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The Tragedy of 21st Century U.N. Peacekeeping

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Peacekeeping is a tragic business. That may seem obvious, if only because, when reading about United Nations peacekeeping operations, you come across the word "tragedy" a lot. It describes what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda all too neatly. There's no better word for what took place in Haiti, where more than 100 U.N. personnel were among the 250,000 dead in January's earthquake.

But, as English professors have tried to explain to generations of dozy students, "tragic" is more than just a synonym for "awful." Great tragedies -- Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, Scarface -- aren't just about suffering. They center on protagonists who, in trying to shape the future, make choices that lead to disastrous consequences. There's a long tradition of political theorists who adopt a tragic vision of international affairs in which, in the words of Chris Brown of the London School of Economics, "there are no unambiguously right answers" to foreign policy problems. In practice, that means that, "To act is, necessarily, to do wrong." ...

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