Global Policy Forum

Dag Hammarskjold: "Virtuoso of multilateral diplomacy" -

UN Chronicle
September 1991

Thirty years have passed since the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, was killed in a tragic airplane crash in southern Africa. in September 1961, he was on a peace mission to the then troubled nation of the Congo. For eight years, Dag Hammarskjold, who has been described as a twentieth century Renaissance man skilled in arts and languages and striving for a spiritual goal for most of his life to make the world a better place, was the moving spirit of the UN. By any standard, he was an exceptional international leader.

In part, that can be attributed to Hammarskjold's background and upbringing. His personal qualities, including a deep sense of moral responsibility, obviously played a major role in his becoming a political figure of such dimension. The Hammarskjold family belonged to Sweden's high noble class and excelled in civil and public service arenas for almost 500 years. Dag Hammarskjold's father, Hjalmar, served as Prime Minister of Sweden during the First World War. His three brothers were also prominent Swedes: Bo, a diplomat; Ake, a judge of the International Court of Justice; and Sten, a journalist and novelist.

In 1917, the elder Hammarskjold became Provincial Governor in Uppsala. The family lived in a castle, and it was there that Dag spent most of his childhood. This highly spiritual, somewhat solitary environment may have instilled in him a sense of loneliness and separation. It also may have enhanced the spiritual quest which dominated his adult years. At Uppsala University in the mid-1920s, Dag studied political economy, philosophy, literature and French. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in law after only two years and went on to obtain a Master's degree in political economy in 1930, at the age of 25. His mind was described as "razor sharp" by a fellow classmate.

Mr. Hammarskjold moved on to the University of Stockholm, obtaining a Ph.D. in economics in 1934. He became Secretary of the Swedish National Bank in 1935 and was appointed Under Secretary of Finance in 1936. From 1941 to 1945, he served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Bank of Sweden. In 1947, he was selected as Under Secretary in Sweden's Foreign Office. Mr. Hammarskjold launched his international career in the late 1940s. He headed Sweden's delegation to the Organization for European Economic Cooperation and was a delegate to the new Council of Europe. In 1951, Dag Hammarskjold became Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs with Cabinet status.

While serving as SecretaryGeneral of the UN from 1953 to 1961, Hammarskjold proved to be particularly skilled at mastering a given issue or policy. He placed great importance on relationships with national leaders, on a regular basis conveying his ideas in writing to some respected individuals from whom he could expect substantive feedback.

A master of timing

"His correspondence reveals a mastery of timing, as well as of compliment and criticism, and the line between manipulation and an appeal to personal friendship is often fine", wrote L.S. Trachtenberg, a Hammarskjold scholar. Among these national leaders and prominent politicians were India's Nehru, Canada's Lester Pearson, Tunisia's Mongi Slim, China's Zhou Enlai, Britain's Anthony Eden and Israel's David Ben-Gurion.

Mr. Hammarskjold's philosophy about the future of the UN was founded on the premise that UN Charter provisions must be given increased political reality. The UN, he believed, must be an adaptable instrument for peace and security, ready to respond to any demands put to it, and to concentrate on preventive rather than corrective action. In what was to be his final report to the Organization in 1961, Dag Hammarskjold observed that there were two possible developments in the structure of the UN: a static conference machinery or a dynamic instrument of government. This second concept, he noted, "can point to the needs of the present and of the future in a world of ever-closer international interdependence ... and envisages possibilities of inter-governmental action overriding" a philosophy of "sovereign national States in armed competition".

Sensitive to concerns

During his time in office, a huge expansion and shift in UN membership occurred, with many former colonies becoming independent and joining the UN. Mr. Hammarskjold was sensitive to their concerns, advocating more active UN involvement in determining their future, as in the case of the Congo. No doubt, Dag Hammarskjold was a virtuoso of multilateral diplomacy", according to former UN Under-Secretary-General Brian Urquhart, another Hammarskjold biographer. Such Hammarskjold innovations as good offices, missions and much of peace-keeping, have now been accepted as standard practices, he noted.

"He inspired confidence and, above ill, respect", recalled Mr. Urquhart. He could do so because, before acting, he "went to the roots of a problem and established in his mind the principles on which he would base his actions ... I know of no other political leader who so effectively turned his intellectual gifts to the solution of practical problems".

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