Book review: ‘Sergio: One Man’s Fight to Save the World’
October 21, 2016
It takes a special kind of individual to step repeatedly into danger, and members of the armed services and first responders of the world have always been the vanguard of these brave and selfless efforts. Often overlooked, but as crucial to a successful outcome, are the peacekeepers and their support teams who work in troubled and violent parts of the world to help facilitate stability in the aftermath of a conflict or a disaster that tests the abilities of a country's leadership to protect and aid its citizens.
One such individual was Sergio Vieira de Mello, a dedicated career United Nations employee who worked for decades all around the world, doggedly wading into the most troubled spots on the planet, rolling up his sleeves and trying to make things right. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power shines a much-deserved light on the life and legacy of the Brazilian peacekeeper in her book "Sergio: One Man's Fight to Save the World."
From Cambodia to Rwanda to Kosovo and East Timor, and finally to Iraq, Vieira de Mello was in his element, taking his beloved United Nations mandate into the field, working with commitment in violent, unforgiving and hostile settings. He "moved with the headlines," chasing peace and reconciliation where others refused to go. His long career ended in tragedy in the summer of 2003, in Bagdad, at a time when the Coalition forces were jolted from their "Mission Accomplished" high by a string of brutal attacks.
With Iraqi animosity toward the United Nations at an all-time high, and with Al Qaeda rapidly gaining a foothold, the attack on the U.N. headquarters on the August afternoon that claimed Vieira de Mello's life and the lives of 21 others jolted those in the U.N., as well as friends and colleagues.
An inspirational legacy
Though the United Nations reeled from the attack and struggled to regain its commitment in the region, Vieira de Mello's loss inspired faith in the organization in which he so believed. He left behind a legacy of brokered deals and a strong example of how one dedicated person can guide an international community toward peaceful solutions.
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Power brings to life a deeply complicated man who was described as "a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy." Vieira de Mello was charismatic and dashing and completely at ease using his natural charm to dance the fine line that was often required during complicated and tense negotiations. Recalling their first meeting, Power said, "I could see how he had gained a reputation for workaholism, unflappability and a commitment to enjoying life despite the despair around him."
Power writes of Vieira de Mello's fascinating life, from his young years in South America during the 1950s and '60s as the son of a Brazilian diplomat. He was steeped in the notion of foreign service early, and his childhood was filled with travel to his father's postings, where he was exposed to diverse cultures and languages. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he constructed the basis for his approach to his future work with the United Nations, which began when barely out of school and continued until his death in 2003.
The deeper he moved into the U.N. hierarchy, the more profoundly his view on life impacted his work. While working on the ground in Bangladesh, "Vieira de Mello felt he was doing something practical to operationalize his philosophical commitment to elevating individual and collective self-esteem." Wherever he went, he saw the value in empowering people, in respecting their values and languages and in including them in the complicated processes of rebuilding their nations.
Though increasingly familiar with war zones and conflicts, it was not until he worked in Labanon that Vieira de Mello really got a taste of the impacts of terrorism, where "he would see for the first time how little the U.N. flag could mean to those consumed with their own grievances and fears." It was there, too, that he lost a lot of his idealism and where he developed his more measured trademark approach of pragmatism. He learned the value of getting in close with the armed factions, no matter how unsavory, seeing it as the only way to gain any leverage toward an outcome.
Power reveals much about the inner workings of the complicated landscape of diplomacy, and she does so with the clarity of one who knows a bit about what she writes. She currently serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a post in which she did not yet serve when she wrote the book. Certainly, though, researching such a backbone figure of the U.N., she learned that Vieira de Mello represented the ideal, in many regards, and the many successes he fostered are now foundations on which more lasting frameworks for peace can grow.