Walls of distrust, then and now
Common ground (part 1)

Common ground (part 2)

Hammarskjöld often returned to the theme of the search for common ground, especially among adversaries but even among allies asking what to do next. The context of the first three statements below is the Cold War, but their substance sheds light on problems today—light and a kind of pressure. The fourth passage shows Hammarskjöld struggling to clarify a process issue among his UN peers. The fifth, astonishing, records a rare occasion when Hammarskjöld used in public language and concepts from his private search for religious insight. This occurred in the course of a long, closely detailed statement to the UN Security Council in summer 1960 about political chaos in the Congo, then a newly independent nation to which the UN had made a major commitment. To speak as he did, Hammarskjöld must have been quietly furious.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

Disharmony is the very reason why a center for harmonizing is necessary. We may regret and even deplore the frequent bitterness of…debates, but we should never make the mistake of thinking that we would be better off if these debates did not take place…. The role of the United Nations is to bring to bear upon…differences and conflicts of interest, month in and month out, the overriding common interest and to do this in terms of the principles and purposes of the Charter. For the United Nations is not only a meeting place, but a meeting place in which the instinct of mutual self-preservation is reinforced by the constant presence in the background of moral purpose. (Public Papers 2, 262)

It is worth more…to achieve what little agreement is possible between…two conflicting parties than to register the much broader area of agreement of one side only by excluding the other, knowing that such one-sided agreements cannot be implemented against the will of the party excluded…. (Public Papers 2, 298–99)

The United Nations represents the beginning of an organic process through which the diversity of peoples and their governments are struggling to find the common ground upon which we can live together in the one world that has been thrust upon us before we were ready. (Public Papers 2, 384)

I am thinking…of a new political form where representatives of governments would sit and where an effort would be made to seek agreement on certain basic principles in the hope that, once this agreement had been reached, these principles might be applied…in the solution of specific problems. (Public Papers 2, 618)

Is it too much to expect that it will be understood that a period of utter crisis and disintegration is one in which those who work for their personal benefit are acting against the interest of the people of the country, while those who work for the interest of the people of the country will find that they themselves have profited by their self-oblivion in submission to the common cause? (Public Papers 5, 112)

The "constant presence in the background of moral purpose" is an arresting phrase. Hammarskjöld was not a moralist in his work as secretary-general, but he was something else, one long step over—let’s call it "principled".

A 1959 press conference sheds light:     

Journalist: Mr. Secretary-General, do you feel that the United Nations would have greater influence and impact on the world if there were stronger emphasis in the UN organs on moral condemnation of wrongdoers?
The Secretary-General: I am perhaps not a moralist.
2nd Journalist: Sir, a moment ago you made a very intriguing statement when you said you were not a moralist. …If UN decisions do not register moral judgments, what should be the purpose of UN decisions?
The Secretary-General: They register judgments, and I hope they are moral.
(Public Papers 4, 329)

Hammarskjöld’s reference to a constant presence in the background, as debates and events work their way through, is reflected in our own era in Václav Havel’s satisfyingly mysterious references to what he called "the order of Being". "Because he is not grounded in a humble respect for the order of Being," Havel wrote, "modern man allows himself to be driven by his particular interests. He is no longer capable of governing his behavior in a way that takes account of the general interest." (The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, 121)

And so, by a circuitous route, we’re returned to the topic of common ground. From Hammarskjöld and Havel’s perspective, it appears that common ground is more quickly and steadfastly recognized by men and women who take their signals not only from immediate self-interest but also from larger frames of reference: for Hammarskjöld, the values of the UN Charter and cultural-religious inheritances.

Hammarskjöld held himself to an austerely high standard, in which "self-oblivion in submission to the common cause" was a central demand. He had discovered that his effectiveness in his role as a global leader depended on his willingness to forget himself—his personal needs and preferences, his appetite for praise, his aversion to blame and unjust criticism. It was a high demand; he could hardly expect many others to recognize or obey it, and under normal skies he did not. But as the Congo Crisis intensified in scope in the course of the summer of 1960, he asked himself and asked the members of the Security Council a somewhat desperate question: "Is it too much to expect…."

The question still echoes, asking too much and no more than is needed.