Hans Blix: from Iraq to a new Cold War

London School of Economics, December 2016

During the old Cold War, when there were more than 50,000 nuclear weapons we feared human civilization could be wiped out in a quick suicide.

Today ,we fear we might be moving toward a slow suicide through global warming.

I shall not talk about Climate Change, but I want to note that an exit from the renewed Cold War could help us reduce the world’s military expenditures  that are now some 1.600 billlion dollars/year. Savings on military defense could provide a good part of the means needed for climate defense. Regrettably, what we are seeing is more tension and increasing military expenditures.

How did we get here? What can we do?

Let me go back not only to the disastrous Iraq war of 2003, but also to the successful Iraq war of 1991 and, briefly  to the end of WWII.

In 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was drawn up. It comprised a radically new security order.  Under Art. 2:4 the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of states was prohibited except in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. The Council, dominated by the five victors of WWII, was given the responsibility to uphold peace and stop aggression. Provided the P5 agreed, the Council could even   authorize the use of armed force to stop aggression and restore peace. One could perhaps say — without malice – that a junta of five warlords assumed responsibility to try keep order in the world.

We know how during the long Cold War this theoretically strong security system was mostly paralyzed through the absence of agreement between the P5. Military power rested mainly  with the US and the Soviet Union. The world became ‘bipolar’.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Soviet Communism the old Cold War lapsed at the end of the 1980s  and P5 cooperation in the Security Council became possible as envisaged in the Charter.

Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in the Council’s reaction to Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990: with consensus among the P5 the US could create and lead a multinational force that liberated KUWAIT and drove away Saddam Hussein’s forces. President Bush the elder– who deserves much of the credit for the reponse to the IRAQI occupation– declared that the action taken represented the “new international order’. Yes, after 45 years the UN security order that was designed in 1945 became operative!

The period of East-West detente ended numerous smouldering proxy wars, enabled the Security Council to create many UN peace-keeping operations and yielded a rich harvest of agreement on arms control and disarmament, e.g. the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the prolonged Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the Treaty reducing conventional forces in Europe (CFE).

It was a period of great hope. Thousands of nuclear weapons were dismantled — as redundant. Under President Yeltsin the formidable Russian military machine was allowed to rust. In Europe, military expenses were sharply reduced and participation in international peace-keeping rather than territorial defense was seen as a principal task of the armed forces.

The US found that although there was parity with Russia in nuclear capability, the US was now the lone  military superpower.  The world had become unipolar. In this international political climate free from East-West antagonism the old role of NATO as a defense against Russia faded.

It was somewhat paradoxical then that the alliance was opened to membership for former Warsaw Pact members (Poland, Hungary and Czech Rep 1997), who wanted a stamp indicating their new belonging to the Western democratic world and a security guarantee against Russia– just in case…

Ideas of inviting Russia, itself,  circulated but were reduced to the creation of a special NATO-RUSSIA Council.

Visions of a common European house including Russia were sometimes applauded but they never attained concrete shape. In Russia, a feeling of not being treated as a genuinely respected equal developed.  NATO’s bombing of Kosovo (1999) and assertions that NATO authorization was enough to legalize the use of armed force and that UNSC authorization (which required Russian assent) was not needed, strengthened the Russian feeling of being ignored.

However, the the most significant assertion of a US led unipolar world was the US-UK led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It ignored the Security Council and thereby ignored Russia — and, for that matter China, France, and Germany.  While the UK government sought strenuously to legally justify the action by claiming that earlier SC authorizations to use force were still operative, the Bush administration clearly acted on the view that the Charter prescriptions did not matter much. To Russia, this meant a devaluation of its veto power.

Had the Iraq war of 2003 been successful there might have been more support for the US continuing in the role of ‘world sheriff’. However, few wars have been as discredited and as failing in it declared aims:

  • Al Qaeda terrorists were not eliminated — because they were not there.
  • Weapons of mass destruction were not destroyed — because they did not exist.
  • A model democracy was not developed. Tyranny was replaced by anarchy with ISIS as off-spring.

The Chilcot commission did not examine the legal justifications claimed by the UK for the war, but it did  discuss how good an excuse the alleged existence of WMD was. I am glad the Commission said the governments should have re-examined the evidence they claimed to base their action on, when they received the reports of the UN inspectors in early 2003.

Yes, while our reports and statements never excluded that there could be WMD (as it is hard to prove the negative), they gave not the slightest support to the US/UK allegations.

Two reflections:

First. Listen to independent impartial fact-finding! When international inspections are organized in the future — as they will be — it should be kept in mind that UNMOVIC inspections had credibility because they were performed professionally and effectively by independent international civil servants. World organizations must be supported by civil services that are in nobody’s pocket. Regrettably the credibility of UNMOVIC’S reports was not enough to persuade the US/UK to refrain from launching the war. It did, however, help to convince the majority of the SC not to give green light to a war that should never have taken place.

Second. It is hard to believe that the alleged existence of WMD was the main real incentive for the war. I find it more likely that Bush and Blair felt they had a mission to act as ‘world sheriffs’ intervening against evil. In my view, such thinking — ignoring the UN rules – is an outflow of presumptuous great power philosophy.  Who appointed these two states world sheriffs?

The tragic results of the Iraq war led many — not only supporters of the UN Charter — to feel critical about foreign interventions, especially such that are not authorized by the UN. In the US the the armed actions in Iraq nourished a skeptic attitude in the public to sending US boots on the ground abroad.

President Obama — and before him  then Senator Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign — were both explicit in recognizing the need for respect for international norms restricting the use of force. Without mentioning the UN Charter rules President Obama suggested in his Nobel lecture “that all nations .. must adhere to standards that govern the use of force”. This was a welcome far cry from the doctrine of the Bush Jr administration.

It was no surprise that despite sympathies for the Arab Spring the Obama administration kept the US  away from intervening in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and chose a background role  even in the case of Libya, where there was a SC resolution authorizing international action to protect civilians.

More remarkable was the decision that President Obama took — against the views of many of his advisors–  that the US should not intervene unilaterally to punish and weaken the Assad government in Syria by bombing, when chemical weapons had been used in 2014. As Obama explained in an interview in the Atlantic last spring he had several reasons.

One reason was uncertainty where such action would lead. As Colin Powell famously said: ‘If you break the pot, you own it…’

Another reason was that the the UK parliament voted against participation — a result of anger about being led to authorize participation in the 2003 Iraq war.

A third reason noted by Obama was that there would be no UNSC authority for such action. Obama, a lawyer, evidently thought the UN norms on the use of force had relevance.

Instead of unilateral US bombing the surprising response to the C-weapons use  was a US/Russian agreement to get Syria to adhere to the C-weapons Convention and to  surrender its C-weapons under international supervision.  In this way unilateral US sheriff intervention was avoided and the case was steered into the existing multilateral machinery — the Security Council and the Board of the OPCW. Obama was taken off the intervention hook and Russia gained the advantage that the issue was processed in machinery where Russia had a say.

In the case of Iran and the fears that its nuclear energy program aimed at the production of nuclear weapons President Obama similarly avoided the unilateral military intervention that influential groups in the US and some countries in the Middle East (Israel and Saudi Arabia) wanted him to undertake. Rather than going for bombing without UNSC authorization he chose the path of negotiation in which all the permanent members of the SC took part. It was a difficult and time consuming procedure but it resulted in a deal that was given legal force by a SC resolution and that gives strong assurances against Iranian proliferation. Today, I regret it may be in some jeopardy by the new constellation of political forces in the US.

Obama’s negative attitude to the US intervention in IRAQ and positive attitude to disarmament raised great hopes for a new detente. Seven years ago Obama and Medvedev met in London (2009) and agreed that the Cold War was definitely over and that they would aim even for eliminating nuclear weapons. For a few years there was euphoria! The US-Russia START agreement was concluded and committed to mutual limits on nuclear weapons and carriers –with effective verfication. However, even this agreement that mainly attacked redundancy, met resistance in the domestic sphere both in the US and Russia.

Since the START no further disarmament measures are under way between the US and Russia and the Geneva Disarmament Conference has been in coma for two decades, unable even to agree on a work program. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not yet entered into force because the US, China, and a few other states do not ratify. Useful but minor measures have been taken to reduce the risk that nuclear material and techniques get into unauthorized hands and risk contribute to proliferation.

We must sadly note that not only did the detente and disarmament sought by OBAMA and MEDVEDEV in London 2009 fail to materialize. New tensions have risen and a great many states are increasing their military forces.

Today — there is still war in Afghanistan and Iraq, massacres in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, terrorism in many places, Russian intervention in Ukraine, and increased tension in the South China Sea and in Korea.

The unipolar world world with the US as the sole superpower is slowly yielding to a multi-polar world in which countries like China, a better armed Russia, India, Iran and Turkey are increasingly significant actors. Even Europe might be significant if it could pull itself together.

I am afraid that In a nascent multi-polar world, where a number of states have strong national ambitions and growing military strength, unilateral actions by a US still high on military capability could prove dangerous or even disastrous.

How will a Trump administration use the world’s still strongest military power and strongest economic power in these rapidly changing landscapes? Will it throw overboard the Obama policy of restraint as incompatible with the ambition to make the US ‘great again’?  Or will it stop preaching democracy to other countries and worry little about what kind of regimes they have? Will it avoid spending efforts and resources on changing or defending foreign regimes? We can only speculate.

So far the impression is that Trump will maintain or increase the already considerable military strength of the US. He will have several hawkish advisers  and many hawkish people supporting him in Congress. Will they lead him to stiff and costly stands — and perhaps international conflict– or will his own apparent inclination to ignore old rigid lines lead him to strike deals that reduce US expenses? Or will there be a mixture?

I regret I see little likelihood that a Trump administration would be inclined to follow in the steps of Obama to promote a more rule based world order with increasing use of and reliance on common institutions.  However, a change in the balance of power in the world — a multi-polar world — could force Trump and the US to go for pragmatic deals and accommodation. We have three recent precedents of deals worked out in cooperation among the P 5 and sealed by the SC — the eradication of the chemical weapons in Syria, the modalities of Iran’s nuclear program and the admittedly fragile arrangements to stop hostilities and move to talks in Syria. There could be more such arrangements…  Let me speculate on two concrete current issues.

The Russian KGB (or FSB) style annexation of the Crimea and infiltration of Eastern Ukraine have been severely condemned . Under Obama, the conflict has led to  the coldest US-Russian  climate since the Cold War — with more American troops and war material in Europe. However, there are signs that some accommodation may be sought. In my view the claims that Russia was rejecting the European security order –based on the rules of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Declaration– were exaggerations.  Russia is averse to a NATO integration that would extend up to its borders with Georgia and Ukraine and it is prepared to act in breach the international order to prevent this and to show that  it remains a great  power that must be listened to. It has good reasons, however, to continue to support a  world order that gives it equality, influence and a veto in the Security Council. Within the EU, Germany, France and Italy clearly want a way out. Sanctions may — and in my view should — remain but a Russian retreat from the Crimea is not a condition for lifting them.

For the US, a need for Russian cooperation to defeat ISIS and to reach some settlement in Syria makes a continued confrontation over Ukraine awkward. While Mr Trump’s hawk supporters probably want a rigid stand against Russia, Trump, himself, has not seemed to care for that wrestling match. Perhaps he — and EU — would be ready for a deal that would require Russia:

  • to accept Ukraine’s association agreement with EU, and;
  • to end intervention in East Ukraine and accept verified border control.

While the West would

  • drop insistance that Russia leave the Crimea, and;
  • drop the idea of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.

The case of NORTH KOREA:

North Korea does not forget that the US actively considered — and rejected — using nuclear weapons against it in the Korean war in 1950. Having had no allies in the world,  but support by  China as forming a desirable buffer to a US linked South Korea, it is fiercely self-reliant.  It  adhered to the NPT and  accepted an IAEA safeguards verification agreement.

Since I was there in 1992 there have been many crises and many talks.

By now DPRK has carried out five nuclear test explosions and developed missiles of medium range. Demands by the Security Council for an end to tests and for denuclearization and sanctions backing the demands have been met by defiance.

The Obama administration has tried to signal that the DPRK does not need nuclear weapons for its security. The US could be ready to transform the armistice to a peace treaty. However, when considering its own security the DPRK has so far seemed to trust nuclear weapons more than paper guarantees.

Recent US policy has been to show what it calls ‘strategic patience’ —  a refusal to go to talks unless DPRK is willing to include the subject of denuclearization. Patience runs thin, however, as time goes by and is used by the DPRK for only more tests of weapons and missiles. It seems that within some years the DPRK might have long range missiles capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

To the US as the lone superpower a critical stage would be reached when the DPRK is able to send a nuclear weapon to the US West coast. The US public would hardly be convinced that the US capacity to wipe out DPRK in retaliatory strikes would be a safe deterrent.  There would be demands that the US should bomb installations in DPRK as a preventive action before this stage is reached. There is the hitch, however, that such strikes would risk DPRK retaliatory strikes on South Korea, including Seoul that is within artillery range from the North. Not an attractive perspective!

There are other unattractive perspectives: Japan and RoK might be provoked by a growing DPRK stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles and might decide to develop nuclear weapons of their own rather than relying on the extended deterrence flowing from the US nuclear weapons. Were that to happen — a remote risk perhaps — political relations with China would become tense.

China therefore has a very strong interest in pressing the DPRK at least to stop where they are in nuclear weapons and missile development. While China has been willing to go very far in applying economic sanctions it does not want to go so far as to cause DPRK to collapse. If that were to happen, China might be burdened with milliions of North Korean refugees,  the two Koreas might be united and the US as RoK’s ally might share the military control of Korean land all the way up to the China/Korea border at the YALU river.

Several conclusions might be drawn:

One is that there is urgency. Further delay could trigger US armed action — especially with a hawkish administration in Washington. It might also trigger undesirable moves in Japan and RoK. Mr. Trump has voiced some sympathy for such moves but he is unlikely to stay with that idea.

Another conclusion is that the great powers in the region– China, Japan, the US and Russia —  have a common interest that DPRK stops further tests. As in the cases of Syria and Iran there is thus a basis for negotiating together.

What should be demanded and offered?

It would be futile to demand a dismantling of existing bombs and missiles.

The DPRK is proud of them, sees them as vital to its security. Like once P.M. Bhutto in Pakistan the DPRK govt would rather eat grass than do without them.

Moreover, verifying their absence would be next to impossible.

Demanding a freeze on further testing of bombs and missiles is another matter

It could be an important first step away from the current dangerous development.

It would not hurt pride or feeling of security, nor would it be hard to verify.

Yet, it would impede development of long range missiles and a miniaturization of bombs — the two current most ominous perspectives.

Ideally, a DPRK commitment to no further nuclear testing should occur through adherence to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)and be paralleled by ratifications by the US and China.

What could DPRK be offered in return?

  • A lifting of non-nuclear and non-missile related sanctions
  • A suspension of the annual joint US/RoK military manoevre Team Spirit
  • Guarantees against intervention and attacks on DPRK borders and territory
  • Humanitarian and development assistance

Where would a Trump administration stand on the DPRK?

Hard to tell, but pursuing a diplomatic endeavour in common with China could have welcome spin off effects on other more difficult US/China relations. Conversely and regrettably, controversy between US and China in other areas could rub off.

Perhaps, if Mr. Trump is not ready to use  his phone for a call to Kim Jong Un he  could send an emissary for a scouting mission?

Learning from the past we should note that very high  level visits from the US to the DPR have given good openings in the past:

Ex President Jimmy Carter saw Kim ll-sung in 1994

Bill Clinton  sent Madeleine Albright to meet Kim Jong-il in December 1999

Mr. Trump might now send his good friend Bill Clinton to see Kim Jong-un.


– Hans Blix

Director General Emeritus of the International Atomic Energy Association, former Foreign Minister of Sweden, author of Disarming Iraq (2004).

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