Dag Hammarskjöld, seen here at a UN press conference in 1956, was the second secretary-general of the United Nations from April 1953 until his death in an aircraft crash in Africa in September 1961 at the age of 56. Photo: Getty Images

Ethical leadership seems sorely lacking around the world, but the life of Swedish economist and diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld reminds us of its power, writes Rod Oram

Many people around the world are approaching this coming week with dread. If Joe Biden wins the US presidential election, can he start to heal the shattered nation? Or is the task too great? If Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat, how much more damage will he inflict? If he wins, how much deeper will he drive the US into dysfunction?

Trump hasn’t created this chaos. The US had been spiralling into social and political turmoil for decades. But he has ruthlessly exploited this traumatic era in US history. Capturing the Republican party and manipulating the government, he has bent both to fuel his own vanity and personal gain. A malignant narcissist, as some psychiatrists have diagnosed him, he has wrought havoc within the US, and in relations with many other countries and international institutions.

The character contrast between Biden and Trump is extreme. While Biden feels America’s pain, Trump can’t even feel his own, one US commentator said recently.

As much as Trump loves to believe all this is about him, the far deeper issue is the moral bankruptcy of much of American political leadership. But the US is not alone. Many other countries are suffering the same failure to varying degrees regardless of their political systems and cultures. From democracies such as the UK to authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China, the ethical vacuum among their politicians is inflicting great harm on their societies.

Our politics in New Zealand are far less polarising than in such countries, so voters have somewhat more confidence in the political system and in government. Likewise, our society, despite some long-standing, unresolved tensions, is still relatively cohesive compared with those countries riven by conflict.

But we did see a higher level of extreme views and false narratives in our recent election compared with previous ones. Amoral leaders could easily exploit those devices to try to build a following. So we must hold leaders to high standards, and live by them ourselves.

The positive side of this is far greater. Ethical leadership can help us focus on why we must work together on our huge social, economic and environmental challenges, and encourage us to do so.

A recently published book by Roger Lipsey, an American biographer and historian, reminds us of that power. It is Politics and Conscience – Dag Hammarskjöld on the art of ethical leadership. A Swedish economist and diplomat, Hammarskjöld was the second secretary-general of the United Nations from April 1953 until his death in an aircraft crash in Africa in September 1961 at the age of 56.

“It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell” – Dag Hammarskjöld

Some of the major issues Hammarskjöld focused on during his tenure were Israeli-Arab relations, intervention in the 1956 Suez Crisis (which, for example, led to the creation of the UN Emergency Force – the peacekeepers still active today), negotiating the release from China of US pilots captured during the Korean War, and allowing participation of the Holy See within the United Nations.

His rare blend of opposite but complimentary character attributes made him a highly effective builder of bridges and negotiator between aggrieved nations and hostile interests. He balanced patience with action, empathy with reserve, policy with people.

“It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell,” Hammarskjöld told graduating students at the University of California Berkeley in May 1954.

Lipsey, who published a definitive biography of Hammarskjöld in 2013, says in his latest book Hammarskjöld understood political leadership as an honour calling for resourcefulness, humility, moral courage and spiritual reflection.

Hammarskjöld gave a number of lectures and speeches in which he reflected on leadership. Understandably, he shared some of his more personal thoughts in letters to friends. “It is difficult to hear the low voice of reason or to see the clear little light of decency, but, of course, both endure and both remain perfectly safe guides,” he wrote to one after settling many aspects of the Suez crisis in 1957.

Four years later Hammarskjöld died while dealing with a particular hell in the Congo. Soon after it gained its independence from Belgium in mid-1960, the southern part of the country broke away to form the State of Katanga, a succession move backed by an Anglo-Belgium mining company operating there. In September 1961, Hammarskjöld was trying to broker a cease-fire between UN peacekeepers and Katanganese forces when his UN aircraft crashed in what was then neighbouring Northern Rhodesia.

Successive investigations by the UN and other authorities came to various predictable conclusions such as pilot error. Only decades later did evidence emerge linking the crash to the CIA and the mining company. Further evidence has trickled out, mostly from South Africa but it is still not considered absolutely conclusive. Intriguingly though, former President Harry Truman said the day after the plane crash that Hammarskjöld was “on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him’.”

Hammarskjöld never wrote a book about his life and work. But when a friend was clearing his New York apartment after his death he found Hammarskjöld’s spiritual diary in his papers, which he’d begun when he was 20 years old. Attached to it was a handwritten note: “These entries provide the only true ‘profile’ that can be drawn … If you find them worth publishing, you have my permission to do so.”

Hammarskjöld had titled the diary Vägmärken, or Waymarks. When the resulting book was published in 1963, Markings was the title of the translation WH Auden gave to his English edition. In many of his entries Hammarskjöld wrestled with intense pressures on him, not in terms of the substance of the issues, but how we could find his ethical and purposeful response to them.

In his public comments on the nature of the job he was very clear and direct. For example, in his Christmas 1953 speech at the United Nations, eight months after he became chosen as Secretary General:

“Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we are not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice if we are not ready to do so?

“Some might consider this to be just another expression of noble principles, too far from the harsh realities of political life…I disagree.”

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