What can a student of International Relations learn from Dag Hammarskjöld?

In this blog post our communications intern reflects on how Dag Hammarskjöld and his teachings are relevant to students today.

Studying International Relations entails excavating the past in order to reflect on the present, and influence the future. As a student of the field from King’s College London I was attracted to this course of study because of this notion, and the hope that by deepening my education in this realm I would be able to contribute to making the world better, safer and more just.

Before moving to London, I lived down the street from Uppsala Castle, the childhood home of Dag Hammarskjöld. At my high school, Katedralskolan, we would often gather in the Dag Hammarskjöld Auditorium, named after one of our most notable alumni. Yet despite Hammarskjöld’s looming legacy on my city’s streets and school corridors, I have to admit that I knew this man more in name than in deed.

Now, as a Communications Intern at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, I sit under a framed photograph of the organisation’s namesake, and am naturally curious about this man.  I wonder what I, as a 21st century student of International Relations, might learn from this 20th century icon.

Three things speak to me. First, Hammarskjöld’s uncompromising commitment to his values and his integrity:  second, the importance of cultivating interests and reflecting on oneself, and lastly, his adherence to the pursuit of truth.

Leading the UN with integrity

Hammarskjöld became Secretary-General of the United Nations at an especially challenging time. In 1953, the UN was still young and being tested. The failure of the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, was fresh in the minds of many, and it was still uncertain whether the United Nations would fare any better.

Despite this daunting situation, Hammarskjöld, in many ways, made the UN what it is today. His insistence on upholding the values of the UN Charter not only in theory, but also in practice –is perhaps one of his most powerful legacies. Particularly in regards to the integrity where Hammarskjöld, like the Charter, demanded employees set aside loyalty to their nations and serve only the organisation. And he lead by example as shown by his refusal to be manipulated by the powerful states of his time.

In the summer of 1960 as the Congo crisis unfolded, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev accused Hammarskjöld of favouring the West and demanded his resignation. Hammarskjöld refused to step down and stated that “It is not the Soviet Union or indeed any other Big Power who need the United Nations for their protection: it is all the others…I shall remain in my post during the term of my office as a servant of the Organization in the interest of all those other nations, as long as they wish me to do so.”

Once again, Hammarskjöld teaches me that, above all, a competent civil servant is one who never breaches his or her mandate to serve, gives all voices equal weight, and remains respectful in the face of adversaries. Shrinking these lessons to the size of an International Relations’ classroom, Hammarskjöld’s example resonates even there; he reminds me to listen to my classmates with respect for their opinions, recognise that we should strive to be open-minded and remember that we are here to learn today so that we may serve tomorrow.

Pursuing your own interests to better serve the interests of others

But even the “private man” has something to teach a student. A second lesson that Hammarskjöld teaches is the importance of cultivating interests and finding time for self-reflection.  Hammarskjöld was deeply passionate about nature and the great outdoors, and nearly every year he would escape public life by going skiing, hiking or cycling in the Swedish mountains. Beyond his skills as a diplomat, the Secretary-General was also a skilled photographer and writer.

In always finding time for his passions, Hammarskjöld exemplifies the importance of a well-rounded life. Professional career is important, but so is self-cultivation. Certainly, if the man who worked to smooth Arab-Israeli relations, negotiated the release of American pilots from China, and sought to defuse the Congo Crisis had time for his passions, then so do I.

Dag Hammarskjöld also reminds us that you have to pursue your own interests, to fully serve the interests of others; you need to ensure that you lead a balanced life, and have an outlet to express yourself, whatever that may be.

In his book Markings, published after his death, the often quiet and introverted Hammarskjöld reveals his most inner thoughts, insights and reflections in the form of prose and haikus. The quiet and privacy of his mind became a solace for the public figure, and many of his internal struggles, debates, and wishes are expressed in writing, with this specific passage striking a particular chord with me.

“Never let success hide its inner emptiness from you,
achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation.
And so keep alive the incentive to push on further,
That pain of the soul which drives us beyond ourselves.
Whither? That I do not know. I do not ask to know.”

Truth and justice above all else

Lastly, Dag Hammarskjöld’s legacy highlights for me that, beyond all else, a student of International Relations must strive, in their future endeavours, to ensure justice is achieved. Truth, as he saw it, was the ultimate defender of justice and the size, perceived importance, or power of a state in question had no significance.

The arguably most complex dispute facing the Secretary-General during his term was the Congo crisis. Amid demands to give over the peacekeeping forces to the Congolese government, calls to throw out the Belgians, and pressure from the United States and Soviet Union, Hammarskjöld refused to cave in. Hammarskjöld wrote to a British diplomat, “Some of the flying bricks we can catch and use to build a wall – the rest, we avoid”. The UN head’s resilience and tenacity in the face of so much opposition is to be admired. He would strive to remain impartial. He would carry out international justice as he saw fit. He would strive for the truth.

As Hammarskjöld traveled to Congo to oversee peacekeeping efforts, he sought to negotiate a peace that would be just and in the end he paid the ultimate price. Much has been written about Hammarskjöld’s fatal flight to the Congo on September 18th, 1961, but less well known is perhaps the fact that on the journey he carried with him seven books. As a bookmark he used a copy of the Secretary-General’s oath of office, and having read its text I would say that all the way to the end Hammarskjöld worked to fulfil this oath.

Hammarskjöld’s lessons still ring true

Today’s world differs from that of the 1950s in many ways. Decolonisation has been completed, the Communist block exists no more and the world is broadly united among a number of goals to achieve sustainable development and a better future.

Today’s International Relations student must learn to navigate a political terrain that looks very different from that of Dag Hammarskjöld, but his teachings are just as relevant, and should be a mandatory part of any International Relations student’s curriculum. When excavating the past in order to reflect on the present and divine the future, Dag Hammarskjöld’s legacy is a true treasure.