What adjective should describe “the American” active in foreign policy? Graham Greene chose “quiet”, as his character harmed a country he did not understand. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer used “ugly”.
Robert D Kaplan, one of America’s most thoughtful chroniclers of foreign affairs, proposes “good” to describe Bob Gersony, who in “a frugal monastic existence that has been both obscure and extraordinary” has devoted his life to using the power and treasure of the US to serve others through humanitarian action.
A son of Holocaust refugees, he never held a formal government position. He was instead a contractor for the state department, USAid or the United Nations. Yet his work improved the lives of millions, saving many, and corrected policies that might otherwise have been implemented by “ugly” or “quiet” figures who did not understand the countries in which they operated.
Gersony’s method was simple: to conduct interviews through a trusted translator with individuals fleeing conflict, to stay “in continuous, tactile contact with the evidence”. It was exhausting work in extraordinarily difficult circumstances but his information, transmitted to senior policymakers in highly detailed “Gersony reports”, was both essential and frequently (as in Mozambique and Bosnia) the opposite of what the policy community believed or wished to believe.
The truth about a place “emerges from the bottom up”, he said, and thus “you must always believe refugees”.
Accountability, absolute integrity, objectivity and boldness in speaking to authority were his watchwords. His independence meant personal insecurity. He often shared a simple shack with a translator and slept with his notes under his pillow. Personal danger and hardship were part of the job, yet in no other way could the truth emerge and successful policy be formulated.
“When you listen to ordinary people,” Gersony believed, “there is so much wisdom.”
Kaplan calls Gersony “a business-oriented math brain with a non-ideological conservative streak … think of him as an emotionally tortured character straight out of a Saul Bellow novel, engrossed throughout his life in the brooding and dangerous tropical settings defined by Joseph Conrad.”
This is also the story of another era of US foreign policy, one in which realism and humanitarianism combined to include human rights in the national interest, against the backdrop of the cold war, so often hot in the developing world. Human rights and grand strategy complemented each other. Gersony had bosses who were “authentic, heartland Americans … the ultimate selfless public servants … deeply moral without being ideological, while operating at the top of the power structure”.
Gersony started in Guatemala, where he began a language school and after the 1976 earthquake worked with relief organizations. He took charge of hurricane relief in Dominica, standing up to the prime minister, asserting, “If you empower people, they won’t be corrupt.” Moving on to El Salvador in the civil war, he recommended massive employment programs for displaced persons, building sewage canals and cobblestone streets – practical improvements that also discouraged guerrillas from attacking the people.
His solutions were often elegantly simple because they provided the dignity of work and reflected what people actually wanted. And yet, as Kaplan writes, “He still had no credentials … in the ordinary careerist sense, he had risen as far as he ever would.” For Kaplan, as for Gersony, “a meaningful life is about truth, not success.”
The assignments kept coming: Vietnamese boat people in Thailand; Sudan and Chad; Honduras, where his counterintuitive but accurate recommendation showed once again that “ground-level fieldwork … triumphs over the discussion of big abstract ideas”. In Uganda’s Lowero Triangle, he uncovered genocide with the unexpected help of a British officer advising President Obote. The secretary of state, George Shultz, cut off aid.
As Kaplan writes, “History pivoted in southern Africa thanks to Bob Gersony.” After an unusual meeting with Shultz and Maureen Reagan, daughter of the president, the US did not aid Renamo guerrillas in Mozambique. Gersony tackled a highly complex situation in Somalia and in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide worked with UNHCR on the repatriation of Hutus. As one official said, his unwelcome truth-telling “stopped the killing machine”. He worked in northern Uganda with World Vision long before Joseph Kony became a hashtag. Knowing the dangers of travel in that region, “he treated the motor pool chief like a high official”.
Gersony worked tirelessly. “If we skipped lunch,” he said, “we could interview one more refugee, and each refugee was precious – you never knew which one would yield a breakthrough in understanding.”
By Kaplan’s own admission, his book is also something of his own story, a lament for a time when internationalist moderates dominated both parties and the foreign service enjoyed “the last golden age of American diplomacy … when the bureaucracy at all levels had sufficient money and rewarded talent” in furthering “that sturdy, moderate national security consensus that no longer exists”.
Kaplan does not quite regret the end of the cold war but he does note the resulting separation between idealism and power.
Indeed, Gersony’s career ended in a very different world. Kaplan sees Plan Colombia, an early 2000s push against leftwing guerrillas and drug cartels, as “a precursor for the fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq”, where gigantic projects and a “dysfunctional interagency process” often failed for lack of perspective. Gersony’s later tasks included tracking food assistance for North Korea, examining the Maoist insurgency in Nepal (and wishing USAid had continued road-building there), and disaster planning in Micronesia, where “in this emerging naval century … Oceania was indeed at the heart of geopolitics” and control of shipping lanes.
Can realism and idealism combine again? Only through what the French academic Gérard Prunier wrote about Gersony’s “great respect for the factual truth. The world is not just an interpretation or a place for competing narratives.” In the end, Kaplan’s life of Gersony recalls the advice of another quintessential American, Mark Twain: “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”