'Punching above our weight'

March 07, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS -- Sir David Hannay strides the United Nations' carpeted halls the way Britannia's warships once plowed the seas: If he doesn't rule them, he offers a good imitation.

Domineering and acerbic, this 58-year-old envoy with thinning hair and empire-encrusted credentials personifies the aura Britain projects in world affairs despite decades of military and economic decline.

"Punching above our weight," the British call it. And nowhere does Britain hit harder than at the United Nations, where its Security Council veto, willingness to dispatch troops to world hot spots and overall competence still give it great-power influence.

But Sir David's planned retirement next year coincides with the late-20th century realities chipping away at the influence Britain and its bred-to-command diplomats wield at the United Nations, with the United States and around the world.

The five permanent Security Council seats created for World War II's victors offered a valuable boost for Britain, broke and stripped of empire but boasting a proud tradition of world leadership and global swagger.

Its strong role in the United Nations allows Britain to block military intervention in Bosnia and to mobilize and lead some of its far-flung former colonies in Africa and Asia.

And it provides a resonant stage for British spokesmen like Sir David to state their clear sense of the world's rights and wrongs.

Few have plunged into the United Nations with more energy and style than this 36-year professional, who has served in Afghanistan and Iran and learned the ropes of international bodies by representing Britain at European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Typical of his generation's top diplomats, David Hugh Alexander Hannay joined the foreign service by way of Winchester, an ancient boarding school; the distinguished King's Royal Irish Hussars regiment; and first-class honors at Oxford University, where he specialized in studying the pre-World War I statesmen who "made a grade-one hash of the world's affairs."

The title "Sir" came in 1986, when he was dubbed a Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (K.C.M.G.).

His arrival here coincided with the Persian Gulf crisis, an exhilarating moment for the United Nations, the Anglo-American military and diplomatic partnership, and British leadership. Sir David quickly formed a bond with U.S. envoy Thomas R. Pickering, who, he says, "taught me an enormous amount about how the United Nations worked."

When President George Bush replaced Mr. Pickering with the far less dynamic Edward Perkins, Sir David became de facto spokesman for both countries and first among equals in the council.

'Master of dossier'

Diplomats here call him a "master of his dossier" and envy the latitude he gets from London. So expert is he in drafting resolutions, the Security Council's chief lever for controlling world events, that some suspect he tries to make them deliberately obscure so their full dimensions are known only to a few.

His brusqueness is legendary. Suggestions he deems pointless are shot down with a "No-no-no-no-no." He chafes at "tiresome" trivia laid before the council and recently dismissed a quibble among attorneys by asking, "Do you really think that the council has benefited from the presence of all these pedantic lawyers?"

He overreached once -- with nasty repercussions. Amid one of Europe's failed efforts to end the Bosnian war, he tried to get the Security Council to demilitarize Sarajevo.

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian who sees

himself as less a servant of the council than the equal of heads of government, reacted furiously. He accused the council's Europeans of riding roughshod over his prerogatives.

Sir David takes sublime pleasure in having the last word.

"It strikes me as mildly amusing that the first great success -- the only great success of the U.N. in Bosnia so far -- has been the removal of the heavy weapons from the hills around Sarajevo. And what was I trying to do in July 1992? I was trying to get Boutros-Ghali to understand that he had to give top priority to removing heavy weapons from the hills around Sarajevo. So I think that's reasonable vindication."

He acknowledges that representing a mid-sized power, "You cannot just put your foot down and say, 'That's it, because I say so.' I'm not sure anyone can do that anymore, but Britain certainly can't do that anymore. So you have to work with other people, which means sharing your ideas with them and your thoughts. It means looking around for people who are like-minded."

The Balkan disaster has undermined U.N. credibility, the smooth operation of the Security Council and the U.S.-British partnership, a major underpinning of Britain's influence.

Sir David accepts some of the blame: "Everything has gone wrong in Bosnia systematically from the beginning."

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