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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

Portrait of a Practitioner: Ralph Bunche

In the "Portrait of a Practitioner" series, Parley Policy Initiative offers short profiles on practitioners involved in negotiation, crisis management, peacemaking, or postwar policy, past and present.

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"There is no problem of human nature which is insoluble."

Such was the mindset of Ralph Bunche, the first United Nations official ever to mediate a peace agreement. An important figure in the American civil rights movement, an architect of the United Nations, and one of the United States government's most accomplished diplomats, Bunche's life offers no shortage of lessons to impart or stories to tell. This Portrait of a Practitioner shares but a small share of insight on this peacemaker who was one of the inspirations for the Parley Policy Initiative.

To understand the man, it is important first to examine his humble origins. Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in 1904 in Michigan. His parents were both of ill health and passed away soon after they moved their family to New Mexico. Young Ralph was orphaned at 10 years old.

Bunche as an infant, circa 1904-5

After his parents' passing, Bunche fell to the care of his grandmother. He moved to the tough neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles (the same Watts associated with the L.A. riots of 1965 and 1992). His grandmother was no stranger to adversity herself, having been born into slavery in the south. Bunche's grandmother raised him to be steadfast and resolute. In his own words: "She instilled in us a sense of personal pride strong enough to sustain all external shocks, but she also taught us understanding and tolerance. Be honest and frank with yourself and the world at all times, she said. Never compromise what you know to be the right. Never pick a fight, but never run from one if your principles are at stake." Those principles served as the foundation of Bunche's moral character, which he evidenced throughout his life. Despite the poverty and tragedy of his younger years, Bunche proved a gifted student. He performed well and graduated as the valedictorian of his high school.

Bunche was a star student-athlete at UCLA

Bunche pursued his undergraduate education at UCLA. There he worked as a janitor to cover tuition and living expenses, all while managing to be a star athlete on the UCLA basketball team. Once again, Bunche was his class valedictorian, graduating with a major in International Relations. Understanding his potential, the local African-American community rallied around Bunche to help him pursue his graduate studies. They raised enough money to send him across the country to Harvard. Their investment paid off, as Bunche became the first black man in America to earn a Ph.D. in Political Science. Bunche's academic research focused on the Middle East and Africa, so during World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services (the wartime predecessor of the CIA). There, he supported operations in North Africa. He later transitioned to the State Department to employ his skills for diplomacy. Bunche's move to the State Department is what eventually set the stage for him joining the effort to establish the United Nations. Having participated in the San Francisco Conference and served on the Prepartory Commission, he was one of the key architects of the UN. At the first-ever UN General Assembly meeting, Bunche was part of the U.S. delegation.

Ralph Bunche conferring with the first UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie and another UN official, 1947

In 1948, the UN faced its first diplomatic crisis. The UN-sponsored plan to divide Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states failed. Israel declared independence, and Egypt invaded, prompting the first Arab-Israeli War. The UN Security Council passed a cease-fire resolution and sent a mediator to the region. That mediator was Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, a skilled and experienced negotiator in his own right. But he soon met frustration.

Count Folke Bernadotte during his peace mediation mission, 1948

In Bernadotte's own words: "I have striven ceaselessly to find a common basis upon which peace negotiations between the two parties might be undertaken. I have tried to bring them together...I have studied carefully their respective positions, claims and contentions. I have employed abundantly both reason and persuasion, but to date neither agreement between the parties nor a basis for agreement has been found." The situation was indeed perilous, so much so that radicals assassinated Bernadotte by shooting him point blank with a Tommy gun at a vehicle checkpoint. Bernadotte was one of ten UN personnel to be killed in the effort to mediate peace between Israel and the Arab states. The UN had to find someone to step in for this seemingly impossible mediation task. They asked Ralph Bunche, and he accepted. Before departing, his UN bosses made it clear that his success or failure not only weighed heavy on the prospects for the Middle East, but on the future of the United Nations itself. After all, the resulting opinion would be if the fledgling UN could not succeed here, how much use could it be?

Bunche receiving feedback from the UN's Chief Military Observer, General A. Lundstromt, 1948

Bunche set to work quickly, starting with Egyptian and Israeli parties in establishing neutral territory on the Greek island of Rhodes to conduct the negotiations. His team arranged for all sides to be housed in the same hotel on different floors--close enough but separate enough. In his characteristically resolute and thoughtful manner, Bunche offered this as his opening statement for the talks: “I can readily think of a million ways to stall, delay, obstruct and stalemate these discussions should anyone care to do so. I trust there will be no tendency to be rigidly legalistic, picayunish about detail, or recriminatory. There are many eyes here, and motes can be readily found in them. The lives of many people and indeed the peace of the Near East hang in the balance while you meet. You cannot afford to fail. You must succeed. I have faith that you will succeed." After their initial engagement, neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis would meet face-to-face; rather, they would pass messages through Bunche. He soon had enough and told both sides that he was not "a high class messenger boy." He approached each side and asked them, “Can you give a single example in history of a peace that has been concluded without the two parties meeting?" He backed his question with a calm and deliberate explanation of the consequences of failure in this negotiation. The two sides relented and began to meet.  Bunche was active in his mediation role. Using a hands-on approach, he crafted strategies and proposals to move the parties toward resolution. When there was an impasse, he would engage each party to resolve sticking points.

Bunche also brought the parties together at another table besides the negotiating table: they played billiards at night. He knew that humanizing the other side was an important step in the process. Both sides later intimated that those interactions helped eliminate mistrust among them. In just forty-five days, the negotiators in Rhodes did what was previously thought impossible: they concluded an Armistice agreement.

The signing of the Armistice Agreement in Rhodes, 24 February 1949

Israel's lead negotiator said this about the signing: "It was an atmosphere as different as one could imagine from that of the first day in the corridor, with its averted heads. In the course of the six weeks we spent together at the Hotel des Roses, we became quite friendly with the Egyptians...We felt that night...that we had not only brought the fighting phase to a formal end, but had laid the foundations, if not of love and affection, at least of normal relations between our two countries." After successfully concluding the Egypt-Israel Armistice, Bunche proceeded to oversee the mediation effort of Israel's armistice agreements with Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Ultimately, Bunche successfully mediated four peace settlements over the course of eleven months. For that accomplishment, the Nobel Committee selected Bunche for the Peace Prize.  At first, Bunche refused the award, later explaining, "You don't work in the [UN] to win prizes." It was not until the UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie suggested that Bunche accept the award on behalf of the United Nations that he relented. So, on 10 December 1950, Ralph Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize, and in doing so, was not just the first UN official to be so honored, but the first person of color. For practitioners, Bunche leaves behind an incredible record of achievements, but his approach to peacemaking may be his truest legacy. He championed the notion of an "honorable peace" through negotiation and conciliation, and viewed engagement as an indispensable part of crisis management. Perhaps this approach is best expressed through Bunche's own words. In his view, he described what peacemakers like himself ought to be: "They should be biased against war and for peace. They should have a bias which would lead them to believe in the essential goodness of their fellow man and that no problem of human relations is insoluble. They should be biased against suspicion, intolerance, hate, religious and racial bigotry."


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