Ralph Bunche: The Absolutely Indispensable Man

Cover for Borderlines Episode #12: Ralph Bunche: The Absolutely Indispensable Man

Ralph Bunche’s monumental impact as a ground-breaking scholardiplomatNobel Peace Prize winnercivil rights advocate and world influencer receives a thrilling spotlight in Episode #12 of Borderlines. UCLA Professor Kal Raustiala shares stories and highlights from his recent book, The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations and the Fight to End Empire, tracing the fascinating life of one of the twentieth century’s most prominent Black Americans.  Discover hidden history about Bunche’s pivotal role in international decolonization efforts and learn why his leadership and inspiring ideas still reverberate today.

Borderlines listeners who order the book from Oxford University Press can receive a 30% discount when using code AAFLYG6 at their website.

Episode Transcript

Katerina Linos (00:02):

Ralph Bunche is one of the 20th century’s most prominent Black Americans. He’s a groundbreaking scholar, diplomat, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, civil rights advocate, and world influencer. Yet, depending on your age and where you grew up, you may never have heard of him. Either way, I hope you’ll join us today for a conversation between me, Katerina Linos, Tragen Professor of International Law at UC Berkeley, and UCLA Law Professor, Kal Raustiala, who wrote a new biography. This new book, The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations and the Fight to End Empire, traces his fascinating life and talks about Bunche’s pivotal role in international decolonization efforts.

Kal Raustiala (00:50):

First, thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate the opportunity, and of course, it’s always great to talk about one’s work, and so this book, which was really, in some ways, one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever done in my career, is one I’m more than happy to dig into. So, who was Ralph Bunche? He was, as you mentioned, a Nobel Prize winner, a diplomat, a civil rights advocate, a professor, someone who wore many hats in his career. He passed away in 1971, so he’s someone who’s been gone for quite a while, and unfortunately, as you mentioned, forgotten in many ways.


He really came to prominence through his work at the United Nations. We’ll, I’m sure, get into more detail, but in a nutshell, after a career as a professor at Howard, he went into, first, the State Department, and then the UN, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the early mediation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1949, and through that, became one of the most famous Black Americans of his era, in fact, really, of the 20th century in many ways, especially because he was working in such a traditionally white and upper class field. And so I think part of his story is one in which he triumphs in this field that’s both incredibly important during the Cold War, but also one that’s almost entirely white, and so he really stood out, and he was, as I talk about in the book, celebrated throughout the nation, and in fact, throughout the world. I’ll stop there, and I’m happy to fill in all kinds of things.

Katerina Linos (02:14):

I was going to ask you about his being an African American a little later, but let me start with that. You mentioned in the book that one of his reasons for moving to the UN was because living in D.C. was a totally different experience, so working for the U.S. government necessarily involved segregation in day-to-day intercourse, and moving to New York meant much more integration for him and for his family. I know the biography focuses mostly on his professional life, but maybe you could talk a little bit about his family and his life.

Kal Raustiala (02:48):

Sure. First of all, I should say, given that we’re on this podcast, he is a University of California alum, and one of the great things about him is he . . . well, I first learned about him because if you’ve been been to UCLA or any of the listeners who know UCLA know one of the tallest buildings on campus is Bunche Hall. That is named after him. He’s class of 1927, at that time, the University of California Southern branch, so Berkeley can claim him as well because there was really only one University of California campus at that time, but in any event, he was a pioneer at UCLA. The University of California was quite white in those days, and throughout his career, he was a kind of racial pioneer.


He did end up teaching at Howard, a historically Black university. He was doing his PhD at the same time, and it was kind of a tenure span, but he was gone a lot of that period of time. By the time he gets into the State Department, he’d been living in D.C. for quite a while, and D.C. was a very segregated city at that point. That was a difficult experience for him, for his family, one that was really frustrating. He had grown up in Los Angeles from what, 13 onwards, so in terms of what he probably knew best, he was more familiar with, let’s say a lighter form of discrimination than what was taking place in D.C..


Not that California was that great, but D.C. was much worse and was viewed by him as a really, really difficult place to live. So when he got the chance to go to the UN, he took it for many reasons. Segregation that you pointed to is definitely part of it and a feeling that for his children — his family was starting to grow, at that point he had three young kids — that it would be a much more amenable place to live in New York. Again, not that New York in the late ’40s was any kind of racial paradise; it was certainly a different experience than segregated Washington. The UN itself was a pretty unusual workplace, and so one of the things I talk about in the book is that when he took that position, he was entering what was a multicultural workplace at a time when there were no multicultural workplaces.


It really was unique, and it became even more unique over time as it grew and the membership changed, which is a big theme in the book. The flood of new states from Asia and Africa meant a really, really unusual place to work, and one that, for him, was very, very congenial. There was both a pull factor and a push factor. It didn’t hurt that UN salaries were tax-free, at that time; they’re unfortunately for Americans, not exactly tax-free anymore, but they were, so it was an attractive job in a lot of ways.

Katerina Linos (05:12):

I noticed a footnote where he got both a significant pay bump and no taxes on that, and that, in my own research with Kristina Daugirdas, is a big theme of why people like the UN. Let’s talk about the successes of the UN, because in your book you argue that he was critical to two UN successes that are linked, and I’d like to hear about why they’re UN successes, why they’re linked.

Kal Raustiala (05:36):


Katerina Linos (05:36):

I agree with you, but they’ve been very criticized. One, you argue, is a decolonization process, the other is UN peacekeeping. I’d love to hear about what the UN has done in this period, and then we can turn to his contributions.

Kal Raustiala (05:53):

First, in many ways, the theme of the book, as the subtitle implies, is about the fight against empire and the way in which the process of decolonization that took place in the mid-20th century was both an incredible revolution in human governance and justice, but also, a really powerful political and legal change — one that international lawyers in some ways are more attuned to than maybe many political scientists, but in both fields, a really, really powerful event that radically transforms the international system. At the beginning of the UN, there are 50 member states in San Francisco signing the UN charter in 1945, and today, there are 193. So that roughly quadrupling is an incredible story of human freedom, and decolonization is absolutely essential to that. Not all of the new states are decolonized, but the vast majority are. That’s an incredibly important event. It has hugely a political implications.


We can get into all the different ways it matters. It’s one that, I think is certainly appreciated by many, but probably needs even more attention. The book tries to situate that and situate Bunche’s contributions, but situates him as a, I would argue, absolutely central player in that process. The UN itself is central to it. It’s not the only player by any means.


Many states achieve independence in ways that don’t really connect to the UN directly, at least initially, but as I talk about, the UN plays a very important role in shepherding that process along in being a home for normative change, but also being a place that can assist new states. So that’s decolonization. Peacekeeping is kind of a flip side to that, in many ways, and Bunche is absolutely essential to the development of peacekeeping. It’s not that peacekeeping did not exist before the creation of the UN. There are some early precursors.


I discussed this a bit in the book, but as we know peacekeeping today, it is really an invention of the United Nations, and it’s not necessarily connected to decolonization in every instance, but frequently, it’s the product of the fact that a new state entering the international system by definition has unstable political coalitions, and especially, let’s say, for decolonized states. Africa would be the signal example. Borders were drawn often in European drawing rooms in the late 19th century, and really bore very little resemblance to any kind of understanding of either political, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, religious divisions. And so you had different groups vying for power, and unsurprisingly, oftentimes civil war breaks out. Congo being an excellent example, or very tragic example, of this dynamic. So, peacekeeping becomes absolutely essential to making decolonization as peaceful as possible to manage that. That’s a really kind of two sides of a coin story, and I try to link that and explain that relationship throughout the book, but of course, as a kind of biography, I focus on Bunche’s role, and he is absolutely at the center of the pivot between those two phenomena.

Katerina Linos (08:47):

Fantastic, and I love that you go into two conflicts where he played a critical role that are still very much unfortunately live conflicts. I’d love to hear more about his role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and also his role in the Congo negotiations. Maybe we can start with why he won the Nobel Peace Prize and what our hopes were at the time, and how you have seen things evolved since.

Kal Raustiala (09:13):

That’s a really, really fascinating story that I thought I knew something about, the history of Israel and Palestine, but it’s really interesting, the role of the UN is absolutely critical, and Bunche is at the very center of it. So in a nutshell, after World War I until 1947, the British had the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, and the mandate system was a system that was aimed at essentially taking colonies from the losers of World War I, handing them over to the winners, but not to keep, but instead, ideally, supposedly, to shepherd them to some form of independence, though that didn’t really happen, but that was the sort of nominal goal. And so the British had control over what had been Ottoman Palestine. If you look back in the ’30s and ’40s, it was very similar in many ways to the situation today in terms of the rhetoric and the issues. Obviously, context was very different, but surprising commonalities, and eventually, the British give up and say, “We don’t want to deal with this anymore. We’re going to hand it to the UN,” and by this point, in 1947, the UN is around and the British see this as a nice way to get rid of a problem that they really cannot solve.


The UN has to take this task on with almost no expertise. Bunche ends up being the person that goes over there with an initial team of Secretariat officials to try to learn about the problem. It’s his first time in the Middle East. He goes in there, and then there’s a repeat of many different commissions of UN-style things, trying to figure out what to do, and the upshot is there’s ultimately a decision to partition mandatory Palestine into two states. A familiar story today, still, sort of a goal of many.


That doesn’t really work for many reasons, including that when Israel declares independence, many of the Arab states around that immediately attack; they were opposed to the process throughout, viewed it as an illegitimate process from the beginning, so there’s warfare right off the bat, but of course, there’d been warfare before that and warfare ever since. Bunche ends up being the mediator, which is what he wins the Nobel Peace Prize for. He’s first the Deputy mediator. The original mediator, who’s a Swedish Count, is actually assassinated by Jewish extremists in Israel, and Bunche was supposed to be in the car next to him when he is shot, but for a weird reason of a plane delay and so forth, he’s not there, and he ends up escaping death narrowly, and then becoming the acting mediator, and then successfully negotiating a series of armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria, et cetera, Jordan, and those are still invoked in many settings. When we talk about the Green Line, that is actually a line that he helped draw in this mediation effort. So that is what catapulted him to international fame, was his role as the mediator


at a time when the UN was still a very new institution. People didn’t really understand it, but increasingly around the world, the idea of this struggle in Palestine between Arabs and Jews had captured attention, and Bunche as a center of this story, was viewed as a kind of conquering hero. In the 1951 Academy Awards, he is the person who gives the Best Picture Award out, and he comes on stage, and he’s introduced by Fred Astaire as the person who achieved the miracle of peace in Palestine. That’s how he was viewed. He’s viewed as this person who has solved the problem. With hindsight, we know he did not solve the problem, but he did a pretty good job.

Katerina Linos (12:25):

Just to push you on this, the way he did a pretty good job is he set up some criteria that we still reference, and there were periods of peace that would otherwise have not occurred.

Kal Raustiala (12:34):

Yes, if we examine peacekeeping, if we examine his mediation efforts, two areas that he was very active in, we can always say, “Well, look at the situation today in the Middle East, constant violence,” or virtually constant, but when in fact, it depends on compared to what. If you think counterfactually, peacekeeping is probably the stronger case, and Bunche himself viewed peacekeeping as his greatest accomplishment. If you view the force that was put into place after the Suez Crisis in 1956, 1957, which he was absolutely central to, involving Egypt and Israel and other neighboring states and France and UK to a degree, at least 10 years in its first incarnation of peace, which by the standards of the region, is pretty good, in fact, maybe really good. You certainly can criticize his efforts, the UN’s efforts, as failing in many instances to actually solve problems. Cyprus would be another example that you’re probably quite familiar with. Bunche spent a lot of time in Cyprus, another place where it’s still by no means solved, but the alternative could be a lot worse, and Bunche believed, and I think I believe, that the UN achieved quite a bit in these cases.

Katerina Linos (13:39):

Cyprus being the best place to be a peacekeeper today, and Congo perhaps being the worst place to be a peacekeeper.

Kal Raustiala (13:44):

Yes. Yes

Katerina Linos (13:44):

It seems that Bunche narrowly escaped assassination attempts multiple times, and you mentioned in the book that one of the reasons he was the lead negotiator for Congo was because of a successful assassination that ended up killing the UN Secretary General.

Kal Raustiala (14:00):


Katerina Linos (14:00):

How did that all work out, and what was Bunche’s contribution to the Congo situation?

Kal Raustiala (14:05):

Congo is absolutely fascinating. I mean, it’s his entire professional career, but there were three events that really loom large. One being Israel-Palestine, another being Suez in the ’50s, and then Congo in the early ’60s. I guess the fourth would be Vietnam, which was much less successful, but those occupy a narrative core of the book, and Congo was so, so interesting and also so tragic. Congo becomes independent in 1960.


1960 was a year that Bunche dubbed “The Year of Africa,” a moniker that’s still used today. 17 states gained their independence in a single year. This is kind of the high point of decolonization. And Congo was certainly geographically the biggest, but by far the most contentious, in part because Belgium had ruled Congo in such a brutal fashion, that Congo was wholly unprepared to really take the reins of governance, and deliberately so on the part of the Belgians, I think it’s fair to say. And so when Congo is headed towards independence, there’s a lot of anxiety in the West and really everywhere about, “How is this going to work?” Dag Hammarskjöld, then the Secretary General, sends Bunche. Bunche, by 1960 is the most famous person in the UN, Hammarskjöld’s right-hand man, and the person who really understands decolonization better than anyone, and so he’s sent there on the ground, as he often was, to be there for the independent ceremonies, but Hammarskjöld said, “I think you need to stay a few weeks because this could be rocky.”


And in fact, it was extremely rocky. Within days, Congo begins to break apart. It was — is today — a vast territory with, again, many, many — I think 500 — different languages spoken within, so you can imagine the kind of political cleavages. And pretty quickly, it starts to break apart both through that kind of dynamic, and then the interest of Belgians and other Westerners in seizing the most valuable parts of Congo, the most mineral-rich province, in particular, one known as Katanga. There’s this effort to reassert white supremacy in Africa by hiving off the best parts of Congo and making them into a puppet regime of Belgium. At least, that was the dominant view within Congo, and I think an accurate one. And so Bunche is on the ground for all of that, and in fact, ends up spending something like three months in Congo that summer as effectively civil war breaks out. The results of all of that, it’s a story that, again, I’ll leave details for readers, but it involves the assassination of the Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, backed by both the CIA —


CIA wants to assassinate him; doesn’t end up assassinating him — Belgian forces probably play a key role — though again, it’s not entirely clear who really pulls the trigger. But he’s tortured and killed. And then eventually, as you referenced, Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General, goes to Congo. By this point, it’s 1961, still trying to broker a peace at a point when the UN has its by far largest peacekeeping force in place in Congo, and is tragically killed in a plane crash, that to this day is quite mysterious.


Even the most recent Blue Ribbon commission of the UN just a couple of years ago, that attempted to dig into exactly what caused the crash, what killed Hammarskjöld, it is not clear that it was an accident. It seems most likely that it was, but the view of the commission was, “We cannot rule out what they call the ‘attack hypothesis,'” the notion that Hammarskjöld was deliberately targeted. That thrusts Bunche into an even more prominent role in Congo, as well as ending the career and the life of probably one of the greatest Secretary Generals in the history of UN.

Katerina Linos (17:25):

That’s fascinating. I want to ask about decolonization, because in reading the book, I had not understood how rapidly and how surprising it was, even for Bunche himself and other elite, who thought, “This is going to happen eventually,” but not at the pace at which it ultimately happened.

Kal Raustiala (17:46):


Katerina Linos (17:47):

Why was decolonization such a surprise? How did it come about? Why was Bunche critical in the process?

Kal Raustiala (17:56):

It’s a great question. Decolonization had been on the agenda for a long time, but always with a very long time horizon, so if you went back to the League of Nations in 1919 and the creation of the mandates, there was this idea of trusteeship and stewardship and so forth. The mandatory powers were intended to shepherd colonies toward independence, but as I mentioned, they really didn’t, and I think everyone viewed this as a long, long process. Even Bunche himself — his PhD at Harvard was on colonial governance; this was something he spent his entire career focused on — he, himself, did not anticipate the rapidity after 1945 in the creation of the UN. The Year of Africa, 1960, being a great example — 17 states all of a sudden emerging. Why did it happen so fast? Many other scholars have written about this. I won’t claim to be an expert on decolonization generally, but I think it’s fair to say that at least the claim of the book is that the UN was a central site.


We can debate exactly why it happened as quickly as it did. I think what we can’t debate is that the UN was the place where, as someone said, internationalism meets self-determination in a very direct way. So the United Nations becomes a forum for agitating for change, and I believe there’s a very powerful ratchet effect that takes place as new states are entering the system and they join the UN as one of their very first acts. In fact, Congo tries to join days before it’s independent. They’re already sending their application in, and Hammarskjöld is like, “They’re not even independent yet. We have to wait on this,” but that’s a sign of how eager States were to assert their sovereignty.


Once they’re there at the UN, and especially as their numbers grow, they can assert their power mostly through the General Assembly to try to normatively change the notions around self-determination and independence. They’re certainly changing ideas about racism. They’re certainly changing ideas about democracy. Empire itself was valorized for most of the early 20th century. It’s fascinating to read, for example, even in Foreign Affairs, the premier foreign policy journal, if you read articles from the ’20s and ’30s — the 1920’s and 1930’s — a big topic is empire, and nobody really thought it was that problematic. At least, certainly, many Europeans thought it was absolutely a kind of gift they were bestowing upon these benighted peoples around the world. By our lights, it’s a crazy position, but even by the 1950’s, it’s starting to seem like a crazy position, so there’s deep normative change that takes place that maybe a sociologist would be better positioned to argue over the causes, but certainly, the UN itself politically is the site where states can agitate and push. By 1960, the General Assembly is passing many resolutions, including most famously resolution 1514, which really assert the illegitimacy of colonialism in a very strong way. I’ll end with one point that some listeners might be familiar with, but it shows how far this change has gone by the early ’60s.


When India invades Goa, which is a Portuguese colony on the coast of India, that had been a Portuguese colony for something like 500 years — the Portuguese claimed it wasn’t a colony; they tried to argue it was just a part of Portugal — but eventually, India invades in 1962, and it goes before the Security Council. It’s a pretty clear violation of the UN charter provisions on aggression. The U.S. argues that, certainly. And the resolution against India is vetoed, but even within the Security Council, and then within the General Assembly, India is essentially applauded for what it does, and Portugal is portrayed as the aggressor in some ways, or the bad actor, certainly. That’s a sign of how quickly and how dramatically views have changed, that colonialism was so illegitimate that even the use of force, the core norm of the UN charter can be suspended when the cause is just. That viewpoint, by 1962, has taken hold and it never changes. And today it would be unimaginable to resist with violence on independence movement, as we’ve seen in — there’s a few extant examples that I think illustrate that point.

Katerina Linos (21:55):

So it’s fascinating what India is doing on the ground and in the General Assembly, but as you write, Bunche is in the Trusteeship Council, which I never thought was important, and you say at the end of the day, determines the fates of 15 million people directly. What’s his indirect or other influence on this process that’s happening in a neighboring institution?

Kal Raustiala (22:15):

If we go back to his PhD at Harvard, it’s on comparative colonial governance. He’s interested in the mandate system, and he actually compares two territories ruled both by France. One is ruled under the mandates rules, and the other simply as a French colony. So he’s always interested in governance, and how does governance work. So he does this early comparative work, then, from Howard, he’s asked to join what becomes the CIA. Some people will know it as the OSS, and there’s even an earlier precursor in 1941.


He goes into the administration of FDR, and he’s the colonial expert. From there, he goes to the State Department, and in the State Department, he’s one of the essential drafters of what becomes the Trusteeship Council. It’s important to understand that Bunche is the person who helps create the Trusteeship Council and the rules of trusteeship, which were essentially an updating of the mandate system, but with a much stronger focus on independence and a much more intrusive element of review and reporting by the states who are trustees. The idea of self-determination is front and center, and that very much is Bunche’s hand, so in the San Francisco conference in 1945, he’s the person who’s really taking all of the various provisions about trusteeship and distilling them down, and he was very, very good at this, and all the while he’s pushing for the strongest possible language. When he joins the UN, he, of course, wants to work in the Trusteeship Council, so that’s where he works.


Yes, it’s a forgotten part of the UN in many ways today, and the General Assembly certain ends up looming much larger in the decolonization process, but it’s the trusteeship provisions and the Council that sets the stage for that, that establishes the norm that a colonial power with a trusteeship cannot simply do what it wants. It has to answer, in many ways, to the United Nations, to the international community: “How is it helping the people of this territory? How is it moving them towards independence?” This is a totally novel idea. In the League, there was no real focus on that, or to the degree, there was, it was incredibly superficial.


So the UN is very, very different, and Bunche is very much behind that. Eventually, he leaves Trusteeship because once he becomes the mediator, he ends up moving into greater and greater roles and ends up as Under-Secretary General by the middle of his career, but that’s his initial home, and in many ways, that’s his life’s work, and that’s the core of his story.

Katerina Linos (24:31):

Thank you. I want to ask more, but I’ll turn to my last prepared question, which is on writing a book about 50 years after his death on someone who was obviously fascinating, but recognized in his time, so there are biographies.

Kal Raustiala (24:46):


Katerina Linos (24:46):

What were your personal goals in doing this work, and what do you think we should take from it? What are some lessons for how we should think about these conflicts, how we should think about multicultural workplaces, mediation, the work one can do over a lifetime?

Kal Raustiala (25:03):

There are other biographies. In fact, one of the very best by Berkeley Professor Emeritus, Charles Henry, whose book was really inspirational to me. There’s another by one of Bunche’s deputies, Brian Urquhart at the UN, probably the oldest biography, so I was not starting from scratch in doing this book. What I tried to do was write, really, a professional biography. I don’t really talk about his family life, only as it comes up here and there.


I’d probably address his childhood up through UCLA in maybe 10 pages of a 600-page book, so it’s really focused on his professional career, his career as a diplomat, as a scholar, as a member of the State Department, et cetera, so I took a very particular tack. Even, we didn’t talk so much about his civil rights career, and he was very active in civil rights throughout his life. Even that, I certainly address quite a bit because it’s absolutely integral to the way he thought about the focus of my book, which is really decolonization and the United Nations, but all of these other books do I think a better job on some of these other aspects of his life. I really tried to focus on a particular slice, so partly because I was coming at this not as the first biographer, but as maybe the third or fourth, depending on how you count, even the fifth. There were some early biographies during his lifetime that came out.


Not very serious ones, but popular books that sometimes made things up, but I was not coming at this fresh, so I took a very particular slice that reflected my interest and expertise and what I was trying to accomplish, which was to understand this process, this huge geopolitical change, and to see it through the life of a man who was right at the core of it. That was a really interesting experience. I’d never written a book like this. This is my third book with Oxford, that’s a full-length book. I’ve done some edited volumes and things like that.


It was pretty interesting to do something like this, very different. I found it a really fascinating process, and certainly, it made me reflect on my own life. Sometimes not so well in the sense of my career. I thought, “Have I even done a 10th of what this person has done?” Ralph Bunche had such an incredible career. But it is interesting to get into the head of someone else or try to . . . I read so many of his personal letters, his diaries, not just UN reports and transcripts, but his own personal papers.


It was a very interesting experience to try to time-travel back to the middle 20th century, even the early 20th century, and see someone who’s so different from me to get a glimpse at what made him tick, and what he thought about, or at least what he would put down on paper. I was lucky that he actually constantly was writing in his diary and jotting off little notes here and there and scraps. So anyway, it was an amazing process, and in some ways, one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever done. I can’t say that I totally understand him, but I certainly learned more that I ever imagined about him.

Katerina Linos (27:42):

Takeaways for readers. When I was reading this, I thought, “Okay, decolonization,” certainly better than the alternative of colonialism, but we still have a lot of Africa, poor, some of it, a lot of run by kleptocrats. We have Assad and other leaders, say, or sovereign states, and this is what allows us to gas our people and commit torture. Peacekeeping, we often hear about the failures, but I was very persuaded that the counterfactual would be worse. What are some of the takeaways for our current view of the UN, which is again, a very criticized institution?

Kal Raustiala (28:21):

Just take peacekeeping as an example. There’s a lot of debate over peacekeeping and its utility. There’s been some excellent work done by political scientists about peacekeeping and the effect it has on civil wars and internal conflicts and so forth. At least the work that I found most compelling and most convincing is that peacekeeping is surprisingly effective, again, in a “compared to what?” sense. If your goal is, “Is this war-torn recently decolonized country going to look like, let’s say Norway or a very peaceful place with a stable economy?”


No. That’s not a realistic goal in the near term. Certainly in the longer term is a goal, I think everyone shares, but can it achieve a modicum of peace? Is UN peacekeeping, in particular, effective at managing and stemming conflict? I think the answer is yes in most cases. Obviously cases vary. So I come away with, having reflected on peacekeeping and its history in this book, a proponent of it.


I certainly see the UN, UN peacekeeping in particular, as having many, many failings, including peacekeepers often are perpetrating crimes. They’re often feckless in how they deal with rival groups. There are many, many challenges. Haiti being a great example of a place where, or a tragic example, of a place where peacekeepers not intending to introduce cholera into Haiti and through arguable negligence on the part of the United Nations, led to the deaths of over 10,000 Haitians. So there are many terrible examples, but again, it’s a “compared to what” question, and I think on balance, the UN and its peacekeeping efforts have been a force for good. That’s one takeaway, and I think I generally am pretty favorable about the United Nations in this kind of counterfactual sense that the UN can certainly be criticized for many, many things, but talking in the UN as pointless as it sometimes is, is much better than the alternative, and the UN has shown itself to be a very effective actor in certain circumstances.


We tend to focus on war in peace, but if you look at UN efforts around global health, vaccinations, etcetera, UN has been very good on a lot of those things, and if you live in a developing place in a poor part of the world, the UN is a much bigger part of your life than it is, let’s say here in Berkeley. So it’s hard sometimes for us, especially in wealthy parts of the world, to really appreciate how active the UN is on the ground in many places, but even for war and peace, the UN is a more significant actor than we give it credit for. I’ll just stop with the example of Ukraine right now. Yes, Russia can veto and will always veto any kind of resolution in the Security Council that’s meaningfully critiquing Russian aggression in Ukraine, and it’s a terrible test of the UN system, but in many ways, the Security Council is acting as designed. It was always intended to protect the interests of the permanent five members. From the very beginning, when Stalin and FDR and Churchill are meeting to talk about the UN and they’re sitting in Yalta and planning out what it’s going to look like, it was meant to be serving their interests.


I think if we judge the UN as some kind of external police force that’s going to police the great powers, that is just a misapprehension of what it can or was ever intended to do. But, the UN does a lot of things that they didn’t intend, and the General Assembly, for example, as a place of normative change, is still playing that role with regard to Ukraine and pressuring Russia, of course, sanctions and other acts as well, pressuring Russia and showing that these are not acceptable actions. Now, a realist might say, “Well, so what?,” but I think history shows that those things do matter. In the end, I am an optimist about the UN, as Bunche was. Bunche proclaimed himself to be an optimist, and I came away from writing this book relatively optimistic about the UN, even though we can find many, many reasons to criticize it, and I certainly share those criticisms. I think on balance, it’s a pretty effective organization, so that’s a major takeaway of the book that the UN is the more interesting and I think more powerful actor than often given credit for.

Katerina Linos (32:06):

That’s just a fascinating note on which to end, and maybe the theme of optimism explains how he went through all of these hurdles at a time when nobody else could or would even dream of doing this. There’s just so much I got from the book and from this interview: the UN as a talking shop being not only better than the alternative, but also a place where this talk turns into action much faster than others expect. Let me just ask, what have I missed? What’s a key theme in the book that we haven’t yet spoken about?

Kal Raustiala (32:39):

I think the most important one is the way that Bunche’s career as a board member of the NAACP, as a founder of various other civil rights groups in the ’30s and ’40s, dovetailed with his diplomatic work. Some listeners will know there are many famous photographs of him marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King, appearing at the March on Washington with King. He was a big fan of King and vice versa. His civil rights persona is one that’s known in certain circumstances and his UN persona and others. One of the key themes of the book is that they are really two sides of a coin, and that for Bunche, decolonization was a project of global racial justice and one that he saw as absolutely essential for the liberation of non-white peoples around the world.


And so while he cared about what happened in the United States — especially towards the end of his life and in the beginning of his life, he really focused on that — there was this long period when he’s at the State Department, at the UN, where he’s very much focused on international issues — Cyprus, Yemen, whatever it may be — but he never loses sight of the connections to what he himself experienced as a Black man in the 20th century, and so he saw those as twinned, and I think that’s a connection that’s often forgotten. I’ll add one other thing, which is if you go back to the ’30s and ’40s, when he was getting active in civil rights as a professor, it was a time of great internationalism and Black intellectual thought, and he was one of the people who was bringing that forward, he and many other colleagues at Howard. It was both an intellectual and a personal connection for him. I think that’s a really important part of the book. Certainly, Charles Henry’s book focuses much more extensively on his civil rights work.


Does an excellent job of it. Other books have done that as well. Because I’m focused on his UN career, I only talk about that to the degree it is directly connected or it’s essential to understanding him, but it’s one of the things I didn’t appreciate when I started, and by the end, I really recognized that he was right to see these as twinned, and it’s important to understand that.

Katerina Linos (34:37):

This has been so fascinating, and I can’t wait to read the book in its entirety. Thank you so much.

Kal Raustiala (34:42):

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Katerina Linos (34:46):

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Borderlines and want to read more about Ralph Bunche. Check out the episode’s show notes, where you can get a discount coupon to buy the biography.