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Negotiation (part 1): Hammarskjöld at work

At this site we have not much relied on biography. But if we set out to explore a little further Dag Hammarskjöld’s concept and practice of negotiation, there is no better start than to read his closest UN colleagues’ efforts to describe his character and conduct on the job. Sound principles and strategies are effective only when embodied and lived. From this perspective, Hammarskjöld’s individuality—how he struck his colleagues, what they admired in him, where they faulted him—will shed light. Our four informants are distinguished: Sir Brian Urquhart, a military man of courage, strategic insight and organizational expertise, later Hammarskjöld’s foremost biographer; Ralph Bunche, 1950 Nobel laureate for his peace work in the Middle East, African-American, brilliant, loyal; Andrew W. Cordier, a veteran UN leader with whom Hammarskjöld shared every task, later dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; Rajeshwar Dayal, an Indian diplomat entrusted by both Nehru and Hammarskjöld with the most difficult tasks. In this entry, their testimony; in the next, a return to Hammarskjöld’s ideas about the key element of political processes: negotiation. The Latin roots of the word are nec + otium: not-leisure. What were our ancestors thinking of?
With Ben-Gurion, and in Israel, Hammarskjöld found a far more receptive audience than he had expected. After their first meeting, Ben-Gurion, who admired toughness and ability and had already found that Hammarskjöld’s detailed knowledge of Middle Eastern problems was as formidable as his skill in negotiation, jokingly asked, "And where did they find you?" (Urquhart, 144)

One need not elaborate here on the widely accepted fact that he was one of the truly great men of our times; on his widely known and deserved reputation for being uniquely gifted in intelligence, wisdom, statesmanship, and courage or on his literally total dedication to the causes of peace and human advancement and the United Nations efforts to promote them. We who worked with him came to know Dag Hammarskjöld also as bold, sometimes daring in his moves and approaches to problems, but not reckless. He was not given to acting without cool and thorough calculation, and was never one to act impulsively, although when an idea firmly commended itself to him he would pursue it doggedly. It is not suggested, however, that he was above anger, even fury, or other emotions. He could and at times did erupt. He had an uncanny and almost intuitive sense of political timing, and this may have been one of his greatest assets throughout his years of devoted service to the United Nations. (Bunche, 189–90)

He had a lightning capacity for the gathering and appraisal of facts, for the making and implementation of decisions. I never had the impression that he worried himself into decisions. One could see his brilliant mind at work picking out relevant facts, outlining alternative avenues of action, arriving quickly at a formulation of the policy or decision necessary to the problem. Nor did he worry about a decision after it was made. He frequently indulged in a reasoned self-confidence that the decision taken was the right one.... He combined sound, hard realism with an extraordinary imagination. When others saw no further possibility of progress, he devised a means and a pattern of further negotiation, for eventual breakthroughs in touchy and baffling problems.  His convincing and brilliant analysis of issues and his unique and effective techniques in carrying them to further stages of solution were combined with an energy which astounded collaborators and observers alike.... His unflinching courage rested upon his faith upon principles and ideals derived from a sturdy and valued heritage and an intellect alive with almost limitless appraisal of values with meaning for himself and humanity.
(Andrew W. Cordier, cited in Van Dusen, 112–13)

He was extremely firm. He was always slightly ahead of the game. He had a brilliant analytical mind and was able to think ahead of problems—something that almost nobody I know can do. He was extremely articulate and also capable of the most amazing obscurity when necessary—which lent a slight air of mystery to what he was doing, especially later on, on political matters—which, actually, is a very good trick because then you can spring new ideas on people at exactly the right moment when they might be wishing to grasp for them. That was his great strength in negotiation. He was a very imaginative, extremely knowledgeable man. Hammarskjöld had an infinite capacity for absorbing basic facts on any subject. We were all much surprised later on, for example, when the Suez Canal got blocked in 1956 to find that Hammarskjöld was an expert on international marine insurance and toll rates…. (Urquhart, UN oral history project 1984, 20)

Then, of course, … the affair of the American airmen in China, where the United States had got itself into a corner—because, on the one hand, they refused to have anything to do with the Communist Chinese government in Beijing and, on the other, were demanding the release of American airmen who had come down in China and had been condemned as spies. It was a rather tricky situation; there were 17 of them. Like many impossible situations, it wound up first of all in the Security Council, then in the General Assembly and, in the end, it was dumped in the lap of the Secretary-General—and everybody assumed that that was the end of it. Hammarskjöld…proceeded to take it on as a job—which nobody thought was possible. To do that he went to Beijing and conducted a most elaborate negotiation…and finally got those people out. It was then that [US Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles suddenly realized…that Hammarskjöld got results. I must say—greatly to everybody’s credit—they then realized they were dealing with a major international figure of a very unusual kind.… And the British, who had been somewhat critical about him, also realized he was something to reckon with.
(Urquhart, UN oral history project 1984, 23–24)

He did very well in sophisticated parts of the world—the Middle East or even Southeast Asia, where you have a very long sophisticated culture—where those very complicated, nuanced plans he used to work out, which were really amazing, did fine. For example, in Lebanon in 1958 he really did a remarkable job of solving what was in fact an extremely hairy problem. After all, there was a civil war in which the United States had suddenly landed with 14,000 marines—he has never got any credit for it, because nobody wanted to admit it was a mistake—but the fact of the matter is it was Hammarskjöld who provided the basis upon which Eisenhower was able to withdraw the marines with honor…and he did it in a fantastic personal negotiation with the Lebanese, with Nasser, with the Syrians, the Americans, the British, everybody. That was high-level personal diplomacy, and he could do that. But, of course, when he got into the Congo—where nobody was playing by the Queensberry or any other rules, and indeed had never heard of them, … he got into a mess—so did we all—because he was in an area where there just weren’t any rules—and people were scared, which also made it worse….
(Urquhart, UN oral history project 1984, 28)

Hammarskjöld excelled at face-to-face encounters. He had a knack of inspiring confidence and of piercing through another’s reserve. He could be disarmingly direct, but also, as need arose, involved and subtle, sometimes to the point of obscurity. His transparent sincerity and sense of dedication inspired a remarkable degree of confidence. His style of speech was highly personal and expressive, and when excited by a thought, as tightly packed as shorthand. It frequently required intellectual athletics to keep pace with his rapid flow of ideas. He carried an air of total attention, alert to the slightest nuance of word or gesture. He seemed able to sense what was in one’s mind and to provide the answer even before a thought was fully formulated. (Dayal, Mission, 302–03)