Dag Hammarskjold’s Vision for the UN and Why It’s Still Important

Dan Pearson

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Dag Hammarskjold believed in the ability of the United Nations to bring about a better world, but he was under no illusions about its earthly limits. “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven,” he proclaimed, one year into his tenure, “but in order to save us from hell.”


Rooted in realism yet highly ambitious, the second Secretary-General established an enduring presence on the world stage. He transformed from the role of a simple administrator into a powerful and energetic intermediary who took an active role in international affairs. Elected into the position in 1953 at the age of just 47, Hammarskjold’s tenure was cut short in 1961 by the mysterious plane crash which claimed his life.


Today, the United Nations is persistently dogged by allegations that it does too little – an ironic criticism, given that Hammarskjold worked tirelessly to ensure it had the opposite reputation. The 1950’s saw the eruption of several notable international crises and, as only the second leader of the fresh-faced organisation, the pressure fell onto Hammarskjold’s shoulders to define its role in post-war society. Utilising the vagueness of the United Nations Charter, Hammarskjold established the Secretary-General’s office as one of great power and influence. Article 99 of the Charter, which Hammarskjold cited frequently, allows the Secretary-General to personally bring issues to the attention of the Security Council. Such a provision gave Hammarskjold the ability to steer the United Nations in whichever direction he chose. Because of his robust leadership, Hammarskjold’s interpretation of the Secretary-General position has more parallels with the United States presidency than it does with the simple administrative office he inherited from his predecessor.

The Suez Crisis emerged as a severe international emergency during Hammarskjold’s term, and the philosophy he believed in fuelled his reaction to it. He had managed to survive three years in the job without a major crisis showing up on the UN’s radar, but his skills were finally put to the test when Israel, the UK, and France attempted to invade Egypt in 1956. Prompted by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the three invaders devised a plan to depose Nasser and regain control of the canal. The international community was less than sympathetic; condemnation from the United States, the Soviet Union, and other global powers forced the three nations to abandon their invasion.


Dag Hammarskjold and the United Nations were instrumental in ending the conflict. Much to the chagrin of the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Hammarskjold focussed his efforts on intimidating Israel to back down. The United States only called for Israeli withdrawal after Hammarskjold personally persuaded President Eisenhower to do so. Not only did the Soviet Union denounce the invading forces, but they also threatened to intervene if the crisis was not brought to a swift conclusion. Hammarskjold took full advantage of Soviet threats and dangled them over the head of the Israeli government. Hammarskjold’s efforts paid off, even though he was criticised by some for overstepping his authority (not least by David Ben-Gurion, who derisively referred to Hammarskjold as ‘the Secretary-General of Egypt’). The Suez Crisis was only a small aspect of Hammarskjold’s diplomatic career, but his unprecedented intervention has come to define his interpretation of the Secretary-General’s office.

Few doubted Hammarskjold’s capabilities as a diplomat, but his energetic approach was often met with hostility, even by the western countries who had initially supported his appointment. The UK and France never forgave him for his efforts to resolve the Suez Crisis. Even some smaller states, which Hammarskjold had championed and helped empower, began to distrust him. In principle, the international community often champions a strong and effective United Nations; the tenure of Dag Hammarskjold suggests that member states would struggle to accept this in practice. His reputation as arguably the greatest Secretary-General in the organisation’s history would probably come as a surprise to the world leaders he dealt with, and his actions have only been truly appreciated with the benefit of hindsight.


As isolationism becomes the preferred foreign policy of many states, there doesn’t seem to be much room left for an ambitious Secretary-General who puts individual sovereignty second to the collective good of the international community as a whole. It took courage for Hammarskjold to cultivate such a conspicuous global presence and few of his successors have done the same. Of course, this is not to undermine the effectiveness of the United Nations as a whole, which does most of its best work while operating quietly in the background. However, a lack of news articles is often mistaken for inaction by the general public. A stronger emphasis on the role of the Secretary-General would, at the very least, correct this popular misconception – if not restore confidence in the United Nations as a whole.



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