Home | Interpreting Hammarskjöld's Political Wisdom | Objective, impartial—neutral? (part 2)

Objective, impartial—neutral? (part 2)

We have begun to engage with a spectrum of values—objectivity, impartiality, neutrality—that mattered enormously to Dag Hammarskjöld as secretary-general, and always matter in political processes where force and influence compete with facts. This week’s edition looks further into Hammarskjöld’s understanding of these terms and their place in politics and diplomacy. "The Secretary-General," he said in 1954, "must not only be impartial, he must appear to be impartial. That means that situations may develop in which he has to move with considerable caution." At that time, many such situations lay ahead.
Hammarskjöld returned often to this topic. It was a responsibility of his office to keep key values of the United Nations in front of the public, but he doesn’t seem to have been simply meeting a responsibility: he was deeply interested and always learning more.  Here are several of his returns to the topic:

Is it not the duty of the Secretary-General, to all the extent that he can, and it is difficult sometimes, to be objective—not impartial, for that is a kind of rather sterile and neutral word. And being objective means necessarily to try and explain the viewpoints as well as one can and as deeply as you can understand them, and to explain them in all directions. (Public Papers 2, 483)

For my own part, I think that neutrality may be moral, that neutrality may be immoral, that lack of neutrality may be moral, that lack of neutrality may be immoral—it all depends on factors which are not strictly linked to the definition.
Public Papers 3, 170)

At a press conference this morning I was asked—by the way, by a very famous journalist—a question which, frankly, was outside the framework of a press conference. He asked me what we would do about the underlying differences in the hearts and in the souls of men. He said, "It is all right what you are doing in the political field, but what does it matter if back of it all there is deterioration of this type?" My reply was the only possible one. It was that I felt that he should, as far as the Secretary-General was concerned, make a distinction between the officer of the Organization and the man. The officer of the Organization should not and could not be a preacher of moralism. The man had the duty of every man to fight against those very tendencies the journalist had in mind, but in doing so, he did it as a man and not as a functionary of the Organization. (
Public Papers 3, 622)

Whether a certain action is justified as self-defense or not is something which under United Nations legislation can only be decided by the Security Council. I may have my views on the concrete cases, but they would not be binding on anybody. They would just be my private views, and from that point of view they may be of interest but not of significance. (
Public Papers 3, 133)

In his periodic, often harsh encounters with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, Hammarskjöld once managed to use a witty toast to make the point that as secretary-general he served the United Nations and its member nations without bias toward one or another. The incident is well told by Joseph Lash, a UN journalist and Hammarskjold’s first biographer:

With characteristic agility, Hammarskjold lifted his glass. He drew a comparison with Soviet Russia’s "famous Sputnik", observing: "True, I was launched in Sweden, but once in orbit I do not come close to any country." (Lash, 167)