The Pope hung his own necklace around United Nations diplomat Robert Muller’s neck. A North American Indian chief did the same. Muller still wears them both. Ode spoke with this unusual emissary of hope who has had considerable influence in the world.
When Robert Muller was 25, tragedy changed the course of his life. “It was towards the end of World War II,” he tells me. “I was part of the French Resistance. My company got a message that there was a barrack nearby in which 20 armed German soldiers were hiding. I was the only one who spoke German, so I was assigned to negotiate. They were young men, boys really, frightened and desperate. Through a megaphone I persuaded them to come out. I promised them that we wouldn’t harm them, that they would be safe and sent home in a few days time. They came out and surrendered.” Muller frowns deeply, and continues in a low voice. “The next day I was informed that they were all dead—shot by the French Resistance.”
Muller crosses his arms, covering the necklaces he got from Pope John Paul II and the Hopi Indians. Then he throws his arms up in the air. “Can you imagine how I felt? They had been betrayed! To this day I still see their faces in front of me.
Upon hearing the news they had been killed, Muller ran up a hill and fell to the ground sobbing, repeating to himself: “My God, what have I done?
“The image came back to me of my father, who had fought in two wars; of my grandfather, who had had five nationalities and known three wars and of my cousins who were now fighting in different uniforms on opposite sides in the present war. The whole world seemed a madhouse.” Suddenly, as he lay there anguished on that hillside, an immense inspiration came over him. Muller looked at the fading moon and stars, and swore to God he would spend his life working for peace. “How I would do it, I had no idea. But I knew that it would be my obsession for the rest of my life. I swore it to the 20 young men whose bodies lay fresh on the ground a few hundred yards from me.”
When Robert Muller descended the hill a while later, he was a man with a mission.
But how does work for peace? That’s what the young Robert Muller asked himself as he worked toward his degree in economics at the University of Strasbourg near his family home in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.
His answer arrived while he was on a train after the end of the war. He’d forgotten to bring anything to read for the three-hour ride but remembered a poster announcing that the French Association for the United Nations was offering a prize of 5,000 francs to the best student essay on developing a world government. So he jotted down his thoughts.
“You want to join the United Nations and tell them how to run the world in peace and justice?” Muller said to himself. “Well, this is your chance.” A few weeks later he was informed he had won the essay contest and was invited to participate as an intern at a meeting of the World Federation of United Nations Associations in Geneva.
That was in 1948, two years after the UN General Assembly met for the first time. The internship would mark the beginning of a distinguished 40-year career at the UN, during which Muller coordinated a number of agencies of the UN, ultimately rising to Assistant Secretary-General, a position he occupied under three consecutive Secretaries-General: U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, and Javier Perez de Cuellar.
Currently, Muller, 82, is chancellor emeritus of the United Nation’s University for Peace in Costa Rica, which he helped found with former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo. Muller and his wife and dedicated co-worker Barbara Gaughen-Muller live there much of the year, the rest of the time in Santa Barbara, California. Muller also lectures all around the world is the author of 15 books, including Most of All, They Taught Me Happiness (Doubleday, 1985 and Amare Media, 2005) and The Birth of a Global Civilization (World Happiness & Cooperation, 1982).
He remains hopeful that his vision for the next step in human evolution—what he calls “Paradise Earth”—will become a reality soon. “Human history so far has been the history of a primitive race,” he says. “Only now, with planet-wide knowledge and consciousness, have we entered the real challenge to our species: the good management of our earth. The real history of the world is only beginning.”
Normally such ideas might cause you to raise an eyebrow. But when Muller talks, you want to sit up straight and make double sure your tape recorder is working. When he says, “In the battle between forces of good and evil on this planet, no one can be neutral,” you want to join his team, become part of his dream.
One of the reasons Muller is so compelling to listen to is that he is an international diplomat, a prophet, an economist, a spiritual leader, a legally-trained politician, a dreamer, a realist, a pragmatist and a radical idealist all at once. His multi-faceted personality and unique talents explain his successful career. If the idealist and the dreamer in him want to make a dream come true, the diplomat and the politician step to the plate and get the job done.
I speak with Muller at a conference centre in Santa Barbara, California, where he is soon to receive the World Business Academy’s Humanitarian Award. The lobby slowly fills with guests like alternative health authority Deepak Chopra and futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard who are associated with the Academy. They are here to honor a man who has devoted his adult life to world peace and who is not about to give up now. In fact, looking at him you get the impression he has only just begun.
No, Muller is not taking it easy in his retirement. “I am refired,” he says. “I am too much in love with life on this beautiful planet to relax.”
The octogenarian remains an inspiration for young, radical thinkers trying to shape a better world. He has written in detail on how the transition to a peaceful world could take place. “I have a plan for Earth Government in 2020 which outlines the measures of a better management of our planetary home. I am now writing a plan to achieve Paradise Earth by the year 2050.”
Muller rubs his chin and leans forward. “You see, love for peace is not enough. Beyond it we need a vision of peace, a science of peace, a strategy for peace and innumerable actions for peace.”
Muller is aware of the perennial criticism of the UN, but refuses to be discouraged. “Someday humans will realize that the UN is one of the greatest biological phenomena of all times, a true turning point in our planet’s and human evolution. Too many people do not believe in the UN. They criticize it, lash out at it, call it inefficient and ineffective. Why don’t they love it instead, defend it, encourage it and give this god-sent instrument for world peace and order a chance to succeed in the face of truly gigantic problems? How can the UN succeed without your faith and encouragement?” He looks astonished, as though he cannot understand such ignorance.
“In order to model a happy and beautiful world, we must believe in it, we must work at it, we must be in love with it.”
Even if you are not convinced that the UN is a god-sent instrument for world peace, Muller predicts the organization will become increasingly important. “Within 15 years we will have a proper government and administration of planet earth and of humanity. Why? Because the current troubles, injustices, wastes and colossal duplications of national expenditures—especially on armaments and the military—will force us to. It is inevitable. The salvation of this planet and survival of the human species depend on it. No one can for long go against evolution. Nation-states must adapt or they will disintegrate, even the biggest ones.”
It is statements like these that earned Muller the nickname “prophet of hope” for his ability to see possibilities where others see obstacles. This is one of the reasons three consecutive Secretaries-General wanted Muller on their teams. Muller’s optimism and belief that the “impossible” can become a reality certainly had a large influence on U Thant.
Says Muller: When I joined U Thant I asked him, ‘Do you have any unfulfilled desires? Is there anything you still want to achieve during your term?’ He did. He wanted to make China part of the UN, and he longed to have a truly spiritual voice address the UN assembly. So I said: ‘Let’s do it!’” That same year Muller managed to persuade Pope Paul VI to address the UN. China later became part of the UN, largely because of U Thant’s persistence.
Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar was also influenced by Muller’s insightful optimism. “I still remember the day he asked me to be his second man,” Muller says. “He was standing in his room near the stereo, when he said, ‘Robert, you know I really don’t like politics. I’m afraid I won’t be too good at the job.’ “‘Well’, I said, ‘what do you like?’ He put on a record of a concerto by Beethoven, and started moving his hands the way conductors do when they stand before their orchestra. ‘That’s it!’ I exclaimed, ‘You are a conductor! All you need to do is stand before the UN assembly like a conductor making all the countries play in perfect tune and harmony.’”
Muller might be famous for his optimism now, but it wasn’t something he was born with—he had to learn it. His teacher was French psychologist and pharmacist Émile Coué, who introduced a philosophy of optimism and self-reliance based on self-hypnosis. Muller was imprisoned by Nazis during World War II, and that was when he first applied one of the lessons of Coué’s book Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion: Happiness is not external to man, but a force within him. “We were scared, uncertain of our fate… In the corner was a bucket with a terrible stench. It was our toilet. In that terrible situation I became aware of my thoughts. It would have been easy to panic or to feel hopeless. But I remembered Coué’s advice: ‘Always be the happiest man on earth, wherever you are and whatever you do.’ If you look at it that way, being in prison is actually a rather interesting experience.”
Muller managed to get a pencil and began writing a romantic love story on the inside of the prison door. “During those anxious days, through will and imagination I was able to keep in good mental shape and even to attain happiness.”
Many times at the UN, faced with tragic news or divisive diplomats, Muller says he would go within and “switch on” optimism and confidence. “Immediately,” says Muller, “I return to a positive, creative mood. This mysterious quantum change between a negative and a positive current is a mystery to me. I do not understand it. But it has done miracles for me.
“To be unhappy, to be ungrateful, not to feel wonder and appreciation for the incredible gift of life is a most foolish and short-sighted attitude. The toughest prison of all is that which man imposes upon himself.”
The lobby outside the World Business Academy awards banquet is almost empty. The guests are in the dining hall waiting for Muller. He says good-bye to me but before going inside, he checks his pockets for his harmonica. He hardly gives a speech without it, most often playing “Ode to Joy”. You might raise your eyebrows at this, too, but that’s the beauty of the man: He’s still a child at heart, believing that a better world is possible.
“Life is divine, life is an extraordinary, incredible, miraculous phenomenon, our most precious gift,” he tells me as walks into the hall to receive his Humanitarian Award. “We must grow a global brain, a global heart and a global soul. That is our most-pressing current evolutionary task.”