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Wrestling with problems, facing facts

We have heard Hammarskjöld say that ‘flexibility must not mean fear of going on the offensive.’ He might also have said that intelligence and close analysis must not mean fear of going on the offensive; politics is no place for Hamlet. This week he looks at the need to face facts—sometimes with courage, sometimes with patience, sometimes with wry understanding, but always directly. The opening text is from Hammarskjöld’s comments to reporters when he landed in New York in April 1953 to be sworn in as secretary-general. Those that follow are from public statements in the years 1953–55.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

The qualities [of a skilled mountain climber] are just those which I feel we all need today: perseverance and patience, a firm grip on realities, careful but imaginative planning, a clear awareness of the dangers but also of the fact that fate is what we make it and that the safest climber is he who never questions his ability to overcome all difficulties.

No institution can become effective unless it is forced to wrestle with the problems, the conflicts, and the tribulations of real life.

I feel that what very many people call negative sides—the talking, the conflicts, the flux of events, the uncertainties about outcomes and so on and so forth—are not negative sides but positive sides.

No lasting success is possible without the patience and the courage to face facts—any more than it is possible without the faith that mankind will reach its goal if we, every one in his own place, is willing to pay the price.

(Public Papers 2, 30, 203, 466, 631)

It may not be possible to produce museum-size banners on a rush basis, but if it is, Hammarskjöld’s first words as secretary-general designate should be mounted on the façades of government buildings in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere. Everything he points to is needed to face, and in time overcome, the global economic crisis. "A firm grip on realities, careful but imaginative planning"—what hope in these words. The confidence he speaks of isn’t recklessness or arrogance. It’s the steadiness that keeps knees from trembling, minds from becoming distracted.

Though a thoughtful idealist, sustained by the faith that we’ll somehow manage in the end, Hammarskjöld faced facts with clarity and a certain severity of mind. His own institution—the United Nations, then young—could only mature by wrestling with problems, conflicts, tribulations, and this he understood. He obviously believed in a learning curve and the instructive power of experience. He didn’t want political life to go around in repetitive circles and gave his all to break out of sterile repetitions when they occurred.

Hammarskjöld didn’t object to unarmed conflict—the war of words, perspectives, interests and self-interests. This was again a matter of both faith and experience. He had seen how the uncertainties of political process can settle out over time and saw no need under normal circumstances to rush the settling. All participants are learning—or at least have the opportunity to learn—as the "flux of events" and "talking" go on. He recognized the need to be somewhat thick-skinned, tolerant as wars of words unfold. His own role was to enter in at the right time.

At a press conference in 1955, he commented: "A good driver makes only slight movements of the wheel in order to give direction at the critical moment…. It is a question of remaining wide awake and…saying our word in the way which seems…appropriate to give that touch to the wheel which helps to keep the car on the road." (Public Papers 2, 225)