“A peace-keeper and she is a woman” Interview with Jane Holl Lute Assistant Secretary-General and Officer-in-Charge of the Department of Field Support, a new department created to work with the Department of Peace-keeping Operations (DPKO).

She is an American, dynamic, positive woman — and if ever you get a chance to meet her, we hope that you will be as impressed as we were. Not only does she have has an impressive CV — after a distinguished career in the United States Army, Ms Lute has occupied several senior posts in major foundations engaged in international affairs, as well as on the staff of the United States National Security Council; Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund; Executive Director of the Association of the United States Army’s project on the role of American Military Power. If this were not enough, she has headed the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict and was a senior public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars, and director of European Affairs in the National Security Council staff at the White House. Unlike many brilliant career women, Ms Lute is married and has three children. What more can one say …
After the interview was over and just before leaving her office, Ms Lute told us on a smiling note that this had been one of the most difficult interviews she had ever granted to anybody … and that it was the last time she was going to talk about herself — so read it well. Perhaps you will understand that this is a woman unlike many others with a humble, open and human attitude. If only we could meet such people more often …
Q: You are Assistant Secretary-General for Peace-keeping Operations. But you started your career in the US Army, what exactly did you do there?
I was commissioned in the Signal Corps, Communi-cations, and then I spent a lot of time in political military affairs.
Q: You have an impressive career … and a family. How do you manage all this?
I come from a family where women have traditionally worked and had children. My grandmother worked until her 80s and she had seven children. My mother worked when she could and had seven children. I have worked since I was 13 years old and I have three children — so I guess I do not know how to answer that question!
Q: Let me put it this way. In Europe where I come from women have problems combining family life and careers. How do you reconcile this?
Somebody once told me that there are two kinds of women —working women and women who work. From far away you cannot tell them apart, but once you get closer you can tell because of the choices they make. Working women are concerned about their careers and about making a mark professionally.
I am a woman who works. The most important things to me in my life are my husband and my children. I have made choices in my career that are forgotten opportunities; they are not as important to me as my husband and my children.
Now, there are also people who would say: « if your husband really comes first, you would be living with your husband » … and we are trying to make that work. There is this notion that you can get it all. But you cannot have it all; you have to make choices. As far as careers are concerned, there are « pylons » and there are « pyramids ». Pylons are those who rapidly get to the top, whereas the pyramid is somebody who spends more time at one level, then at another level, and so on. I’m a more of a pyramid than a pylon as I did not rise to the top of anything. (Editorial note: Ms Lute’s husband, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, was appointed at the end of June 2007 to serve on President Bush’s National Security Council for Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Q: You are one of the very few female ASGs in the UN and you are in charge of a department that is very male dominated — peace-keeping is a very masculine field.
I’m aware that I’m one of the senior women in peace- keeping, but I do not think that the first thing people think about me is: « Oh, she’s a woman doing peace-keeping. » I think it’s rather the other way round — here is a peace-keeper and she is a woman. There is a difference. Ask my colleagues. I’m a peace-keeper who happens to be a woman.
Q: How do you explain that there are more men in peace-keeping than women?
First of all, the peace and security business has not traditionally been a field that women have come into in great numbers. Women are making choices in their lives. Until we change, for example, the terms of service in peace-keeping and create more family duty stations, we are not going to have more women.
This field requires an ability to be familiar with the military audience and the civilian audience — there are not a lot of people who can do that. More men have been in the military than women, etc. From all the stereotypes that we know, women have traditionally been in the support roles. I have spent most of my career in the policy-making and programme area — international policy-making, defense policy-making. The position I am in right now is more of an operational management support job. Many of the people who already know me and come to talk with me think it’s very interesting that I’m not doing policy, but support.
Most people here do even know that I was doing policy-making before. The gender issue never comes up — except when there is a discussion about gender!
Q: You do not feel that men treat you differently because you are a woman?
I do not know what they see. You live your life from the inside looking out. I have no idea of what I look from the outside looking in.
By and large, my sense is that, from my colleagues who know me — I have been in peacekeeping now for four years —I do not think that the first thing they think about is the fact that I’m a woman.
Q: To those of us watching from the outside, we think: here is a woman breaking stereotypes, a kind of front runner. Would you say that you could be a role model for others?
I was raised to look in, not to look up, never down, never look around or to hold anybody responsible. What I’m doing is to make the world a better place. That’s what I’m doing for my family, children, husband, colleagues. Therefore, I would not expect anybody to look up to me. I was simply not raised that way!
I raised my own daughter to look in — don’t look around, look in — what are you doing to make things better? What are you not doing that is causing a problem — it’s very important to me. Don’t spend time looking up!
I draw wisdom, inspiration and lessons from everybody, not just people who are at the top of an organization. Sometimes you learn the most interesting and inspiring lessons from people who are not at the top, so no I never think of myself in this way.
Q: Here in the UN do you miss the political work?
Yes, I do actually. I have a very good relationship with my colleagues on the operational side and the head of the department. There are certain regions of the world where I have had some specialist experience in the past, in very specific areas. For instance, in conflict and conflict mitigation, conflict prevention, conflict termination, conflict resolutions and various aspects of that from a policy programming perspective.
I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on how wars end. Why they end when they do; why they do not end sooner; what happens in battlefields can affect decisions taken in capitals; how the dynamics of retrospective satisfaction and prospective satisfaction can conflict with each and prevent conflicts from being resolved; and specific problems of terminating war … So, yes, I don’t get to do too much of that.
What I have to worry about in my job is the long-term fuel contract for Darfur; or the port facility in Mombasa; or personnel vacancies.
It’s important for policy people from time to time to be confronted with the operational side and the implications of decisions, so as to know what they are talking about. Therefore, I do not regret a minute of this.
Q: Peace-keeping has been seen as the United Nations’ success story.
Well, it has been! There have been some quite dark months in the past four years with the sex and abuse scandals, but we have managed to communicate a high degree of professionalism of purpose and pride in this organization. We take very seriously what we do, and we have enormous expertise and experience.
The fact of the matter is that the peace-keepers in the United Nations are the best ones in the world in this business. This does not mean that we are always perfect. What process is always perfect? We are reminding ourselves — in the middle of the abuse scandals or anything else — that we have a purpose in which we can rightly take pride. That’s how you run an organization. And Member States have demonstrated again and again by calling on us that they rely on us for professionalism, for the service that we provide.
Q: I know that there are difficulties in finding troops. How are you facing that problem?
One of the strengths of peace-keeping is the contribution of all Member States. We have a number of troop-contributing countries that, by and large, help us to meet our needs, but other countries can contribute in other ways with sustained political support, by contributing their capacities. We do not expect everybody to do the same thing. But we do need everybody to participate in whatever way they can.
Q: You are as a peace-keeper and in charge of peace-keeping — do you have a special message for the international community in Geneva?
I never think in these terms. The purpose of peace-keeping is to protect and strengthen a fragile peace. It is a tremendous challenge, an incredibly challenging undertaking. We rely on Member States to contribute with troops, to agree to the funding, to provide political support and context — otherwise we cannot succeed. The success of peace-keeping is remembering some important principles. We provide forces to bear the peace-keeping role, but the mission force cannot do all the things that have to be done. While the UN is an important contributor to peace in the aftermath of a conflict, not everything cannot be done by us. There is plenty of work for NGOs and others. We have to remember the principle of the light footprint — the global North is committed to standards. We need to remember dignity, respect and honour for the societies in which we are serving in. This is the kind of business where we demonstrate that the world can pool it strengths to share its burdens.
So when you ask me about me — it’s never about me!
Q: But you are contributing?
We should never lose sight of the fact that we are all contributing, and it’s an extraordinary privilege. Never for a minute do I forget the fact that a peace-keeper’s success depends on what I am able to do, on what people are able to do on my behalf!
Q: So you serve as a good example?
I would take a different point of view. You try to live your life and conduct it in a way that reflects the ideals and the highest aspirations of the organization. Let me tell you that we are dealing with really large and complex problems, and we are only human beings. We are not robots; we are doing the best we can. I will give you a good illustration.
I have just been to Darfur, Sudan. One of our colleagues there had set up a small mini-golf course and he was teaching a couple of young kids to play. One morning we were out there hitting balls and swinging golf clubs, and I said to myself — is this really what we are supposed to be doing in Darfur? And then, I thought to myself, the guy who organized this has been out in Darfur for two years. He set this up to give himself a little mental recreation, a little relaxation. He also sells hats and uses the money to provide the kids with education and to teach them golf. So I said to myself, we are not robots. We are people. It reminds me of two concepts in Judaism — called mismena and kontentema — one is the « intent » and the other is the « deed ». We are coming to an era where you only get credit for the deed if the intent is right. So you get graded on what you did and how you were motivated — shame on us! Shame on us! Have we come so far, have we moved so far away from our own humanity to forget that we are human beings and we are not going to be perfect? It is better that those who expect perfection do not come to the meeting! Or that they should arrange perfection before coming to the meeting!
At this point in my life, I am far slower to judge the effort, the intent that people make their own. If the effect is right, I accept it because the world needs a better effect. I’m not going to grade people on what ultimately would be Western standards of intent, Western sets of principles. Again, if we are all about results and effectiveness, what about the human element? How about honouring the spirit? How about dignifying the effect rather than looking at the whole!
Thus, I do not present myself as an example to anybody. My responsibility is to my children. People may draw their own conclusions. I have far too much respect for my colleagues to think that I will be an example to them. If anything, it would be the reverse because they do not get the attention that I receive — and they deserve it. That’s a special privilege of my position. Power is not position; it’s privilege!
Q: So what is power then?
The privilege of power is to do good. I tell my children: « Never think that you have been born into an enormous privilege of the Western world; you just got lucky. »