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Common ground (part 1)
Common ground (part 2)

Walls of distrust, then and now

Nearly impenetrable walls of distrust between nations and power blocs were common in Dag Hammarskjöld’s years at the UN—and they are common now. Some of the walls he knew haven’t responded to more than 50 years of political effort. Others have fallen. And there are new walls, no less grave in their implications than those that disappeared. In June 1958, Hammarskjöld received an honorary degree from Cambridge University. For the occasion he gave a talk on "The Walls of Distrust". Herewith a few key passages from that talk.

Hammarskjöld said:

We meet in a time of peace which is no peace, in a time of technical achievement which threatens its own masters with destruction…. The widening of our political horizons to embrace…the whole of the world…has, paradoxically, led to new conflicts and to new difficulties to establish even simple human contact and communication…. There are fires all around the horizon, and they are not fires announcing peace. More perturbing than all these smoldering or barely controlled conflicts are the main underlying tendencies, which we all know only too well and which preoccupy our minds and darken our hopes….  

There is a maturity of mind required of those who give up rights. There is a maturity of mind required of those who acquire new rights. Let us hope that, to an increasing extent, the necessary spiritual qualities will be shown on all sides….

The conflict between different approaches to the liberty of man and mind or between different views of human dignity and the right of the individual is continuous. The dividing line goes within ourselves, within our own peoples, and also within other nations. It does not coincide with any political or geographical boundaries. The ultimate fight is one between the human and the subhuman. We are on dangerous ground if we believe that any individual, any nation, or any ideology has a monopoly on rightness, liberty, and human dignity.
When we fully recognize this and translate our insight into words and action, we may also be able to reestablish full human contact and communications across geographical and political boundaries….

It is easy to turn the responsibility over to others or, perhaps, to seek explanations [for failure] in some kind of laws of history. It is less easy to look for the reasons within ourselves or in a field where we…carry a major responsibility. However, such a search is necessary, because finally it is only within ourselves and in such fields that we can hope, by our own actions, to make a valid contribution to a turn of the trend of events….

All of us, in whatever field…we work, influence to some degree the spiritual trend of our time. All of us may contribute to the breakdown of the walls of distrust…. How can this be done better or more effectively than by simple faithfulness to the independence of the spirit and to the right of the free man to free thinking and free expression of his thoughts….
(Public Papers 4, 90–94)

As a unifying figure in the midst of the Cold War, Hammarskjöld needed to dissolve polar thinking—the thinking that divided the world into two camps, West and East, and looked no farther. A very difficult task, but he works away at it here by emphasizing other divisions, deeper still, having nothing to do with geography or politics. "The ultimate fight," he writes, "is between the human and the subhuman," and that fight occurs within each of us, within each grouping of people no matter who they are, within each country no matter what its politics. His approach offers no excuse for injustice and tyranny, as if all perspectives and regimes were equally humane. But it lays the groundwork for dialogue, for lowering the walls of mistrust. His plea for the "free thinking" and "free expression of thoughts" by "free men" repeats the word "free" until we hear it.  

Hammarskjöld calls on each and all to count ourselves in, to recognize our own responsibility for influencing, however slightly, the trend of events through our attitudes and actions. Is this "mysticism" or an excess of faith in what is possible, or is it a sensitive detection of what can actually occur?

A further point: he speaks of "maturity". Seemingly modest and ordinary, this was in fact one of Hammarskjöld’s most heartfelt values. As he traveled the world and spoke with virtually all of its public leaders, he must have perceived some crucial difference between the thought processes and responses of genuinely mature participants in public life and others who lacked that quality. Maturity did not mean passivity, readiness to compromise even principles, or anything of that kind. "To understand all is to forgive all"—it wasn’t that. The stakes were, and remain, too high for that. Maturity implied for him steady humanistic values, clarity of mind, and resourcefulness—acquired and tested through long experience—to solve problems without creating more problems.

Public leaders are working now in many parts of the world to lower the walls of distrust. That entails a search for common ground. In the next two entries we’ll look at Hammarskjöld’s insights about the search for common ground.