Senator Paul S. Sarbanes Kicks Off United Nations Week at the Wilson Center

Ralph Bunche, The United Nations, and the United States

Oct 20, 2003

Lee, thank you very much for that generous introduction. I am delighted to be here.

As we begin U.N. Awareness Week, I am honored to join you in celebrating the 58th anniversary of the United Nations and the centennial of the birth of Ralph J. Bunche. First I want to thank Lee Hamilton and Andy Rice, in their respective capacities as President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and President of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), for bringing us together. I am honored to be invited by the two of them who have worked so steadily – over many decades – both to strengthen U.S. leadership in the international community, and to strengthen U.S. understanding of the central role the international community plays in assuring the strength, security and prosperity of our own nation.

Lee Hamilton’s position as Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, I think, says a lot about him without my adding any words, but I want to add a few words anyway. Lee and I were close colleagues in the Congress for more than a quarter of a century - from the time I entered the House of Representatives in 1971 – when Lee, representing Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, was beginning his fourth term – until Lee’s retirement in 1999, by which time I was in my fourth term in the Senate. We served together for many years on the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress, and in fact over several congresses the chairmanship of that committee rotated between us.

It is an indication of the respect that Lee commanded that his outstanding work of the JEC actually took second place to his work on what is now the House Committee on International Relations.

We have the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and we have the House Committee on International Relations, which used to be the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. There is an old adage that Senators are too old to have affairs, and so they only have relations. Eventually the House people got tired of hearing it, so they changed their name from Foreign Affairs to International Relations.

In any event, for years Lee was either Ranking Member or Chairman of HIRC. I think it is safe to say that his intelligence, hard work, very disciplined approach, command of the issues, and above all his regard for the facts and utter fairness were universally recognized, so much so that no one ever relished the prospect of being on the opposite side of an issue from him.

Those are precisely the qualities that are so important today to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s mission to bring the best research and scholarship to bear on the great public policy issues of our time. And no one I know is better prepared by temperament and experience to carry out that mission than Lee Hamilton. So Lee, thank you very much for having us here at the Wilson center.

Andy Rice has devoted much of his professional life, over more than half a century, to what I would call public service in the private sector.

I want to digress for just a moment because I think it is a misleading to draw a sharp line, as many do, between the public and private sectors and arbitrarily assign concern for the broader needs of our society to the former, the public sector, and the pursuit of personal advancement to the exclusion of other goals to the latter, the private sector. A case in point, to digress just a bit further, was the failure of the auditors of our public companies to carry out the responsibility to the public interest which our securities laws had entrusted to them and which in the end they ignored in pursuit of private gain. The great accounting firms may be in the private sector, but there is a public service dimension to their private sector activities

Americans who remember the world as it was without viable international organizations and institutions understand perhaps more keenly than others the vital interconnections between those institutions and organizations, and U.S. interests abroad. But in the absence of a broad public constituency – without broad support in the private sector, in other words –strengthening and improving those connections is a very difficult task. In this regard, I want to recognize Lee’s work as co-chair of the task force, sponsored jointly by the Council on Foreign Relations and Freedom House, which has produced a thought-provoking report on “Enhancing U.S. Leadership at the United Nations.”

In educating Americans about the U.N. and its importance to the United States, the U.N. Association of the U.S. has long played a critical role. And in Andy Rice the UNA has an experienced leader and advocate.

Over the course of a long and distinguished career Andy has worked in the Congress, the White House and the State Department, but he has dedicated really the better part of his professional life to efforts in the private sector to promote public understanding. He has been an adjunct professor at American University’s School for International Service. He was one of the founders nearly fifty years ago of the Society for International Development, which he served for two decades as CEO. He is the secretary of the board of directors of the WorldWatch Institute, the co-chair of the governing body of the Alliance for UN Sustainable Development Programs and a member of the governing body of the Union of International Associations.

Skepticism about the importance of the United Nations to advancing the objectives of U.S. foreign policy is unfortunately much in the air. But it is certainly not a new unknown phenomenon. As one observer has written:

In the United States today, the UN has become a favorite target of criticism, and there can be little doubt that (it) is held by many Americans in less esteem than formerly. There are some who damn it with faint praise and other who just damn it. Some of the latter are professionals, who earn their living by damning, who regularly make insincere and dishonest attacks against some real or imaginary fault or weakness, not with the purpose of strengthening the UN but because they are fundamentally opposed to it and wish to destroy it by undermining public confidence.

This observer was writing fifty years ago, in 1953. He was a newcomer to the U.N. Secretariat, and his name was Ralph Bunche.

Ralph Bunche was extraordinary by any standard. Even at a time when our country denied to its African American citizens the abundant opportunities offered to others, Ralph Bunche was a person of such talent that he could have chosen virtually any path. Brian Urquhart, who was his chief assistant at the U.N. from 1954 until Ralph Bunche’s death in 1971, said this about him:

Ralph was an African American. He was born in Detroit. He lost his parents when he was eleven years old and he went and lived in what is now Watts, in Los Angeles, with his grandmother.

Bunche himself once called his grandmother, Lucy Johnson, “My Most Unforgettable Character.” One of his teachers later wrote of her, “I have never forgotten the emanation of power from that tiny figure.” And when at Ralph Bunche’s high-school graduation the principal of the high school said to his grandmother, in a disastrously misguided effort at flattery, “We never thought of Ralph as a Negro,” she replied: Why haven’t you thought of him as a Negro? He is a Negro and he is proud of it. So am I.”

From his grandmother Ralph Bunche obviously learned the fundamental lessons of self-respect and respect for others. He also took from her a passion for education. It was she who insisted that he go to UCLA, where he was Valedictorian.

Bunche received a fellowship for graduate study in political science at Harvard. Not long after he arrived he received what was the last letter from his grandmother. Just a week before her death, all she asked was “Will you finish at Harvard this year?”

At Harvard Ralph Bunche made lifelong friendships in the small African American community – with William Hastie and Robert Weaver, among others. By the end of the year he had finished his Master’s degree and was offered a fellowship to continue on to the Ph.D. Instead he went to teach at Howard University – America’s “black Athens” – but return to finish his dissertation, which won him the government department’s annual prize for the best dissertation.

He was at the time bent on an academic career, but he postponed research in South Africa to work closely with Gunnar Myrdal on Myrdal’s landmark study of race in this country, “An American Dilemma.” With the outbreak of the Second World War Ralph Bunche was brought into the new OSS for his expertise on Africa. He moved on to the State Department in 1944. The following year he served as an advisor to the American delegation, headed by Secretary of State Stettinius, at the San Francisco Conference. As Brian Urquhart puts it, “Public service had called him, and he responded with all of his ability and strength. The following year he joined the U.N. Secretariat, where he remained until his death.

In 1950 Ralph Bunche was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for negotiating the armistice that ended military hostilities between the new State of Israel and Egypt, and subsequently between Israel and the other Arab countries involved in the conflict. In this he joined the distinguished American laureates who preceded him – Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Jane Addams and Nicholas Murray Butler, among others – and probably today is best remembered for the Nobel award.


But on his centennial I would like to suggest that we should honor him above all for the dedicated service he gave over his lifetime to the effort to build harmonious relations among free nations, and specifically for his work at the United Nations. This is surely what Ralph Bunche himself would have wanted. Upon being informed of the Nobel decision, his first reaction was to decline – “peacemaking at the UN was not done for prizes,” he said. He agreed to accept the award only when the argument was put to him that it would be good for the UN.

Ralph Bunche was unique, but in the history of the UN he is not without parallel. For that reason I want to take a moment this morning to pay tribute to another U.N. official, whose death in Iraq came as a terrible blow to the UN, and to all of us personally.

Sergio de Mello and seventeen members of his staff died last August 19 in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. “We can imagine nothing more cruel, or pointless, or unjust,” said Secretary General Annan.

De Mello joined the U.N. straight out of university, at the age of twenty-one, and over more than two decades he worked on virtually every continent, in the most difficult jobs – Bangladesh after the war for independence, Cyprus after the Turkish invasion, Mozambique during the civil war, in Kosovo in the period of maximum peril. He went to East Timor with a mandate to rebuild civil society and establish democratic institutions after years of oppression and violence. He was to be in Iraq only temporarily, on leave from his new position as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Like Ralph Bunche before him, Sergio de Mello and his staff in Baghdad “were part of a vast army of U.N. civilian personnel serving in often hellish conditions around the world,” as Dick Holbrooke put it. And like Bunche, de Mello dedicated himself completely to the work of the UN. He was not well known to the general public, the Washington Post said, “largely because he refrained from self-congratulatory statements.” In that way, too, he resembled Ralph Bunche.

The careers of these two great statesmen and diplomats should remind us of the central role the United Nations has played in international affairs for the past fifty-eight years, and must continue to play. At a time when powerful voices in this country speak of the U.N. with impatience, suspicion and even contempt, we would do well to reflect on what the world would have been like in the second half of the twentieth century without the United Nations.

Furthermore, we need to remind those skeptics that the U.N. was founded and molded by American leadership. Brian Urquhart, who spent more than three decades in the U.N. Secretariat, has described the founding of the U.N. as an act of “statesmanship and vision” that were “breathtaking in their scope and spirit” while at the same time they were tempered by “hardheaded national diplomacy.” Speaking in 1995 at the fiftieth anniversary celebration in New York, he said:

The UN is primarily a blueprint for a better world. It was the second great United States creation in this century in the international field, the first being the League of Nations. It was essentially a plan for learning the lessons of World War II and never making such mistakes ever again. To do this the UN Charter formulated fundamentally American standards and an American view of life for the whole world with the world’s enthusiastic cooperation. The Charter is very much an American document, and greatly to the credit of the United States.


For nearly fifty years the Cold War made agreement in the Security Council nearly impossible, but it by no means rendered the U.N. useless. On the contrary, in many parts of the world a direct U.S. – USSR confrontation was avoided precisely because the U.N. was able to step in. Time and again the U.N. has enabled us to leverage our resources and influence in order to achieve a much greater impact at lesser cost than our unilateral action could achieve.

I think those who constantly talk about burden-sharing, which is surely an important consideration, ought to recognize that the UN has been and can be an even more important mechanism for burden-sharing. The UN effectively leverages the contributions that the United States makes.

Furthermore, we need to understand that by working through the United Nations we can often gain international endorsement for an American position. The U.S. position then becomes the judgment of the entire international community and not solely the judgment of the United States. Endorsement by the UN creates an international mandate, and the U.S. no longer appears merely to be seeking to impose its own point of view on a particular situation. This is burden-sharing of responsibilities, not only of resources.

Let me cite just a few examples of the way in which this works:

The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Children’s Fund, the Development Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program have protected millions from famine and provided food, shelter, medical aid, education and repatriation assistance to refugees around the world, on a scale far beyond our own capacity to match.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned so hard, has set international standards for freedom, equality before the law and the dignity of the individual. It has been an extraordinary vehicle for spreading fundamentally American ideas about the status of the individual and the necessary limitations on the power of governments.

Some thirty years ago the World Health Organization eliminated the scourge of polio. Just within the last year the WHO stepped in decisively to prevent a global SARS epidemic, something we could never have done unilaterally.

This is not to mention the hundreds of organizations and also treaties that facilitate cooperation in postal services, telecommunications, civil aviation, maritime jurisdiction and dozens of other areas.

Nor does it take into account of the critical role the U.N. plays in the international fight against terrorism, and against the money laundering that is the lifeblood of terrorist activities.

With the Cold War behind us, now is not the time to turn our backs on the U.N. On the contrary, new opportunities for international cooperation are before us. Historians will judge us harshly, in my view, if we give up the international leadership we have exercised for more than half a century. The most urgent problems we face today –terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, poverty, disease, environmental degradation - are not amenable to unilateral solutions. They require the cooperative and collective effort of the international community, and the mechanism we have established is the United Nations.

The U.N. has not always been effective. It may move more slowly than we would like. The bureaucracy has at times been inefficient. But as Secretary General Annan said in his recent address to the General Assembly, it is “by no means a perfect instrument, but it is a precious one.”

The Secretary General – who was elected I might note with strong U.S. support, – has announced his intention to establish a High-Level Panel of eminent personalities which will:

Examine the current challenges to peace and security, and consider the contribution that collective action make in addressing them; and

Review the functioning of the major U.N. agencies and how they relate to one another, and propose institutional and procedural reforms that will strengthen the U.N. organs and their interrelationships, and come up with recommendations to reform,

Since taking office, Secretary General Annan has instituted a number of significant reforms, including a near-zero-growth budget, a reduction in U.N. staff and a consolidation of overlapping agencies. He has established the office of independent inspector general. All of these are measures of course to enhance the strength and functions of the United Nations as an institution.

I feel very keenly that our ability to assure to our children and grandchildren the security and opportunity that come with a peaceful and prosperous world will depend not simply on military power, which of course we will always have in reserve. It will depend significantly on our skill in working through the United Nations and the other multilateral institutions, which we were instrumental in creating.

It is counter-productive to U.S. interests to call for U.N. reform while failing to keep abreast of our financial obligations to the U.N. While we have now paid our main budget arrears, we still have peacekeeping arrears and continue to make no allowance for the fact that the U.N. fiscal year begins in January while ours begins in October. Our payments are made very late in the year and other nations are now following our example, which compounds the already difficult financial problems confronting the U.N.

It is counter-productive to speak dismissively of the U.N. as somehow irrelevant to our interests. Moreover it flies in the face of the facts.

In just the past two weeks the United Nations Security Council has taken two actions, which are clearly important to U.S. interests.


On Afghanistan, the Security Council approved a formal request from the International Security Assistance Force – ISAF – for authority to deploy troops outside of Kabul. It has conferred legitimacy on an expanded NATO military presence.

Until now ISAF have been restricted to the capital, which has left President Karzai and his government without the means to stabilize and secure the countryside. U.S. troops are in Afghanistan for the purpose of pursuing and putting down the Taliban, which is an entirely different mission.

But the success of one surely requires the other. Unless the central government can establish control over the countryside, oversee reconstruction, rebuild infrastructure and promote the development of judicial and police functions and democratic political institutions, our military victories over the Taliban will be of little avail.

On Iraq, last Thursday the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution endorsing a constitutional timetable, calling for a multinational force, supporting a strengthened U.N. role in Iraq, and urging the Coalition Provisional Authority to return governing responsibilities to the Iraqi people as soon as possible.

Secretary Powell deserves credit for staying the course with this resolution. A week or so ago, when members of the Security Council raised objections to the first draft, it was said that the administration would not bother pursuing it. But the Secretary persevered and changes were made. The resolution does not guarantee all that the U.S. sought, nor does it give some members of the Security Council the timetable they sought. It does bring some measure of consensus in the international community on the need to return sovereignty to the Iraqis as soon as is practicable, it sets a date for setting out on the path to a constitution, and it recognizes the role of the Iraqi Governing Council in moving the constitutional process forward. I think and hope it is a significant step in mending the relations between the U.S. and the U.N. Many other steps must now follow.

I shall close by returning to Brian Urquhart’s observation that it was a combination of breathtaking vision, statesmanship and hard-headed national diplomacy that brought the UN into being fifty-eight years ago. In the career of Ralph Bunche, whose centennial we are celebrating, we see brilliantly displayed the dedication, the competence and the skill that are essential to meeting and resolving the international challenges we face today. Vision, statesmanship, hardheaded diplomacy, dedication, skill: these are exactly the qualities we need if we are to pass on to our children this imperfect but no less precious institution.