Ambassador McHenry cool presence in a hot world
New York — When Donald McHenry replaced Andrew Young as United States ambassador to the United Nations, a Nigerian newspaper carried an editorial with the headline "Goodbye Brother Young, Hello Mister McHenry."
"In there is a message," said Mister McHenry.
The Nigerians' "open, close identification with Andy" is in contrast to the "detached, deal-with-the-facts, distant, unemotional McHenry," said Ambassador McHenry, detaching himself even from himself by using the third person.
He paused. "They don't know what my emotions are," he said.
"You don't show them?" I asked.
"Try not to," he said laconically.
But then he smiled. And in that smile lay a hint of the enigma that crops up occasionally in the ambassador. No doubt about it, this man is cool. But how to describe his detachment? It is not cool as ice, for the man is cordial. It's not cool as a breeze, for that would somehow be too active. Maybe cool as a cucumber -- to latch onto another cliche.
Many analysts have commented on McHenry's style -- subdued, cards held close to the chest. Some say that Ambassador Young was much more conservative than he appeared on the surface and that, underneath, Ambassador McHenry is more liberal.
"Andy was very conservative, which was inconsistent with his public image," McHenry said. "I don't think I'm more conservative or liberal underneath.
"I try in private to help people to get rid of their emotions and come down to the point of listening to the other guy. . . . In doing that sometimes I am labeled as advocating the other person's point of view. But you cannot solve a problem unless you appreciate the view that the other person is going to have. If people try and slide over it, I will tenaciously put the case forward -- not as mine, but you've got to deal with it."
McHenry, the diplomat's diplomat, usually dresses the part. His dark suit emphasizes his tall, fit figure, trimmer than one would suspect from television pictures showing him at meetings of the United Nations Security Council. His rounded jawline is in marked contrast to his lean, graceful fingers that twine around his pencil as he listens intently to the obscurities of UN debate.
"I'm a debater. I'm a student of logic," McHenry explains. "I used to switch sides as a schoolboy and through college, and in teaching and studying persuasion and social control. I can analyze Hitler, as my roommate in college did when studying and translating the Hitler speeches. I can analyze why those things appeal to people. Does that mean that I agree with them? No, I recognize the device that is used."
McHenry agreed that there is an emotional element in the hottest of international problems. In a recent speech, he stressed this emotionalism.
"As a matter of fact, the argument of each [side in the Middle East] is almost a mirror image of the other in many instances. The person who is going to be a mediator between the two has to be able to see both sides, even has to run the risk of being identified with the underdog. It's a risk which is very difficult."
He cited as an example of this kind of risk the attitude South Africa had toward him when he was negotiating the issue of Namibia, the country west of South Africa which the United Nations is trying to remove from South African control. The South Africans were inclined to stereotype, McHenry said, and he elaborated:
"Mr. [Roelofs] Botha [South Africa's foreign minister] was asked one day, 'How do you know McHenry is pro- SWAPO [pro the black liberation movement in Namibia]?'
"'Because he must be,' was Botha's reply. What Botha didn't say is that he assumes because McHenry is black he has to be pro-SWAPO. Botha doesn't want to deal with the substance.
"And similarly, when you deal with the Middle East, you get it both ways. The Arabs figure McHenry must be pro- Arab and they are disappointed when you don't do something which they like. Why do they figure that? Because anyone who has suffered some kind of discrimination must automatically be partial.
"Similarly, the mayor of New York says McHenry is anti- Israel. And why does he say that? Because he has already gone on record as saying all blacks are anti-Semites or anti- Jewish. It's stupid."
That is the strongest statement McHenry would allow to be published in this interview. Making waves is not his manner.
In contrast, when journalists traveled with Ambassador Young on his visits to Africa, he would speak very freely on the plane to the journalists, and when the reporters asked what was off the record and what on, Young would shrug his shoulders and say amiably, "Oh, I don't know." Thus, what reporters attributed to Young was left to their own discretion. He might have made many more headlines than he did.
McHenry is exactly the opposite. In the course of an interview, he will specify when he is going off the record and the instant when he is back on. Meticulous, careful, and understated, he is a man who is acutely aware of the advantages, as well as the disadvantages, of being black in his current post.
Being black "gives you a special entree and an ability to sit down and talk with some groups. The disadvantage, of course, is that it creates suspicion in others. You can't get involved in a complex negotiation without very shortly having one of the sides saying you are pro the other side.
"The blacks won't say you're pro [-white] South Africa. They want to believe you are pro [-white], but they will say you're not gungho enough."
McHenry, the middleman who is fired at from all sides, tries to remain calm. But doesn't he agonize over somem things?
"I tell you there can't be two more-difficult questions to deal with than southern Africa and the Middle East -- maybe Cyprus, if you want to toss in another one. These two problems are very difficult, in part because the various parties look upon their very survival as being at stake. My whole philosophy is that accommodation is an insurance of survival. I think any time you get race, as in the case of South Africa, or religion, as in the case of the Middle East, you've really bitten off more than you can chew. These are horrible subjects I have to deal with." Few people are as well qualified as McHenry to compare these two tracks of negotiations -- over Namibia and over the Middle East -- for he deals with both and was, in fact, the main architect of the intricate Namibia negotiations. Of the original representatives of the "big five" Western nations (the US, Britain, West Germany, Canada, and France), who launched the negotiations in 1978, only McHenry still remains on the job. He visited and studied Namibia long before he arrived at the United Nations under the Carter administration.
"South Africans are tough negotiators, in part because they are relatively single- minded in terms of their goal. They don't have to put up with some of the bureaucratic practices and problems that we have to. They have their share -- every institution does. But their negotiators have an institutional memory. . . . Right now, they have the same people present when we started to negotiate three years ago."
Although he has not been dealing with the South African negotiations a great deal in the past year, he said in mid-May, "I've spent so much time on Namibia in the last two days that they are coming out of my ears."
The morning of our interview he had met with the leaders of the front-line African states to examine a reply from the white South African government to the latest proposals on Namibia. McHenry characterized the reply as "a holding action, just a delay, until they see what [the new prime minister of Zimbabwe Robert] Mugabe is up to, and till South Africa can make one last effort to put in power the DTA [Democratic Turnhalle Alliance of blacks brought forward by South Africa to rule Namibia].
"It's hard to tell what the South African position is because they are having a debate among themselves as to their role in southern Africa. Their [plan for a] constellation of states in southern Africa can't work as a result of the 'wrong' winner in Zimbabwe. I don't think it would work anyway, but it remains one of their linchpins."
McHenry points out that the election of Prime Minister Mugabe was a bitter blow for the South Africans, even though Mugabe has instituted a mixed capitalist/socialist economy and has promised to respect the borders of South Africa.
The South African leaders "guessed wrong," McHenry said. "They don't really believe that the moderate that they see is Mugabe. Somehow he's going to sooner or later show his true colors -- that's their view."
McHenry said the South African government may have learned the "lesson of Rhodesia and of Muzorewa [the bishop, Abel Muzorewa, elected prime minister before Mugabe, although power still remained in the hands of whites] that it's not enough to put the person in office. The person has to be seen to deliver his forty acres and a mule."
McHenry also believes that the South Africans don't want it to appear that there is a momentum for change in southern Africa, and therefore want to drag their heels on the "big five" plan for Namibia. "They don't want to appear as if there's a slippery slope coming up."
McHenry is one who thinks that change from white rule to black will come to Namibia before it comes to South Africa, even though the population in Namibia is 1 million -- less than the population of Soweto, the black satellite city of Johannesburg in South Africa.
"I think change in terms of South Africa itself is a long- term problem. I say long-term in so far as one can plan change. It may turn out to be short term, if you have what I call the 'Rosa Parks phenomenon.' Rosa Parks, you remember, is that woman who got on the bus [and sat in the white section, defying segregation laws and triggering the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955]. She didn't plan to lead a revolution. Her feet hurt. It can be any number of things which could lead to a spark."
Clearly, McHenry cares deeply about southern Africa. But he doesn't parade his concern. In his large, carpeted, unremarkably furnished office on the 11th floor overlooking the row of flags flapping in front of the United Nations, the only African artifacts are two ebony sculptures made by people of the Makonde tribe of Tanzania. One, a lean, tall sculpture, stands high overhead on a bookcase, the other, a tragic mask, rests on the side of a desk.
Curiously, McHenry says he doesn't like these modern Makonde carvings. He bought them, he says, because "the wood is so hard, and for the sculptors to have succeeded in getting the graceful curves is an indication of craftsmanship." The traditional Makonde sculptures he likes are at his home in the Waldorf.
Asked if he can call the President whenever he wants, McHenry said, "I have the ear of the President whenever I feel I need it, and I have it undiluted. It is not something that I overwork," he added. "I try and work through the system. I try and master the system."
He said he does not see any dangerous division of government on foreign policy issues, that is, any overriding competition between the State Department and the National Security Council to gain the backing of the President.
"I think the government right now is working reasonably well. I don't think you have the same blatant operation that you had when [former head of the National Security Council Henry] Kissinger was there."
But wasn't Secretary of State Cyrus Vance ignored by the President, and didn't this lead to his resignation over the failed rescue mission to Iran?
"Vance wasn't ignored," McHenry replied. "The President made a decision which, in Vance's view, was a question of principle and he left. I think it was an honorable decision," McHenry said.
Since McHenry works within the system and even seems to enjoy it, how can he answer his critics, especially blacks, who say no black should work within a system which they charge is unjust to blacks?
"Change comes from a multiplicity of forces and one has to recognize that," McHenry said. For instance, he does not doubt that "the resolution of the Rhodesian question" came partly from the fighting. But neither does he doubt that it was also due in part to "the careful hammering out of a piece of paper -- a constitution -- which the parties could finally come around to agreeing upon."
As for working within the system, he quoted Roy Wilkins: "When he was being derided by the students of SNCC -- Wilkins the conservative and so forth. He said, 'Well, I don't mind their criticism of me. They can demonstrate in the streets so long as my lawyers are available to get them out of jail.' It takes all kinds.Somebody has to be inside," McHenry insisted.
But what happens when you disagree with a policy decision that you have to carry out?
It depends on the decision, he said. If a matter of principle is involved and "you believe as a result of the decision you cannot honorably carry out your work, it seems to me you are obligated to leave." If, on the other hand, it involves "an honest difference . . . it seems to me irresponsible to pack up and leave. In the first place, if there isn't a difference within government, it's unhealthy. And in the second place, if everybody left every time they disapproved of something, there would be nobody around to do anything."
What about the Palestinian vote? The President repudiated it and afterward you said it had been a right vote.
"No, I haven't said it was a right voteM" McHenry answered. "I believe that resolution is consistent with the substance of our policy, and the President in his own statement said as much. Now, whether there are words in it that one wants to take exception to -- and in this case he took exception to the word Jerusalem -- you know, you can have all kinds of differences with regard to that. But even on Jerusalem he did not take exception to the policy. The policy which we have followed and continue to follow is that East Jerusalem is occupied territory."
When you quit before, under Kissinger, what was the principle involved?
"I tried in that instance to leave the State Department for a while," McHenry said. "In 1971 I went on leave without pay." He was concerned about "the role which the State Department was playing in foreign policy -- which was zilch. Mr. Kissinger had the role, not the State Department, and I saw this because I was right there with the secretary of state. I went to the meetings every week with Kissinger and I saw what was going on. So I went on leave from '71 to '73. I hoped that things would change in 1972 as a result of voter action. It did not, and when it did not, I quit."
At his job at the United Nations, Ambassador McHenry said that the US has accomplished one of the major goals it set out to accomplish -- to improve communication with the third world, whose members now compose a majority in the General Assembly.
"I'm not saying they agree with us, but we can sit down with them and talk with them and when we have a good case I have a feeling we get a good hearing. Both Andy and I started on this, and I think it's worked reasonably well. I think that, actually, the guy who started it was Bill Scranton. He got back to communicating. And he had made considerable progress in his own quiet way. That went a long way toward correcting the situation which had been left by [ former ambassador Daniel Patrick] Moynihan."
McHenry says that he often hears it said that the United Nations is nothing but a "talk shop," a body powerless to enforce its resolutions.
"My nasty response is that, of course, it's not perfect. It can't do anything more than countries allow it to do. . . . But we don't toss out the Congress of the United States because it's imperfect. Congress is a developing institution, developing 204 years. The UN is just 35. Congress works under a constitution. The UN works under articles of confederation. [The US was] not able to move anywhere until we got rid of the Articles of Confederation and went to a constitution. And we're not anywhere near that in terms of the UN."
McHenry added that a world constitution was not the aim of the UN, but the organization was slowly going to have to work out a way of enforcing its will through international political consensus.He sees this as happening and cites two examples: the international convention that has virtually eliminated hijacking, and the Law of the Sea Conference which for ten years has been hammering out a consensus on rules for the oceans.
McHenry pointed out that in the 1950s it was East-West conflicts that paralyzed the UN. Now the greatest danger to the institution is "the danger of great expectations -- the tendency to believe that because the UN cannot do what it can't do, what countries will not allow it to do, then it's no good."
If McHenry staunchly defends the concept of the UN, he does not hesitate to point out where there have been failures or inadequacies. One concerns the North-South dialogue, that catchall term which refers to the developing world's demand that industrialized nations share their wealth, which is partly derived from their developing countries. The third world made its demand for a new economic system and a redistribution of wealth about ten years ago, but there has been little real communication between the North (the developed countries) and the South (the developing).
"We've made progress in southern Africa. We've made progress in the Middle East, I think. We haven't made progress on North-South," McHenry said, "it is, in part, because there is not yet a meeting of minds as to whether the issue is economic or political.They haven't recognized that it's both. The third world treats it as an entirely political undertaking. If you look at their representation, it's made up of people from the foreign ministries, the political side. The developed world looks on the issue as entirely economic. And our problem is probably that we need more politics on our side. Our stance is not politically sensitive enough."
McHenry had little to do with the North-South debate until the last six months. Apparently, it was decided the time had come to bring his political sensitivity to the problem.
"We're coming along. . . . There are still confrontational approaches being followed. Though there are all kinds of divisions within the Group of 77 [the developing countries]. . . . They think they have to line up against the developed countries. In doing so they carry their least common denominator. But I think we'll get along."
He spoke of global negotiations which "we are trying to get started," and there is talk of a series of mini-summits to discuss the Brandt commission report released earlier this year. That report recommends that industrial countries make many radical economic changes to forestall a deterioration in world diplomacy and economy.
In the meantime, changes are going on in some "status quo" institutions. "If they don't make the changes fast enough, we'll have great problems here."
In his perpetual negotiating with the countries of the world, McHenry finds it hard to keep in touch with everything that could be useful in his job.
"I don't read enough. I'm going off this evening to an Aspen Institute seminar. I need to do more of that. Someone asked me what was the last thing I read with pleasure, and I told him I read Shawcross's book on Cambodia and they said, 'That's pleasure?' The last thing I read was a book which an ambassador gave me about an Anglican priest's journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem. I read it for pleasure; it didn't have anything to do with work."
In a job with as much pressure as at the UN, any ambassador would need to take holidays and seek relief, but McHenry has had only one week's leave in three years.
"I'm going to try and escape in August," he said."I'm going to go up in the woods and sit. The problem is what I look on as an escape, my teen-age girls look upon as prison. They just go crazy. I have a very difficult time getting them off some place that's quiet, unless I'm going down to the Caribbean on a beach somewhere," he laughed.
McHenry says his two daughters don't seem to have definite ideas about what careers they will choose, and added that he would not have imagined his son Michael's decision to become a chef at Maison Robert, the prestigious Boston restaurant.
If he himself was choosing another career, he would teach or research and write. "Not a book," he said. "Books make a slave out of you. Books are frustrating. You have to have them, but I don't have to write them," he laughed. "Shorter things are fun. You can do it and it's out of the way."
In one of his many speeches outside of the UN, McHenry once said America is becoming middle-aged as a country and forgetting its revolution.
"The kids tried to bring it [the revolutionary spirit] back in the '60s. They had a few excesses. I think this younger generation is far more sensitive in terms of people than they are given credit for. And they are without the excesses of the '60s."
Words of praise spoken by a man who does not show his own excesses, if he has any, except for overwork -- at least that is what his daughters complain about.