Carsten Stehn, Henning Melber, eds. Peace Diplomacy, Global Justice and International Agency: Rethinking Human Security and Ethics in the Spirit of Dag Hammarskjöld. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 635 pp. $150.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-03720-5.
Reviewed by Richard K. Al-Qaq (University of London)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
The Prophet of Turtle Bay
In the academic and nongovernmental policy world of the United Nations (UN) no individual is as admired as the UN’s second secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld. There are both positive and negative reasons for this admiration. From the positive point of view, Hammarskjöld was a modest, thoughtful, and competent Swedish statesman who managed to solve significant international diplomatic crises (such as the 1955 US-China crisis) and create a space during the Cold War and decolonization for an unforeseen and new UN activity, peacekeeping (Suez, 1956). This, coupled with his principled stance on the subject of international public administration and his defense of the UN’s independent international character, has ensured that Hammarskjöld is viewed as the model UN secretary general.
The negative reasons, however, are just as significant, even if they are rarely voiced. Part of Hammarskjöld’s mythical and idealized status today relates to the genuinely disappointing performance and behavior of other UN secretaries general and, indeed, relates to the problematic political position of the secretary general in international affairs. In terms of ethical or professional principles, to say the least, Hammarskjöld compares favorably with Kurt Waldheim, a member of the Wehrmacht with the rank of Oberleutnant during World War II, or Trgye Lie, who allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) permanent access to the UN International Secretariat. The majority of men appointed as the world’s top diplomat (always men thus far) have not been able to rise above or beyond the narrow political interests and campaigns that saw them preselected by the Permanent-5 (P-5) members of the Security Council. Those who have tried to move away from their P-5 sponsors have faced their political wrath, as Boutros Boutros-Ghali found out to his detriment when he was denied a second term by a lonely US veto in 1996. Diplomatically, the frequent failure of UN secretaries general to successfully insert themselves into global humanitarian crises and find some solution—most conspicuously, for instance, today in Syria—has only reinforced our belief that Hammarskjöld was an exceptional UN statesman and global citizen. As John F. Kennedy famously noted: Hammarskjöld was the “greatest statesman of our century.”
It is in this context that we should approach the edited volume by Carsten Stahn and Henning Melber, Peace Diplomacy, Global Justice and International Agency: Rethinking Human Security and Ethics in the Spirit of Dag Hammarskjöld, published by Cambridge University Press. At over six hundred pages, with twenty-five chapters, the volume promises to be a serious and detailed exposition of the UN’s most cherished leader. Divided into five parts, the work covers reflections on Hammarskjöld’s legacy by former high-ranking international civil servants (part 1); reflections on his intellectual legacy (part 2); a set of essays unpacking his role in the Congo crisis (part 3); and five chapters on the role of the secretary general, most of which are discussions of Hammarskjöld’s innovative diplomatic interventions (part 4). The volume concludes with a final set of general reflections on Hammarskjöld and his intellectual influence on today’s conception of internationalism, particularly the norm of Responsibility to Protect (part 5). Due to the breadth of the project’s coverage of Hammarskjöld’s legacy—from his spirituality, diplomacy, management, and more—the volume is necessarily multidisciplinary. The collection draws on the expertise of authors specializing in peace studies, law, international organization, international relations, African studies, and psychology, among other academic disciplines.
The primary objective of the volume is to serve as “a tribute and critical review of Hammarskjöld’s thought” (p. 10). This is a noble and ambitious aspiration but unfortunately it is not one that is entirely successful. Indeed, the primary problem with the volume is that it veers heavily toward the former objective, as a tribute, rather than to the latter objective, as a critical review. While there are some critical parts of the volume, notably in the section dedicated to the Congo crisis, the volume as whole can in no way be considered a critical review of Hammarskjöld or the office of secretary general that he held. Part 1, “Reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld,” is perhaps most indicative of the volume as a tribute-led work. It starts with a republished text of a 2001 address by then UN secretary general Kofi Annan to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala, Sweden, which eulogizes Hammarskjöld’s many virtues, particularly “his wisdom and his modesty, his unimpeachable integrity and single-minded devotion to duty ... which is simply impossible to live up to” (p. 35). With an eye on his own legacy, Annan swiftly moves on to outline his own vision of the UN and international service, a vision that he modestly suggests is one that Hammarskjöld would share.
The following chapter (chapter 3), “A Beacon of Hope,” written by a former colleague and contemporary of Hammarskjöld, Sir Brian Urquhart, is more biographical but no less sympathetic. Urquhart had a long and successful career in the UN Secretariat and experienced first-hand many of the organization’s early successes and failures. Since leaving the UN system, Urquhart has been a leading in-house chronicler of the UN’s early years, publishing two important biographies of his close mentors, Ralph Bunche (Ralph Bunche: An American Life ) and Hammarskjöld (Hammarskjold ). But it is a shame that in this particular piece the extent of Urquhart’s critical insights into Hammarskjöld are rather superficial: “Hammarskjöld was not a sociable or gregarious man.... He was not a particularly good public speaker. He was a very private person who valued and protected his privacy” (p. 48). In the early chapters this is the extent of the critical framing of their subject. Indeed, these chapters tend toward a rather standard rendition of Hammarskjöld’s positive legacy, leadership skills, and values. In this way, the chapters by senior diplomats and colleagues tend not to do justice to the project or serve the objectives of the volume particularly well.
Fortunately, many of the following chapters are much more analytical, even if they are broadly sympathetic to their subject matter. Indeed there are more than a few exemplary contributions that further the debate over this key period of the UN. Some of the most interesting chapters relate to the Congo crisis, a particular controversial and bitter episode in the UN’s history. For example, Maria Stella Rognoni, in her chapter “Dag Hammarskjöld and the Congo Crisis, 1960-1961” (chapter 11), does a good job of introducing readers to the complexities of the episode and at the same time presents us with underutilized primary sources that highlight UN thinking (mostly UN Code Cables between senior UN officials). Monica Bouman’s chapter on Hammarskjöld’s philosophy of international service offers a fascinating insight into the ideas and experiences that informed his conception of international service and remind us of the degree to which he was deeply conditioned by northwestern European Christian values (chapter 6). There are many other useful chapters, and it is likely that depending on the particular reader’s disciplinary home, and interests, they will find some contributions more relevant than others.
Overall this book will be a major work of reference for those who want to understand Hammarskjöld’s legacy. While some chapters tend to recount the standard narrative, others help us to move forward in our understanding of Hammarskjöld and his milieu. The volume valiantly sets out to critically assess Hammarskjöld but in the end is rather sympathetic in its treatment of him.
However, it is not a bad thing per se that the book turns out to be such a tribute. After all the volume is probably one of the most comprehensive accounts of Hammarskjöld that we have and will therefore serve as a conventional introduction for those today and in the future who are not familiar with his life and times. The collection of essays record his intellectual and professional impact on international diplomacy and global leadership, a legacy that now serves as a cosmopolitan compass for those working on transforming international organizations from instruments of states into an alternative structure for promoting global peace and justice. If nothing else this is what Hammarskjöld has come to represent for most of the UN community: a symbol of the possibility of transcending the poverty of power-politics in the higher interests of humanity. There is much mythmaking here but that is, after all, what legends are made of.
. The John F. Kennedy quote is one regularly used in speeches on the UN. See, for instance, Helen Clark, “The Future We Want—Can We Make It a Reality?” (speech, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Uppsala, Sweden, November 4, 2014).
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Richard K. Al-Qaq. Review of Stehn, Carsten; Melber, Henning, eds., Peace Diplomacy, Global Justice and International Agency: Rethinking Human Security and Ethics in the Spirit of Dag Hammarskjöld.
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