power and sergio


The child of a United Nations official, getting her first look at the UN’s Turtle Bay headquarters in New York, asks her mother how many people work there. “About one in four” is the dyspeptic reply. That old UN chestnut still makes the rounds because it sums up a paper-pushing, jobs-for-the-boys institutional culture that successive “management reforms” have stirred but never really shaken. But among those one in four, the UN every so often attracts, and more surprisingly retains, the loyalty of individuals who would stand out in a crowd of thousands.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the brilliant and charismatic Brazilian troubleshooter whose life is charted in exhaustive, indeed excessive, detail in Chasing the Flame by the almost equally brilliant and charismatic American political academic Samantha Power, was the most flamboyantly unforgettable of that select breed. A soixante-huitard who got his first taste of violence as a student revolutionary manning the Paris barricades, he came to the UN pretty much by chance in 1969 when his immersion in Marxist philosophy – a lifelong fascination which later resulted in an impenetrable doctorat d’État on “the significance of supranationality” – was interrupted by the sordidly bourgeois necessity of earning his keep. His diplomat father had been sacked by the Brazilian junta, for reasons which possibly included a fondness, soon acquired by his son, for Johnny Walker whisky.

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