Backstabbing for Beginners: A Must Watch Movie for International Relations Students

Backstabbing for Beginners is definitely a fresh air for International Relations students — even more for an International Relations enthusiast like me, who has longed for a movie like this to be more mainstream.

Theo James as Michael Sullivan in Backstabbing for Beginners (2018).

The movie revolves around a moral questioning of a young UN staff, Michael Sullivan, in his career ladder assisting an Under Secretary General of the United Nations, Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris — who happens to head the Oil for Food Program by the UN.

In the beginning of the movie, it is said that it is based on a true story. Stretching the information a little bit further, Michael Soussan, the author of a book titled Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course to International Diplomacy, was bossed by Benon Sevan, who happened to be the Head of the Oil for Food Program too when the program has not yet been termintated.

Sullivan, a 24 year old, started his career at the United Nations aiding Pasha. He was sent to Baghdad, Iran, where the program was run to learn more things about the program, in order to finalize the report to be presented before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The Oil for Food Program itself was created by the UNSC through Resolution 986. The program was intended to feed the Iraqi people amidst international sanctions imposed by — mainly — the United States and the United Kingdom to Saddam Hussein’s government. In order to do so, the program assisted Iraq to sell oil extracted from the country in market price.

Along his journey in Iraq to gather more information to complete the report, Sullivan found that there are a lot of corruption here and there revolving the Oil for Food Program. Not only that Sullivan found that the Saddam Hussein’s government was corrupt, the whole system turned out to be corrupted — the private sector, the government, even the United Nations are all caught up in this vicious cycle.

“Unsettling” would describe how he felt when he was working for the program. His boss received bribes, in order to ensure that the program would still run in the country, because otherwise the mafia would disrupt the whole program — while the regional director would like to put the program to an end given the massive and systematic corruption that happened. She, basically, would like to expose the flaws of the program to the UNSC, which Pasha clearly opposed.

To add to the already interesting story, Pasha met Nisham, a Kurdish woman from the Iraqi side of the territory. They fell in love and had some disagreements, again, related to moral questions — whether or not letting corruption happen, while as a trade-off, allowing the program to keep running.

It is interesting to see the world through Pasha’s point of view, though, given that he would trade the corrupt system for the Iraqi people to be able to eat. He received bribes in order to ensure that the program would still run, and therefore could still feed the Iraqi people.

On the other hand, Sullivan felt that what Pasha is doing is clearly wrong.

In the end of the story, Sullivan went to the Wall Street Journal to whistleblow the flaws of the program — which led to a reform to the United Nations (which, at that time, was still under Kofi Annan’s leadership).

As a (former) International Relations student — who has a lot of friends who fantasize to work with the United Nations, I feel that this story is a good start to get one’s self to be more realistic about the world, and to get prepared to answer the moral question at work.

Not to conclude whether the United Nations is perfect or otherwise, I would instead use the over-used former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld’s phrase to end this piece:

“the United Nations was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”