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Realism: groping for the best road

The entries below are drawn from varied moments and situations: a wry perception of the secretary-general’s role in the Suez Crisis, an equally wry perception of the chances for atomic disarmament, words from a toast to the president of Italy, a compact thought from Markings reflecting the discipline of mind to which Hammarskjöld held himself in public life. All this helps to characterize the realism of his approach to political process. And it challenges us to re-examine what we mean by realism, which seems more nuanced than just factuality or a commitment to sound analysis and unsentimental decision. It makes intimate demands—for patience, attention to change, clarity with oneself, and more still. If all this is so, then realism is a living discipline.
During the complex and dangerous Suez Crisis of 1956–57, pitting Britain, France and Israel against Egypt, Hammarskjöld wrote to a close friend a set of stage notes:

The other day I gave Dr. Fawzi [Egyptian foreign minister] the following
description of the situation:
‘Tragicomedy in three acts:
Act 1. The Secretary-General is chaperone (a passed stage by now).
Act 2. The S-G has shown some talent to appear on the stage as an (alas, so moral) procuress.  (This scene is still to be written.)
Act 3. The S-G is allowed—with good luck—to try his talents as a midwife.’
(Beskow, 62)

Disarmament will certainly be an agenda item this autumn. I think it is one of the hardy perennials, but in the present situation it is a perennial which may produce a few new leaves and even flowers—let us hope so. I do not expect any fruits…. I would feel encouraged and happy if we were to see new life in that old plant, with the full knowledge that it would be rather rash—and a little naive—to expect that we could pick the berries in the next few months. (Public Papers 2, 488)

Setbacks in efforts to implement an ideal do not prove that the ideal is wrong…. At the beginning of great changes in human society there must always be a stage of…frailty or seeming inconsistency. (Public Papers 3, 555)

We are groping—not in the dark—but we are groping for the best road, with a very open mind. It is too early to try to lay down what might come out of that effort. Continued speculation would not be either useful or very interesting. I think it is much better to leave it to this rather pragmatic effort in which we are at present engaged. (Public Papers 3, 627)

Even the much decried principles of Machiavelli can from time to time give us useful lessons because they teach us to recognize and measure our illusions, and that is a discipline we can hardly neglect. (Public Papers 3, 64)

Realism is the opposite of desecration. The truth we must endure is our present reality without the reconciliation which time may provide.
(Markings, 151, translation slightly revised)

Dag Hammarskjöld, the great, the serious, had a lovely sense of humor. Ironic but entertaining views of people and events, improvised riffs on the state of the world, colorful private venting over public woes—more often than not, these were his topics. The word "tragicomedy" fits better than outright comedy. Quoting an ancient Chinese account of a group of traveling peacemakers, he called attention to its "half-ironical, half-sad" tone, "tempered by [a] mild sense of humor and the strong sense of proportion of a man seeing his own time in the long perspective of history" (Public Papers 3, 555). He could have been speaking of himself: Hammarskjöld’s humor was often of this kind. A case in point here is his rapidly recostumed vision of himself first as chaperone, then brothel madam, then midwife, as he sought to remedy the tension and damage produced by the surprise military attack on Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel in May, 1956. The vast international drama is reduced, in a moment of relief and fun, to risqué street theater in three acts.

Hammarskjöld’s approach to politics blended two unlike ingredients: idealism and realism. He dared to envision what could and should be—what would be for the best; this was part of his job description. But he sought that "best" along wholly practical, realistic avenues of planning and execution. Patience, allowing time and process to do their work, was central to his realism, and through insightful observations he managed to make patience interesting. That was crucial. It’s not enough to apply a patient attitude and ask all concerned to be similarly patient. In Hammarskjöld’s practice, patience isn’t just waiting; it’s an engagement, an intelligence at work, a study of attitudes and circumstances. Though giving to process however much time may be needed, it reads the signs and foresees what might come next. It’s an ingredient of effective realism.

The last entry is arresting. From Hammarskjöld’s private journal, published after his death as Markings, we are looking again at a compressed, provocative insight. In many situations, he writes, realism is not to be confused with desecration (the Swedish is profanering, related to English profanation). To call a spade a spade does no dishonor to the spade. To that proposition most of us will readily agree. But then the plunge: "The truth we must endure is our present reality without the reconciliation which time may provide." This is harsh. Is it merely bleak—or some fine though unfamiliar inner posture? Hammarskjöld seems to be saying that it makes no sense to seek solace now in an imagined future comfort. Reality asks more than that. Keen attention to circumstances now offers the only realistic avenue to a better future.

Through the narrow opening of these words, this door slightly ajar, we can look into an inner life that struggled against deception and self-deception, that took no comfort except genuine comfort and tried to stay settled in the here and now. International politics in Hammarskjöld’s practice was a demanding code, a discipline of mind, a certain containment combined with warmth of outreach.