Objective, impartial—neutral? (part 1)
"While there are neutral countries, there are no neutral men…. We cannot have another Hammarskjöld, no matter where he comes from among the neutral countries." So said Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union, in a series of interviews (April 1961) with the American journalist, Walter Lippmann. Khrushchev had Dag Hammarskjöld in his sights: he had called for his resignation, blamed him for every step and inevitable misstep in the Congo crisis which had explosively begun nine months earlier. Neutrality is an attitude and practice that Hammarskjöld carefully separated off from indifference. Neutrality can be useful, indifference never. On the other hand, he valued objectivity and impartiality without qualification. This week, and for several weeks to come, why not explore this spectrum of values? They matter in every mediation, every negotiation, at all levels from international affairs to friendships.
The fall 1960 session of the UN General Assembly was attended by many heads of state, notably Nikita Khrushchev, who took the occasion to attack Dag Hammarskjöld’s management of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo. In the October 3rd session, he launched his notion that there are no neutral men, to which he returned a half-year later with Walter Lippmann. Here is Khrushchev speaking:
The responsibility for interpreting and executing all the decisions of the General Assembly and the Security Council at present falls upon one man. But there is an old saying there are not, and never were, any saints on earth. Let those who believe in saints hold to their opinion; we do not credit such tales. So this one man—at the present time, Mr. Hammarskjöld—has to interpret and execute the decisions of the General Assembly and the Security Council, bearing in mind the interests of the monopoly-capitalist countries as well as those of the socialist countries and of the neutral countries. But this is not possible. Everyone has heard how vigorously the imperialist countries defend Mr. Hammarskjold’s position. Is it not clear then, in whose interest he interprets and executes those decisions, whose "saint" he is? (UN General Assembly, 3 October 1960)
This is just a sample of the language of the time. Hammarskjöld ably defended the United Nations, the office and role of the secretary-general, and his own person through the months to come. But he was listening. At a press conference in June, he still had Khrushchev’s line of attack in mind:
It may be true that in a very deep, human sense there is no neutral individual, because…everyone, if he is worth anything, has to have his ideas and ideals—things which are dear to him, and so on. But what I do claim is that even a man who is in that sense not neutral can very well undertake and carry through neutral actions, because that is an act of integrity. That is to say, I would say there is no neutral man, but there is, if you have integrity, neutral action by the right kind of man. And "neutrality" may develop, after all, into a kind of jeu de mots. I am not neutral as regards the Charter; I am not neutral as regards facts. But that is not what we mean. What is meant by "neutrality" in this kind of debate is, of course, neutrality in relation to interests; and there I do claim that there is no insurmountable difficulty for anybody with the proper kind of guiding principles in carrying through such neutrality one hundred percent. (Public Papers 5, 492)
From an early stage in his years of service at the UN, Hammarskjöld had been reflecting about the challenges facing the UN Secretariat, which was by design a politically neutral international civil service and, as he put it, a "radical innovation in international life". In December 1953, speaking with UN staff members at Geneva, he said:
The weight we carry is not determined by physical force or the number of people who form the constituency. It is based solely on trust in our impartiality, our experience and knowledge, our maturity of judgment. Those qualities are our weapons, in no way secret weapons, but as difficult to forge as guns and bombs.
(Public Papers 2, 193)