Lonely, because unlike a nation state, the UN has only a nebulous authority to call on; demanding, because each move requires a wearisome process of consent and compromise between rival member states.
Yet at 71 and previously immersed in the slow-moving currents of Arab diplomacy, a Francophile who prefers a life of letters to the perusal of draft resolutions, Boutros Boutros-Ghali shows no sign of slackening. Indeed, his intellect, not to mention his temper, remain formidable. And both reason and patience seem to have been tested in his recent dealings with the most powerful UN member, the United States.
Mr Boutros-Ghali makes light of his troubled relations with the Clinton administration - 'honestly, they are good'; indeed, many of the sharper diplomats around the UN think that, deep down, the Secretary-General and the US share a shrewd understanding of their common interests. Both deal with the paradox of public opinion that craves action but fears casualties.
'People are ready to accept that their sons are killed to defend their homeland,' he observes, 'but they are still not ready to accept that their sons will be killed in a peacekeeping operation somewhere in a country which they don't know.'
The Cold War had preserved certainties that disintegrated overnight, he says. Then, thanks to satellite television, public opinion found itself confronted by the consequent misery and conflict. Immediate remedies were demanded. The United Nations, propelled to the scenes of these various disasters upon a wave of euphoric expectation, now found itself both victim and scapegoat.
'We are beginning a new experience,' the Secretary-General says. 'We are involved in 22 operations. The fact that the UN is so much criticised proves that we are active. The fact that the United Nations has so much credibility shows that we are doing at least something.'
But is the credibility of the UN not in question after Somalia and former Yugoslavia? 'No, no, no]' Mr Boutros- Ghali says. People have to understand that the UN has no mandate to enter a war, only to broker and maintain a peace in those unhappy countries. 'By pure accident' - he says guilelessly - 'I listened to the speech of your Prime Minister Major and he said openly 'we don't intend to enter a war'. So this is quite evident.'
While American opinion from the Midwest to Capitol Hill rose against the operation in Somalia, the Secretary- General stoutly defends it. Indeed, he maintains that the UN must prevail or get out.
'A year ago you had a hundred thousand children dying. Nobody is dying from starvation any more in Somalia. Peace has been established in 99 per cent of the territory. In only 1 per cent of the territory, which is the south of Mogadishu, the people are against the peace process' - General Mohammed Farah Aideed's clan - 'and they don't represent more than 1 per cent of the population of the territory. The 11 other clans have signed letters, sent telegrams, staged a demonstration of more than 20,000. They are quite afraid that we will withdraw.'
The Secretary-General is adamant that from Mogadishu to Zagreb people should get the message that the UN can and will withdraw from operations that make no sense either in terms of risks or results.
'Once you have sent troops on the ground it is very difficult to withdraw them, but it can be done and it was done by the Americans, the Italians, the British and the French in Beirut. And they acted very wisely.'
Few Western officials care to recollect the failed mission of the Multinational Force to Lebanon in 1983; fewer still the loss of hundreds of soldiers, the ignominy of departure and the years of anarchy that ensued. It remains a parable for those opposed to whimsical intervention without careful plans and sure prospects of success.
The Secretary-General evidently believes that the choice in Mogadishu is between staying the course and witnessing a replay of Lebanon, with the televised addendum of renewed starvation. 'We have to see what could be done to promote reconciliation, and how we will have to prepare ourselves after the departure of the Americans.'
That will be quite a test, will it not? 'Exactly. We have to see what the member states are ready to offer . . . how we will continue to be there - or, on the contrary, let us be truthful, all of us - ' he pauses, diplomacy wrestling with truth ' - whether it will be like we have seen in Beirut.'
Mr Boutros-Ghali has applied the principles of his French legal training to the study of power and diplomacy since completing his PhD in Paris in 1949. As a Coptic Christian married to a Jew, Mr Boutros-Ghali was an unusual member of the Egyptian elite. But his family, wealthy landowners, had moved in government circles since the British ruled in Egypt and Mr Boutros- Ghali found himself by the side of Anwar Sadat at Camp David to draft the peace accords with Israel.
A traitor to Islamic militants since that day, he is apparently under renewed personal threat. Security around him has been increased and the US Secret Service now escorts him when
he leaves the UN headquarters in Manhattan.
'I am an optimist,' he says. 'If you mention the setbacks you have to mention the successes.' Cambodia and El Salvador have witnessed a dramatic transformation for the better. The UN had also been instrumental in arranging a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war and the release of the last western hostages in Beirut, he says.
And he does not accept that the UN has failed in the former Yugoslavia. 'We have been able to maintain, I will not say peace, but at least a ceasefire between Croatia and Serbia. We have been able to send preventive forces to Macedonia, we have been able to provide food and shelter for more than two million refugees and we have been able to provide thousands and thousands of tons of food in Sarajevo and in Mostar. So you cannot talk about failure.'
Well, actually, you can. Unprofor's mandate can clearly not be fulfilled, there is a crisis of morale from top to bottom in its ranks, Bosnia has descended into a Dantean circle of torment and, privately, many senior UN officials question whether they should be there at all.
The Secretary-General throws his hands up in exasperation at such suggestions. The UN is no more than the sum of its parts. 'The weak partner in this operation is the UN, the strong party is the member states,' he points out. The members pay funds, supply experts, develop resolutions. If governments did not want to commit sufficient troops and resources to intervene in a conflict, then the UN effort would be but a mirror of their indecision.
'There are new, global problems,' he says, listing the spread of nuclear weapons, Aids, drugs and environmental disaster. 'For the time being, there is no other forum than the United Nations.'
At times, the view of the world from the 38th floor of the UN's Manhattan headquarters must seem chaotic and daunting, unrelieved by the crystalline meadow of lights glittering across the East River, into Brooklyn and Queens. The Secretary-General has made it clear that he will leave when his mandate expires at the end of 1996. 'Then I intend to begin to write, because I was a good writer.'
The prose may be elegant, in Arabic or French, but its message, no doubt, will be acerbic.
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