Sir Brian Urquhart Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The United Nations After 9/11: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart, Former Under Secretary General of the United Nations; February 23, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Ralph Bunche

Brian, welcome back to Berkeley.

Very nice to be here.

This is the 100th anniversary of Ralph Bunche's birth, and you were just in UCLA to celebrate that anniversary. He was an extraordinary individual: a scholar, a peacemaker, a Nobel Laureate. If he were around today, what would he be telling us about the world situation and America's role in the world today?

If I may just say two sentences about Ralph Bunche, because he tends to be rather forgotten. He's one of the most creative and important international figures of the last century, and probably one of the most important people in the United States.

He was one of the early founders of the Civil Rights movement. He wrote a great deal of An American Dilemma, which is still a very important book on the problems of race in the United States. Then he went to the UN where he, among other things, founded the trusteeship system. He was the only person who got a written agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors for thirty years, the armistice agreements of 1949. He also invented peacekeeping. It wasn't called peacekeeping then, but he did invent it. So he really did rather a lot!

All of these things people have heard of, but they have seldom heard of him, [partly because] he was an extremely modest man. To my mind, he was the absolutely perfect public servant. He was a person who minded about the job, did not mind who got the credit, was extremely leery of publicity about himself, and just got on with it. And, incidentally, he never changed. He was just as modest and funny and unpretentious when he was extremely grand as he was when he was a young man. So I just want to introduce you to Ralph Bunche, and I hope you'll think about him. It's his 100th anniversary.

We should mention that he was a Black American and a graduate of UCLA.

Yes, that's right. He studied at UCLA. I'm sorry to say he never came to Berkeley, but he would have liked it if he had.

You asked about what he would have thought about the present situation of the world -- well, I think he must be turning in his grave. He would be appalled at some of the policies that we have everywhere in the world, not just in the United States but in the Islamic world, and in some other countries as well. He would be very shocked by what has happened in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. He was the mediator in Palestine in 1949 -- as I said, he concluded the armistice agreements, which for twenty years were the only peaceful arrangement in the Middle East. Incidentally, he wrote the Palestinian Partiton Plan in 1947. I think he would be very upset.

He would also be extremely uneasy about the policy of preventive war. As a matter of fact, just before I came here, I came across a quotation from the speech he gave in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. It may ring a bell with you. May I just read it?


This was quite a longish speech, and let me just say that in 1950 there were people in Washington who believed that we ought to finish off the Soviet Union before they developed further nuclear weapons, and this is what he's talking about. It was the to be ultimate preventive war.

"There are some in the world who are prematurely resigned to the inevitability of war. Among them are the advocates of the so-called preventive war, who in their resignation to war wish merely to select their own time for initiating it. To suggest that war can prevent war is a base play on words and a despicable form of warmongering. The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honorable recourse in the effort to save the peace. The world has ample evidence that war begets only conditions which beget further war."

Well, that's Ralph Bunche. That was fifty-four years ago.

How would you compare Bunche's generation -- and you worked with him, he was your mentor; you [also] worked with Eleanor Roosevelt -- to the present leadership group of the United States? It's such a different view of the world and such a different view of the role of the UN.

There is a huge difference. The idea of public service in the United States was much more developed then than it is now. People think about politics now, but they don't necessarily think about public service. Someone like Mrs. Roosevelt, or indeed Bunche, were primarily public servants, and they believed in it. They did not believe they were in it to become immortal or to get some huge reputation. Bunche is the only person I know who tried to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize, incidentally. Then he was told, rather sharply, by the then-Secretary-General of the U.N., a Norwegian, that he was ordered to accept it. But he didn't think it was relevant to what he was doing.

You have to remember that the United States invented most of the current ideas of internationalism. They invented the League of Nations, which was swept away. They invented the United Nations, which was the special project of Franklin Roosevelt. Throughout the war when he had, goodness knows, enough things on his mind, he was constantly thinking about the world order after the war. What came out of that was the United Nations Charter, which, as you know, was finalized and signed here in San Francisco in 1945.

People like Bunche and a lot of other leaders in the United States believed that the role of the United States in the world was to lead and participate. It is extraordinary to think that in 1945, with the exception of the Soviet Union, every country in the world wanted to join the United Nations because the United States urged them to do it. They did not have a feeling that the United States was trying to dominate them. The United States was the champion of decolonization in the world. They, therefore, did not have a feeling that a new empire was being thrust on them.

Things have changed very much, and I think that is a pity. I hope we get back to the idea of participatory leadership for the world's most powerful country, because without that, everybody's going to suffer, including the United States.

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