In “Generation’s End,” Scott Malcomson takes us into an intensely personal experience of life as a New Yorker in a wounded city, and of decision-making in a disorienting and challenging time – at the New York Times, the United Nations, and in the U.S. government. His tone is characteristically open, fearless and humane. He shows both ordinary citizens and decision-makers – and his own friends and family – as they face unfamiliar terrors and try to adjust to an unexpectedly threatening world. In illuminating, through intimate experience and careful analysis, the crucial two years following 9/11 and through the murder of his friend and boss, the UN’s Sergio Vieira de Mello, in Baghdad in August 2003, Malcomson shows us how post-Cold War optimism collided with post-9/11 reality – and the choices Americans now face in a profoundly altered world. “These two years,” George Packer writes in a foreword, “contain all the decisions that would set in motion the larger era, and because it was possible to imagine things taking a different course, the story unfolds and deepens like a tragedy.”
As we approach the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we have a chance to see more lucidly how they set in motion profound changes in America’s relationship with the world. The baby boomers seized the moment after 9/11 to make their generation’s mark in shaping American power. America became more assertive abroad; its authority and legitimacy as the only superpower became more widely opposed; and the limitations of the American-dominated post-World War II international structures, such as the UN, became clearer. This is the high political drama Malcomson narrates in “Generation’s End” – from the inside.
The book’s first half examines the period from 9/11 to just before the invasion of Iraq in early 2003. As an editor of foreign-affairs Op-Eds at the New York Times, Malcomson witnessed the newspaper’s, and the foreign-policy elite’s, struggles to deal with the threats to the city and to American security. As a New Yorker, he captures the confusion, hopes, and bravery of those times with disarming honesty while also providing insight into the shaping of American (and New York Times) policy.
The latter half takes Malcomson to Geneva, where in early 2003 he became senior adviser to the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello. From the halls of the UN and into the White House, Malcomson gives a sympathetic but unsparing account of the estrangement of the international community from the United States. The accounts of a visit to President Bush, and of the collapse of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, are masterful set-pieces of political drama and clear analysis; as George Packer writes in his foreword to “Generation’s End”, Malcomson has “such a supple, self-questioning mind that the book becomes a page-turner.”
When Vieira de Mello becomes the UN’s special representative for Iraq, Malcomson counsels him closely, writing strategy memos, speeches and Op-Eds (including politically sensitive material revealed here for the first time). Vieira de Mello strives to find ways to bring Iraqis, the UN, and the U.S. and allied countries together in Iraq, but his murder by Al Qaeda in August 2003 ends the effort.
In an afterword, Malcomson looks at the implications of this critical two-year period for the Obama administration and the future of American power in the world.