I believe in the American way of peace. This American way is a set of institution designed to manage conflict and stabilize the world economy. The most famous of these institutions is the United Nations, whose charter was born in Washington, D.C.. The irony is that many Americans view the UN as alien at best, dangerous at worst. But perhaps because I do not wish to give up on the organization whose 1993 World Conference on Human Rights I spent funds that were supposed to be used for my Ph.D. research to travel to and cover, I still believe it is part of the American way of peace.
I tell myself that the UN is an ideal that is exemplified not by its failures, but by certain people who have served it and, in doing so, have shown what it is capable of. For me the man at the top of this list is Ralph Bunche, an African American who won a Nobel Peace Prize by brokering an armistice at the end of the first Arab-Israeli conflict. My encounter with Bunche who died long before I ever heard of him, but to whom I devoted a chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation—is as significant for me as a relationship with a crucial coach or relative might be for another person.
Few things have done more to confirm and extend my core beliefs than the story of Bunche’s road to the peace prize. This road begins with the assassination of Bunche’s then boss, Count Folke Bernadotte. in Jerusalem, on September 17, 1948. The UN mediator in the war that broke out when the state of Israel proclaimed its existence on May 15, 1948, Bernadotte was assassinated by an extremist organization which believed not only not an honest broker, but perhaps a British agent.
After Bernadotte’s death, the chain-smoking Bunche took over as mediator, and quickly proved more canny and more knowledgeable than Bernadotte, who was reportedly so ignorant about the conflict he agreed to mediate that “he knew almost about his executioners,” according to one historian.
Bunche not only knew the players, but did everything in his power to set the psychological agenda for their negotiations. Thus he took the first group of negotiators, the Israelis and the Egyptians, as far away from partisan pressures as he could take them, to the island of Rhodes. When the parties refused to meet face to face, Bunche broke the logjam by arranging a ceremony for a tiny thing: approval the agenda for a proposed meeting. This was not only to “get both sides to meet” but to get then used to “signing something.”
Another diplomatic masterstroke by Bunche took the form of snooker games. According to one member of the Israeli delegation, Shabtai Rosenne, these games were “one of the keys to [Bunche’s] success…. They broke the ice. They showed us that the Egyptians were human like us, with similar emotions of pleasure when they were winning and of dismay when they were losing. Bunche insisted all the time on true sportsmanship in these games–and I hope and believe that the Egyptians observed the same human qualities in us.”
This passage, in its somewhat offhand way, sums up Bunche’s life’s work–a life’s work more relevant today than ever. It is the work of making peoples so opposed to each other as to doubt each other’s humanity notice that the others are after all “human like us”: comprehensible and worth working with to cobble together exchanges and understandings–fragments of a sort of universal history that leaves no one out: fragments of a way of seeing the future that automatically factors in the needs of people unlike oneself.
That’s the American way of peace–the way of seeing I believe in.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.