WHEN the allegations that Kurt Waldheim had been involved in Nazi atrocities in the Balkans first came to wide attention during his 1986 campaign for the Austrian presidency, part of the surprise was that we hadn't heard about these things before this. This was not, after all, a man coming into public life for the first time. Surely his background had been investigated, we thought. Surely any questions about his past, Nazi or otherwise, would have to have been answered, and satisfactorily, or he couldn't have become secretary-general of the United Nations.
This book by novelist Shirley Hazzard makes the case that what went wrong in the Waldheim affair was what had gone wrong with the whole UN. The UN was just the place, she suggests, where someone as mediocre and morally sleazy as she deems Waldheim to be could rise to the top with his record and qualifications unchallenged.
She recounts an episode of international McCarthyism from the early 1950s, when Trygve Lie, the UN's first secretary-general, was found to have cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in screening potential employees of the UN Secretariat for ``loyalty.'' Regulations prohibiting employment by the UN of those with Nazi or fascist pasts were quietly dropped.
In this ``temple of official good intentions,'' as Hazzard describes it, loyalty to personality soon overtook loyalty to principle. Waldheim and his predecessors made it to the top by avoiding offending either of the superpowers.
This engaging book raises disturbing questions about the moral and political culture of the United Nations. Hazzard is a fine writer, and the language of this brief volume is a good match for its subject. Those who read with pencil in hand will find themselves scribbling ``Well said!'' in the margins.
Taking on Conor Cruise O'Brien for his 1987 statement that ``failure is really an essential part of the business of the United Nations,'' she responds: ``The organization's importance to the world had thus shifted, in the view of its advocates, from the value of its mere continued existence, applauded in the 1970s, to a newly propounded and `essential' concept of failure. Under this new teaching, any United Nations potential for moral leadership is, moreover, quite discarded.''
But there is something odd about the scale of the book. It is long for an essay, yet somehow too short to treat its subject in satisfying detail. It is neither a history of the UN nor a biography of Waldheim; rather, the failures of one are examined in the light of the failures of the other.
Hazzard raises a number of mysteries and then fails to resolve them. In some cases the data seem not to be there. No one really knows how much the UN costs its member nations, for instance. But in other cases, one wishes for more pursuit of the subject. She identifies Dag Hammarskj"old as the least awful of a mediocre lot of secretaries-general, but never comes up with an explanation for his relative activism and efficacy.
More important, why was Waldheim seen as so ``pliant''? Why was he acceptable to the Soviets?
Perhaps because they had something with which to blackmail him, one might speculate. But Hazzard reports that Arkady Shevchenko, a double agent who had been in Waldheim's UN cabinet, ``dismissed the likelihood that [incriminating material presumably in Soviet hands] was used to blackmail the Secretary-General, since Shevchenko himself was never employed by Moscow to that end, and `I would have been the logical person to do it.''' She goes on to note, sensibly enough, ``Shevchenko's word is presumably no more reliable than Waldheim's.'' But one is disappointed that the discussion is left there.
A larger issue raised here is: How well do we know people and institutions? How can we be sure of the truth of what we hear from and about them? Few people mentioned in this book come off looking very good, including many who are internationally known, if not exactly household names. ``Countenance of Truth'' reminds us how much we take for granted.
For believers in the value of discussion, the UN is important for bringing people together to talk, and conditions would have to be pretty bad for it to lose that value. Hazzard suggests that things may be that bad.
But the UN has an opportunity to reclaim new relevance as certain issues - notably the environment - are seen to be best addressed outside the usual East/West, left/right framework, in a forum that is truly global. And at a time when revolutions are being made by the Walesas and the Havels of the world, no one can reasonably argue that it takes a large armed force to exercise moral leadership.
Fans of the UN will find this a disturbing book. But it is one that should be heeded if the world body is to achieve its potential.