OU Alum Remembers Ambassador Edward J. Perkins, Beginnings of CIS
In 1999, Bruce F. Hendrickson enrolled at OU-Tulsa as a graduate student in political science, with research interests in international relations, U.S. foreign policy, and political economy. Though Hendrickson was not technically an IAS student, he took courses with IAS professors Mitchell Smith, Suzette Grillot and, most memorably, Ambassador Edward J. Perkins, the first director of OU’s International Programs Center (now CIS) and former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, South Africa, the UN and Australia who passed away in November 2020. Perkins’s passing brought back fond memories for Hendrickson, who recently reached out to us to share an experience he had while enrolled in one of the Ambassador’s courses.
Hendrickson’s story reflects not only the strong mentorship and inspiring teaching for which Perkins was known, but also the philosophy that still drives the College of International Studies’ academic programs to this day. Our IAS faculty continue to foster a close-knit graduate student community, provide strong mentorship and support, and facilitate student access to exciting opportunities as they begin their global careers. Read Hendrickson’s full remembrance below.
〝Those were heady days during my first semester at OU. I am very proud of the role Ambassador Perkins played, and can only hope that the paper I wrote for him was helpful in any briefings he may have participated in.〞
In the fall of 1999 I was a first-semester grad student, having transferred to the University of Oklahoma from The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin. There was a nascent international relations program at OU-Tulsa which brought me under the tutelage of professors Mitchell Smith and Suzette Grillot. I also enrolled in a course in Norman, “The UN and The U.S.,” taught by Ambassador Perkins. [Note: the OU International Programs Center, which would eventually become the College of International Studies, was created in 1996.]
I transferred to OU in part because having spent my adult life in Oklahoma, I was drawn to David Boren's commitment to internationalism, and the chance to study under Ambassador Perkins was just the sort of opportunity I was hoping for. At OU-Tulsa, our program was very much an immersive “pod” experience — a small group of students, two or three professors who we came to know very well. I was disappointed the program didn't attract greater enrollment, but we had some outstanding students who went on to successful careers in politics and business.
I had grown up as an expatriate American in Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 1960s and ’70s, when Congo/Zaire was a Cold War flashpoint. In 1998, while I was a student at the LBJ School, The Second Congo War broke out, and I began blogging on Congo for the New Congo Network. In summer 1999, I had a commentary published in World Policy Journal just as I was arriving at OU.
I and others were lobbying for a Chapter VII mission in Congo as the war had drawn in the armed forces of Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda and had reached a military stalemate. For my “The UN and The U.S.” class, I proposed a paper making this case to Ambassador Perkins, and he agreed. When the war broke out in 1998, I. William Zartman at Johns Hopkins University had published an influential op-ed piece, “Congo: A ‘Carrion Country’.” At the time it was said that after Mogadishu, Bill Clinton would never authorize another peacekeeping mission in Africa; even if President Clinton authorized a Chapter VII Mission, Senator Jesse Helms would not support it. Ambassador Perkins and I were up against powerful opposition — but we were resolute.
Over the course of the semester, Ambassador Perkins and I discussed the paper and the situation in class. Imagine my surprise when after fall break, Ambassador Perkins walked into class and announced: "Bruce, I flew to New York over the break and paid a courtesy visit to Kofi Annan. I think we are going to be able to do something on Congo."
Needless to say I was floored. What did Ambassador Perkins mean by “we”? I was just a grad student — he had the
connections and credentials. Secretary-General Annan had been Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations during the Rwanda debacle and was haunted by the UN failure; he was determined to restore the organization's credibility. He recognized, as did Ambassador Perkins, that Congo represented a textbook case for a Chapter VII intervention, and they were determined to persuade the Clinton Administration. On the one hand, they were being advised against an intervention by Zartman representing the Johns Hopkins position; on the other hand, we were presenting what I like to call the University of Oklahoma position in favor of a Chapter VII mission.
As they say, the rest is history. I was not privy to the negotiations with the White House, however, the University of Oklahoma position prevailed. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice had been a vocal supporter of the Rwando-Ugandan invasions of Congo; she was sidelined in favor of Richard Holbrooke and Thomas Pickering. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came on board and not only persuaded President Clinton to authorize the mission MONUC/MONUSCO, but she even persuaded Senator Helms to back a nearly $1 billion per year contribution by the American taxpayer (which continues to this day) to fund what would be the largest and most complex Chapter VII intervention the UN's history — a mission we are only now beginning to consider dismantling. Secretary of State Albright and newly appointed UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had to secure agreement from the Security Council and the P-5 Members reached a consensus.
Those were heady days during my first semester at OU. I am very proud of the role Ambassador Perkins played, and can only hope that the paper I wrote for him was helpful in any briefings he may have participated in. It was a thrill to be able to apply my policy briefing skills at the University of Oklahoma in such an impactful way.
In closing, I suppose I would say those were the trailblazing years of the program. Indeed, the program has evolved over the years into a freestanding College; I have noticed a much larger and more diverse faculty and I applaud the structural changes taking place. It is clear the College of International Studies is attracting outstanding “culturally fluent” leadership as well as students.
Bruce F. Hendrickson graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2002. He currently lives with his wife in Tulsa and continues to do advocacy work on Congo. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work includes Oil Capital Underground, which was recognized at 17 film festivals. He is currently looking at grant options for a new documentary tentatively titled “Tulsa Reimagined.”
For more on Ambassador Edward J. Perkins's life and legacy, read this interview he gave with the American Foreign Service Association just before his death.