ALEX DE WAAL
Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen
A biography of Martti Ahtisaari
Translated by David Mitchell and Pamela Kaskinen
420pp. Hurst. £25 (US $35).
978 1 84904 318 2
Published: 4 May 2016
H ow did a small-town high school graduate with no formal qualifications become one of the world’s favourite fixers of apparently insoluble problems? Martti Ahtisaari was not only all of these things, but also, in his own words, “I was a civil servant who happened to slip into office because the Finnish people were tired of ordinary politicians”. The office he “slipped into” was the presidency, for a single term (he chose not to run again) from 1994 to 2000.
This slightly overweight, often plodding, thoroughly rigorous, detailed and frank book gives answers. Like the man himself, it’s pedestrian but it gets there. And this biography also walks, quietly and determinedly, into the fiercest debates on international security.
There is no more urgent question in world politics than how to end wars. From the end of the Second World War until about ten years ago, the number and lethality of wars around the world fell decade by decade. It was a jagged but nonetheless consistent decline, and its causes aren’t fully understood. In fact, the reality that the world was becoming safer was obscured by growing media attention to the human suffering caused by war. But in the past decade, the decline has stopped and reversed, and today’s wars in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan look to be disturbingly intractable.
Since the turn of the millennium, the stock response to large-scale killing has been to send more peacekeepers – and if they find there is no peace to keep, then mandate them to protect civilians from the depredations of warlords and beef up their armaments (a bit). A year ago the UN Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon, set up a panel, chaired by the former President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, to write a report on how peacekeeping could be improved. The UN High Level Panel on Peace Operations – known as HIPPO – was expected to grind out technical recommendations on improved funding and training of peacekeepers, and how to avoid the outrages of sexual abuse. But this HIPPO proved more agile and assertive than expected: it emphasized not peacekeeping, but – in its own words – “the primacy of the political”: peace making. Its report said that negotiating an end to conflicts is the key task, and sending blue helmets is strictly secondary. But, despite its signal importance, there isn’t much guidance for choosing peacemakers and sending them forth.
The Mediator allows us to list some of the qualities required. Let us begin with humility: a virtue Ahtisaari possesses amply, in proportion to his personal acuity. At no stage does it appear that Ahtisaari has made a decision out of desire for personal grandeur. A passage from early in his career concerns his stint as ambassador to Tanzania in the 1970s. Having begun his public service in Finland’s first, small foreign aid office, Ahtisaari was quickly enamoured of Tanzania and its President, Julius Nyerere, a non-aligned socialist who lived a modest personal life. Nyerere’s vision was appealing but his economic policies were disastrous. Soon after Ahtisaari was posted there as ambassador (and de facto head of the small Finnish community of aid workers and missionaries), the capital, Dar es Salaam, ran short of food. Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen describe the privations of those days: empty shops, intermittent electricity, and shortages of even basics such as flour and butter. They continue: “The young Finnish families had collectively decided that if Tanzanians could manage on what they found in the shops, so could they. Solidarity was the watchword of the day. The services of a Danish forwarding company, under the strict control of the embassies, would be resorted to only in the face of extreme necessity”. Their ambassador shared the hardships. That kind of principled and practical solidarity is unthinkable today: no aid workers, let alone diplomats, go hungry or bathe out of buckets.
Tanzania was neither Ahtisaari’s first nor his formative experience of personal hardship. When he was a child, his family was forced to abandon their home during the war between Finland and Russia (1939–40) and to live as internal refugees. He belongs to that soon-to-pass cadre of European leaders whose memories gave special salience to the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations, “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.
Another necessary quality is patience. Ending wars is ill-suited for the hasty. We tend to think of mediation as a time-limited activity: bringing the warring parties together for a peace conference, or perhaps two, with some shuttle diplomacy to prepare the ground. It’s not so. Ahtisaari moved from Tanzania to the United Nations, where he had the Namibia file for more than a decade. At the beginning, in 1978, he was involved in drawing up the blueprint for Namibian elections leading to independence from South Africa, which had governed the country since the First World War. The hope was that the plans would be implemented within a year. But the South Africans stalled, time and again. In 1981, the incoming Reagan Administration reversed Jimmy Carter’s policy and became more openly sympathetic to South Africa as an anti-Communist bulwark. Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Chet Crocker, coined the term “constructive engagement” for dealing with the apartheid regime. Ahtisaari is remarkably sympathetic to Crocker, avowing that in the circumstances, Namibian independence had to be part of a wider package that included the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, to the immediate north. Nonetheless, it took more than ten years for Namibians to vote for their own government. Ahtisaari was tenaciously pursuing the case all the while, and served as the UN Secretary-General’s representative in Windhoek in 1989–90 when the Namibians finally won their freedom.
A mediator also needs to have a thick skin. Ahtisaari exemplifies the maxim that negotiations should not be conducted through the media, and that the mediator should be ready to take any blame cast on him, fairly or unfairly. A standing joke among mediators is that God blesses the peacemakers, because no one else will. One episode in the Namibian process is a sobering example of this.
On the eve of the first Namibian elections, March 31, 1989, hundreds of fighters of the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) crossed the border, armed, in contravention of the agreement whereby they were supposed to stay in their bases inside Angola. The SWAPO leader, Sam Nujoma, had told them that they were going home to hand in their weapons and cast their votes. Under the peace agreement, the South African army remained the guarantor of security, and Ahtisaari authorized them to leave their bases and intercept the guerrillas. Hundreds of young Namibian fighters were killed that night and the following day, one of the largest losses of life in the entire war, second only to the 1978 Cassinga massacre, when South African paratroopers machine-gunned a refugee camp. But Africa’s liberation leaders accused Ahtisaari of responsibility for a war crime and shunned him as complicit in the massacre. He never responded: it’s the mediator’s job to draw the fire.
Sam Nujoma is father of the Namibian nation and although he stepped down from the presidency in 2005, he remains beyond public criticism in the country. Merikallio and Ruokanen investigate this episode. They find that Nujoma, against the warnings of his own comrades, followed the advice and example of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who had urged him to establish a presence inside the country at the time of liberation, so that SWAPO could fully take the credit for the victory. Mugabe later grudgingly acknowledged this by remarking, “I hope you understand we were acting as politicians then”, which Ahtisaari took as “the nearest thing to an apology that could be expected from Mugabe”. In turn, this passage in The Mediator is the closest thing to a public explanation that we can expect from Ahtisaari.
By definition, peacemaking entails talking with war-makers who are each other’s enemies. They have often committed evil acts. Reconciliation is needed. If it’s in their interests, such men do not find it difficult to forgive, or at least to overlook, one another’s misdeeds. Wars breed bitterness but opposing commanders may come to resemble one another more than they care to admit. They often have much in common with one another: they are enemies from circumstance rather than principle.
For the international mediator, it’s not his war: he is neither tainted by the crimes nor related to the victims. But his conscience is also on the table, and he may believe in peace not as an exercise in political calculus, but as a humanitarian necessity. He doesn’t choose the parties or the dispute, and his control is limited to skill in handling the agenda, and moral suasion.
Ahtisaari is frank about dealing with war criminals. Asked to mediate over the Kosovo war, he walked straight up to Slobodan Milosevic, shook him by the hand, and addressed him as “Mr President”. Ahtisaari also told Milosevic that the Prosecutor of the Yugoslav tribunal would be seeking an arrest warrant for him, and there was nothing he, Ahtisaari, could do about it. In common parlance, “speaking diplomatically” means obscuring an unpleasant reality. For Ahtisaari, it means courteous candour.
Called on to facilitate a peace agreement in the Indonesian province of Aceh, Ahtisaari was candid in his concerted efforts to control the agenda of the talks, and equally frank that any agreement reached could not be enforced with international troops. Ahtisaari seeks peace not through an impartiality of equidistance between the warring sides, but because he believes in peace.
Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen’s book contributes to the long-running debate on what the academy can contribute to the craft of conflict resolution. Ahtisaari is no intellectual, and this biography has scant reference to any scholarly contributions to his thinking or the key decisions he made therein. It makes an interesting comparison with another recent memoir, The Fog of Peace (2015) , an account by Jean-Marie Guéhenno of his eight years as head of peacekeeping at the United Nations. Guéhenno is a wholly different kind of international civil servant: an avid reader and a philosopher. In his prologue, Guéhenno confesses that when in office he read neither political science nor “how to” books and reports with their detailed recommendations for how to solve international crises. He didn’t find them useful. Rather, he writes, “What I needed was the fraternal companionship of other actors before me who had had to deal with confusion, grapple with the unknown, and yet had made decisions”. Peacemaking is its own school, and Martti Ahtisaari is a master.