Walls of distrust, then and now
Common ground (part 2)

Common ground (part 1)

Dag Hammarskjöld is reported to have said to China’s celebrated prime minister, Zhou Enlai, that it’s hopeless to begin negotiations with large questions; better "to find solutions for the lesser problems first, and thus prepare the ground for solution of major issues." Hammarskjöld is remembered as adept at perceiving the slim common ground even of bitter adversaries and persuading them to acknowledge it as a step toward settling differences. The passages below, reflecting many situations in the course of his years as secretary-general, convey his perception of not just one but three zones of potential common ground: in the details of specific disputes, in the common regard for the United Nations Charter expected of all member nations, and in our common humanity.
At a press conference (April 10, 1954) dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hammarskjöld spoke of the need "to map the ground so that we can see if there is any common ground on which Secretariat action would be indicated and wise." A journalist asked, "Common as between whom?"

Hammarskjöld responded:

Common where there is a harmony between the interests concerned…. For example, it may be quite possible that there are points…where an Israeli interest and an Arab interest, because of some development, happen to coincide because it happens to fit in with the plans on both sides. If that is so,…it obviously would be nonsensical not to try to get it down and, at least, to get somewhere. (Public Papers 2, 290)

The political function of the Secretariat…is to find and to keep alive and to broaden whatever may be the common denominator in the foreign policies of the nations. To find this common denominator is not too difficult, because I think that there is no doubt about the unanimity as to general aims, to the extent that they fall within the sphere of interest of the United Nations. As to keeping it alive, very much can be done in that respect…. As to broadening it, there we come to what is really a crucial point—that is, to work…in such a way that you daily and constantly increase the understanding of ‘the other point of view’, increase the understanding of the extent to which the common denominator, the common element, is to be found in the policy of the other side. It is an activity which is very much needed, and I feel that it is highly challenging…. (Public Papers 2, 671)

All the varied interests and aspirations of the world meet…upon the common ground of the Charter. Conflicts may persist for long periods without an agreed solution and groups of states may actively defend special and regional interests. Nevertheless, and in spite of temporary developments in the opposite direction under the influence of acute tension, the tendency in the United Nations is to wear away, or break down, differences, thus helping toward solutions which approach the common interest and application of the principles of the Charter. (Public Papers 3, 636)

And in his private journal, Hammarskjöld wrote: 

Jesus’ ‘lack of moral principles.’ He sat at meat with publicans and sinners, he consorted with harlots. Did he do this to obtain their votes? Or did he think that, perhaps, he could convert them by such ‘appeasement’? Or was his humanity rich and deep enough to make contact, even in them, with that in human nature which is common to all men, indestructible, and upon which the future has to be built? (Markings, 157)

The difference in voice between Hammarskjöld’s public writings and statements and his private journal, unpublished in his lifetime, never fails to surprise. Both are wholly characteristic of him; both are true of him. At one end of the spectrum a pragmatic, seasoned view of political process—"try to get it down and at least get somewhere". At the other end a reflection on human nature and activity that looks, not infrequently, toward the example of Jesus of Nazareth to show a path forward.

In this instance, Hammarskjöld recalls Jesus’ openness to "social undesirables" of his era and obliquely calls on himself to follow that example in political work. No squeamishness, no refusal of this person or that because… There is common ground among us all, somewhere deep in what we are as human beings, indestructible, upon which—he writes so unexpectedly—the future must be built.

If it can be found, not just in theory but as a felt fact influencing political processes, that is the first common ground. The second, in Hammarskjöld’s world, was the United Nations Charter, a miniature copy of which it seems he carried with him at all times (see To the values, structures, and procedures laid out there, all member nations of the UN pledge adherence. For readers of this site not especially interested in the UN but engaged with political process and governance in their own arenas of activity, there is surely an equivalent or nearly equivalent "charter" somewhere in their frame of reference—a mission statement, a history of excellence, a regulatory regimen, a strategy that sets goals and acknowledges restraints.

The third common ground is "in the weeds", as business people say—in the details of a circumstance. Hammarskjöld valued the strategy of identifying even small zones of common ground between adversaries and then trying to broaden that common ground until a sensible solution becomes acceptable or inevitable. He alludes to this strategy in his comments on Arab-Israeli negotiations, addresses it again in what he says about wearing away and breaking down differences between adversaries. That language is striking. Apparently we’re not to expect to find common ground, the common denominator, the common element without putting in time and accepting stress.