New Zealand has a proud record of involvement, leadership, and success in the realm of the United Nations. Helen Clark was the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017, and was a candidate for the top job of Secretary General last year.
The whole united nations show in the Bosnian war was lead by a very experienced, clever Japanese diplomat called Yasushi Akashi, and the military chief was a short, fit, tough Frenchman called Lieutenant General Bernard Janvier. He spoke little English, had a scar on his cheek, and had spent most of his life leading his legionnaires in active combat. I was proud to serve alongside him as his ‘Air General’, arranging and advising on all matters of air power and support, on behalf of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The challenges were immense, and there were some very dark times, but eventually the conflict was suppressed, and the warring factions came to a pretty much peaceful agreement, which holds today.
Stationed at the UN headquarters in Zagreb, I have many memories of that time. But one evening, in particular, stands out.
I was the only non-frenchman in a military tent on Mount Igman (home of the Winter Olympics in 1984), overlooking war-wrecked Sarajevo. The other 30 or so who were present, were foreign legion officers, hosting a formal dinner in honourof General Janvier. It was bitterly cold, pitch black, and the wind was howling.
The evening started with great drama as the youngest officer sliced off the top of a bottle of champagne with a razor-sharp sabre. After the meal, the officers sang mournful songs about comrades who had died in combat, and they also sang about women, both real and imaginary, loved and long lost. Later Janvier gave a shortspeech and said of the singing, “Tous les chansons des soldats sont tristes.” (All soldiers’ songs are sad.) I told him later that that should be the title of his memoirs. The evening was moving, eerie, and beautiful.
Since that time, I have worked, in the military and later as a businessman, in multinational organisations. It carries much in the way of frustration, challenge and, to a degree, inefficiency, when compared to single-nation institutions. But I can say with conviction that, in the end, working with others on big challenges produces better, more durable, and more satisfying outcomes. During the big portion of my teenage life, growing up in New Zealand, I learned that the ability to work with other cultures is very much a part of Kiwi values and the Kiwi skill set. I am grateful to have been taught that ability in this great country.