Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Yogi Bear’s Oddly Familiar Struggle for U.N. Recognition

The ursine rogue’s adventure at the United Nations captures the institution’s problems—and hopes.

The cover of the 1961 comic book 'Yogi Bear Visits the U.N.'
The cover of the 1961 comic book 'Yogi Bear Visits the U.N.'

The United Nations has an unexpectedly large presence in children’s media. Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed collective problem-solving with Sesame Street’s Muppets, the crayon-bright emissaries of a more neighborly world. Disney had The Rescuers Miss Bianca, a soignée silver mouse who served as Hungarian attaché to the Rescue Aid Society, the miniature international organization tucked inside the walls of U.N. headquarters, where delegates in tasseled fezzes rubbed their rodent elbows with delegates in dashikis. In the BBC’s Doctor Who, the United Nations became a substitute world government, representing and defending the world against alien incursion. And the animation studio Hanna-Barbera had Yogi Bear: clever, perpetually hungry, driven through life by his appetites, and driven to the United Nations by the desire for self-determination. 

Sesame Street offers viewers a world of didactic empathy; the Rescue Aid Society gives us furry diplomats of action, equally comfortable convening meetings at their New York headquarters and personally liberating captives through daring escapades; for the BBC’s young science fiction fans in the 1960s, a militarized, streamlined U.N. offered the Earth efficient protection against existential extraterrestrial threat. Each of these visions represents an aspirational multilateralism—they are realms of kindness or rescue or decision, jewel box dominions where cooperation ultimately vanquishes conflict. They echo the comforting fictions of the Model United Nations, where schoolchildren are taught a version of the U.N. where high-minded diplomacy, rather than self-interested and internally inconsistent political jockeying, is the norm. Yogi’s encounter with the United Nations is unique among these representations: Far from rendering a warm fictional world of prospective equality, it lays bare real and besetting political contradictions built into the U.N.’s foundation. 

The United Nations has an unexpectedly large presence in children’s media. Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed collective problem-solving with Sesame Street’s Muppets, the crayon-bright emissaries of a more neighborly world. Disney had The Rescuers Miss Bianca, a soignée silver mouse who served as Hungarian attaché to the Rescue Aid Society, the miniature international organization tucked inside the walls of U.N. headquarters, where delegates in tasseled fezzes rubbed their rodent elbows with delegates in dashikis. In the BBC’s Doctor Who, the United Nations became a substitute world government, representing and defending the world against alien incursion. And the animation studio Hanna-Barbera had Yogi Bear: clever, perpetually hungry, driven through life by his appetites, and driven to the United Nations by the desire for self-determination. 

Sesame Street offers viewers a world of didactic empathy; the Rescue Aid Society gives us furry diplomats of action, equally comfortable convening meetings at their New York headquarters and personally liberating captives through daring escapades; for the BBC’s young science fiction fans in the 1960s, a militarized, streamlined U.N. offered the Earth efficient protection against existential extraterrestrial threat. Each of these visions represents an aspirational multilateralism—they are realms of kindness or rescue or decision, jewel box dominions where cooperation ultimately vanquishes conflict. They echo the comforting fictions of the Model United Nations, where schoolchildren are taught a version of the U.N. where high-minded diplomacy, rather than self-interested and internally inconsistent political jockeying, is the norm. Yogi’s encounter with the United Nations is unique among these representations: Far from rendering a warm fictional world of prospective equality, it lays bare real and besetting political contradictions built into the U.N.’s foundation. 

The United Nations is aligned along two contradictory axes: One is a rights-based, individualistic set of aspirational treaties, agreements, and charters, from which spring such policy commitments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Responsibility to Protect, and the idea that people should govern themselves; the other is a compact among militarily powerful states that dominate both individuals and international security—“two concepts of sovereignty,” as Annan wrote in 1999, one that emphasizes judicial equality and nonintervention between states, another that emphasizes both the rights of citizens within states and international responsibilities to those citizens. These axes bind the distance between hope and possibility for Yogi Bear in the 1961 comic book Yogi Bear Visits the U.N.

Yogi is a wisecracking trickster and a loveable layabout—“the comic totem of modern America,” a Canadian scholar wrote in 1971, with “Smokey the Bear as the tragic mask”; a “sympathetic protagonist” writes the social historian Christopher Lehman, “despite his survivalist criminality.” In his animated series, Yogi is a hedonist who hibernates in the winter and eats his way through the summer while frequently trying to flee the park, his plans always foiled by national park rangers—often his special nemesis, Ranger Smith. And in Yogi Bear Visits the U.N., he is a secessionist. 

Tricksters, like secessionists, are boundary-crossers, “lords of in-between.” “Every group has its edge,” wrote the scholar Lewis Hyde, “its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce … boundary creation and boundary crossing are related to one another, and the best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found.” It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Yogi’s tale captures the complexities of U.N. politics in ways that more straightforward children’s heroes cannot; his quest to subvert park ranger rules becomes an affirmation of the existing order of things.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Yogi’s tale captures the complexities of U.N. politics in ways that more straightforward children’s heroes cannot; his quest to subvert park ranger rules becomes an affirmation of the existing order of things.The story begins with hunger—and a dishonored treaty with indigenous peoples. The book, available online its entirety thanks to Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws’s The Procedure of the UN Security Council, is very much a product of its era. It traffics in broad, offensive, and dismissive tropes about Native Americans, yet its core premise—land theft, unrestituted—is instantly recognizable from conversations on first nations today. We open with Yogi and his sidekick, Boo Boo, thwarted from soliciting food from Jellystone Park’s human visitors; it’s against the law to feed the bears, Ranger Smith tells tourists. 

Barred from the picnic baskets, Yogi reaches into a hollow tree for honey and pulls out an 1867 treaty between the United States government and a tribe the book calls the Waawaa Indians. The treaty grants all the park’s lands to bears, the Waawaa’s sacred totem animal. Accordingly, Yogi concludes he—not the ranger!—is sovereign, and the law, in fact, is his to make: “This treaty states that Jellystone Park belongs to us Bears!” he tells his fellow bears. “That means we make the rules!” And rule-making lends itself to a grander project for Yogi: “We’re setting up a sovereign nation for all bears! A land where bears are free from rangers—Bearsylvania! Think of all the other bears, in other parks at the mercy of other rangers! Who’ll go and tell them to come here, to Bearsylvania—a refuge from Rangers?” 

Empowered by the treaty, Yogi launches a self-determination movement, a secessionist claim, and an irredentist bear population fleeing from repressive federal agents. He is elected as the bears’ representative and takes his claim to the United Nations: “We’ll show you who owns this land!” he tells his perennial foe Ranger Smith—“I’ll have the United Nations recognize the treaty and proclaim the free and independent country of Bearsylvania!” Mass bear mobilization follows: U.N. delegates watch a news report that tells them, “Because of a call to bears to come to their own land, across America, from all parks and woods, bears are moving! Other bears are seeking a home and refuge … Our latest picture shows an unending line of bears fleeing into their new homeland—Bearsylvania!” 

At U.N. headquarters, Yogi seeks diplomatic standing to argue his case, appears before the U.N. General Assembly to contest U.S. sovereignty over Jellystone Park, and, when this fails, turns to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to defend bears’ freedom under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At each step, the United States’ representatives, egged on by Ranger Smith, undertake classic diplomatic feints to try to forestall Bearsylvanian secession: They consider burying the question on the General Assembly agenda or bringing it up so quickly that no one can learn anything about the issue. Ultimately, they invoke the principle of sovereign nonintervention. (“But Bearsylvania is part of the United States! The United Nations doesn’t take up any country’s internal affairs!”) The dilemma is classic, and the strategies remain common: States resist separatist claims, secessionist groups seek recognition and legitimacy in international law, and states marshal support from their fellow states to quash claims. 

The dream of self-determination—slipping an imperial yoke, self-governing, joining a society of states—shadows the 20th century’s great multilateral projects, but the same principle of sovereign inviolability that makes statehood desirable for secessionists makes the United Nations charter a compact for the protection of statehood. “[S]ecessionists,” the political scientist Tanisha Fazal argues, “have a complicated relationship with the principle of sovereignty … as they would like to join the club of states themselves. But in order to do so, secessionists must violate the sovereignty of the country from which they secede. Existing states frown at the practice and tend to support one another in rejecting it; there is no right to secession in international law.” But  notes secessionists can be better adherents to international law than states themselves: “Because secessionists wish to join the exclusive club of states, they pay close attention to signals sent by major countries and organizations that indicate how they should behave.” 

In a bitter irony, Bearsylvania’s independence bid fails because of a U.S.-Indian treaty: A clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we are told, has found a newer treaty superseding Yogi’s documents; the present-day Waawaa chief appears to testify on behalf of the U.S. government, and Bearsylvania’s claim to statehood is defeated at the General Assembly. 

But the United Nations, of course, is not just a compact between states, but also a system of treaties that protects individuals from states—and having failed to secure protection via statehood, Yogi turns to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.But the United Nations, of course, is not just a compact between states, but also a system of treaties that protects individuals from states—and having failed to secure protection via statehood, Yogi turns to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “You can’t push us bears around!” he says to Ranger Smith, who insists that the bears who had flocked to Jellystone must leave now that Bearsylvania is defunct. He turns to the General Assembly: “You’re forgetting about Article 13, Paragraph 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights … Article 13 states—‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state!’ You can’t let the ranger force the bears to leave!” 

The Human Rights Commission steps in: A field team follows Yogi, Boo Boo, and Ranger Smith home to Jellystone. They investigate and produce a compromise solution: Bears run parks across the country on exactly one day, United Nations Day, Oct. 24. They make their own rules; they collect food from tourists; they nap aggressively. Is this enough? Yogi suggests it is: “You know, Boo Boo, thanks to the United Nations, this is a better world.” Repression 364 days a year does seem uncomfortably close to some situations the United Nations suggests—at least implicitly—that people bear, particularly those bound up in the politics of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Take, for example, Secretary-General António Guterres’s comparative silence on China’s ; the tragic ease with which powerful states can snarl the U.N.’s work up can leave their crimes, dominations, and incursions least addressed. Few human aspirants to sovereignty or international protection praise the U.N. so lavishly when the organization produces a solution so favoring the state, but with little other recourse, people routinely accept the U.N.’s incomplete guarantees and compromise solutions. 

A children’s story could, of course, have ended differently—bears and rangers in a complex power-sharing arrangement, perhaps, or a partitioned Jellystone, or greater recognition of bears’ rights. Perhaps Miss Bianca or the Sesame Street Muppets might have secured that end alongside the United Nations, with less resonance with the world as it is but more justice. Today, perhaps, a bold storyteller might back up further and ask where the indigenous population’s claim to the land figured into the tale. But over a half-century on from Yogi Bear Visits the U.N., individuals and movements confronting states often face the same challenges: an international organization built on contradictions; a framework for justice unevenly enforced by a compact of powerful states preoccupied with their own inviolability; no jewel box world, but perhaps an old treaty that can be bent to our own ends while we search for honey. 

Anjali Dayal is an assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University. She is also a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace, and Security.