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Why We Need a Leader Like Dag Hammarskjold Now More Than Ever

By Ben D'Alessio


The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, is likely the most momentous figure of the modern age that you never heard of. Dag's family and homeland of Sweden had a great impact on his commitment to civil service from a young age: "From generations of soldiers and government officials on my father's side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country—or humanity." Dag built upon his foundation as a Swedish civil servant and applied it to his role in the UN.

As a Christian, Dag found spirituality and sacrifice in the Gospels, so much so that he never married, believing that a family would take away from his service—his mission to humankind. "From scholars and clergymen on my mother's side, I inherited a belief that, in the very radical sense of the Gospels, all men were equals as children of God, and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God." But Dag also understood the ingrained unity within humankind, that despite the various religions that cover the earth, all people live by—and through—a similar set of values. Because of the fractious nature of organized religion Dag saw an opportunity for worldwide cohesion through the UN Charter, with the United Nations serving as a "secular church of ideals." This "church" allowed for the celebration of cultures while promoting the essential values of the human race.

Dag spent much of his first two years as Secretary-General reforming the UN, flying in the face of the world's superpowers who believed he would simply acquiesce to their hegemonic aspirations. Dag believed that it was not the big powers that need the UN, but the small nations, the developing, and the recently decolonized. With an unwavering solidarity to these smaller nations, Dag stood up to world leaders like Nikita Khrushchev (head of the Soviet Union) who looked to take advantage of decolonization chaos in African nations like the Congo, where violent outbreaks between rival factions and secessionist forces were plaguing the country—the most resource-rich on the African continent.

Dag's other highlights as Secretary-General include the release of American soldiers captured by the Chinese in the Korean War, the resolution of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis where the first UN Peacekeepers were deployed on the Sinai Peninsula, and the 1958 withdrawal of American and British troops from Lebanon and Jordan.

Throughout his tenure with the UN (1953-1961), Dag led the institution with an unshakable integrity, with a focus on peace and keeping our eyes on the horizon. Dag's period of service was a time of terrifying global uncertainty, when civil wars were common, governments committed human rights abuses, relations between developed nations were beginning to fracture, and superpowers made calculated threats with nuclear missiles; in other words, it is a time not unlike our own.

In a continually globalizing world, perhaps ironically, maybe in spite of, conceivably due to, it appears that humanity is more segregated—in race, in views, in wealth—than ever before in the modern age. The bloc of liberal western powers that formed after the Second World War is beginning to fissure. Meanwhile, leaders of the "free world" are reaching out to despots, strong-hands, and autocrats. Vitriol towards immigrants and refugees, oftentimes the most vulnerable populations, has not only fomented to the surface but is supported by (sometimes victorious) elected officials.

The current Secretary-General, António Guterres, has made it his mission to strengthen the UN and make it more proactive by getting the world's richest countries to do more for those fleeing conflict and disaster, and by making climate change a top priority of the institution.

As I write this from the United Nations library, named after Dag, I cannot help but be hopeful that Mr. Guterres will work to mend our wounds, corral humanity behind the values of the UN charter, and set our sights back to the horizon and Agenda 2030.

*Agenda 2030 is a sustainable development plan adopted by world leaders in September 2015 with goals including ending poverty, fighting inequality, and tackling climate change. It is up to the countries of the world to implement these 17 goals. More information on Agenda 2030 can be found here.

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