There is no nastiness but much anger, coolly controlled, in his book. To him, the trouble with acting morally is not that it has not been tried, or that it sets an impossible, prophetic standard for human action. In one political crisis after another, successes happen when people act with decency and disinterest; the failures have most often been brought about by the narrow-minded “realists.” Urquhart’s book is a passionate indictment of the holders of power for having failed to achieve even their own aims, of the geopoliticians of both superpowers who have maneuvered to strengthen their blocs but who have failed for the last forty years to achieve the peaceful relations and cooperation in solving conflicts that would clearly be in their own interest. The relations among the great powers have remained static, while the wars, and the alarms of wars, on the periphery have been very costly. The only international crises that have been resolved to the benefit of everyone, including the geopoliticians, have, in Urquhart’s view, been those in which the “realists” meddled least. After forty years at the United Nations, he is more persuaded than he was at the beginning of his career that virtue is its own reward; even for the selfish, it is a far more effective political principle than self-interest.

Sometimes Urquhart seems to be on the verge of writing satire. The sensibility that emerges in his prose owes something to the tone of Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. What fashioned this sensibility? Urquhart is reticent about his personal life, except in the opening pages, where he gives a candid and immensely moving account…

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