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Negotiation (part 4): per ambigua ad astra

"Through ambiguity to the stars"—a tag suggested by some unknown wit around Dag Hammarskjöld as the motto for his diplomatic method. Hammarskjöld didn’t seem to mind: when Egyptian newspapers referred to him as "Mr. Flexible" during delicate negotiations in 1956–57, he promptly adopted the name in private correspondence with his communications director, George Ivan Smith, whom he addressed as "Mr. Fluid". Hammarskjöld necessarily played across the long continuum between stark clarity of statement and decision, and useful ambiguity that left situations open. The passages below—many reporting Hammarskjöld observed by others, some from his own statements—reflect this zone in his approach to negotiation.
The first word belongs to James Reston (1909–95), the famously insightful New York Times columnist who followed Hammarskjöld’s efforts throughout his years as secretary-general. Reston writes here on 10 August 1960, when the Congo crisis was in full swing, under the title "United Nations: A Refuge of Sanity in a Silly World":

This remarkable man is proving to be one of the great natural resources in the world today, and it is difficult to think of another in the field of world diplomacy who could do the job as well. He is tireless. He is infinitely patient. He is sensitive to the slightest troublesome breeze in the world. He knows exactly what his job will let him do and forbid him from doing. And he knows when to be ambiguous; he also knows when to be precise…. That he has exercised [his] powers with such skill as to win the respect, if not the affection, of the contending states is one reason why the UN is now a refuge for common sense in a satanic world.

Emery Kelen, early biographer and UN staff member, provides his report:

Many of the ambiguous resolutions passed by the Security Council were written by Dag Hammarskjöld in his own convoluted and Delphic style. In the case of a delicate issue, it is this sort of document alone that has a chance to pass or at least have the benefit of abstentions, for anything short of ambiloquence is promptly beheaded by the veto…. Once he had gotten such a resolution passed, its vague language left him a wide margin for interpretation, and he was able to perform diplomatic magic. Someone has suggested Hammarskjöld’s motto ought to have been Per ambigua ad astra. (Kelen, 83)

As always, Brian Urquhart—close colleague of Hammarskjöld’s and his foremost biographer—offers insight:

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, in 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.
(Urquhart, UN oral history project 1984, 20)

However, the point about ambiguity shouldn’t be overstated: Hammarskjold dealt in facts, and acted with clarity and decision, whenever circumstances permitted. Ambiguity was a tactic; peace with justice was the goal. The following two brief statements reflect his commitment to clarity:

The men who fought in Korea have given us the possibility of a new beginning…. Should we, by any failure in wisdom, in firmness of faith, or in clarity of purpose, fumble this opportunity, then the verdict of history upon us would justly be contemptuous. (Public Papers 2, 198)

The term "self-defense," in my view, has to be qualified in two ways in order to avoid ambiguity. One is with reference to the Charter. That follows from the fact that the Secretary-General cannot possibly be supposed to have discussions with Member Nations on any other basis than that of the Charter. (
Public Papers 3, 123)

Now that we’ve noted Hammarskjöld’s mix of methods—ambiguity where necessary, clarity when possible—we can look further at his use of ambiguity in the negotiation process. The following four passages refer to the immensely difficult negotiations that resolved the Suez crisis of late 1956 and 1957.

Much as I will try to slip around all corners and avoid saying whether the cat is white or black, because it is so dark all around, I am very much afraid that someone may have a torch and discover the sad secret the very moment the cat tries to catch a rat—that is to say, to do something.
(Hammarskjöld quoted in Urquhart, 212)

[The arrangements] are becoming almost metaphysical in their subtlety. I have no complaint about that because if, from the beginning of this operation, we had attempted to be specific, we would not have had an operation at all.
(Hammarskjöld quoted in Urquhart, 192; attributed elsewhere to the Canadian diplomat, Lester Pearson, describing Hammarskjöld’s approach)

In the vacuum which suddenly developed in the Suez crisis, I had, for what it was worth, to throw in everything I had to try to tide over; it was one of those irrational and extremely dangerous situations in which only something as irrational on a different level could break the spell.
(DH letter to the journalist Max Ascoli, 29 November 1956, Hammarskjöld Collection, Swedish National Library)

‘In order to gain the necessary time,’ he told the committee, ‘I accepted a certain lack of clarity’.
(Urquhart, biography of Ralph Bunche, 269–70)

Finally, a longer passage evoking Mr. Flexible at the top of his form:

The methods that Hammarskjöld used to nudge things long…sprang from his view of his place in the organization. He saw himself always as a servant of the UN. This view is rather more subtle than it might at first appear. It was a reading of his position that allowed him a certain degree of flexibility since the term "United Nations" could be interpreted to mean either the Member States, or the Organization as a semi-independent entity. By adopting this position, Hammarskjöld could refuse or agree to take certain actions on the grounds that he was carrying out the will of the Member States, acting through the Security Council or the General Assembly. When in 1958 he was pressured…to expand the UN presence in Lebanon from an observer group to a military force, he did not have to say that he thought this would be most unwise—although he did think so. He could simply say that such a move would go beyond what the Security Council had authorized. There the Member States, speaking through the Council, were his cover for refusal to take an action that he did not want to take. On the other hand, when opposed by powerful Member States, … he could fall back on the Charter as the authority for actions that he felt impelled to take on behalf of the purposes of the Organization as set out in that document. Ambiguity in definition was taken by Hammarskjöld as an opportunity for creative action—a tactic that could be as useful today as it was in the mid-20th century.
(Dorothy V. Jones, writing in The Adventure of Peace, 196)