IPE , Noordwijk 21 November 2013                                                 

Keynote address by Dr Hans Blix:

The outlook for peace and reduction of war and risks

Assessing changing realities and risks   


War – as in Syria,    environmental destruction – as in the Philippines,   and economic earthquakes – as in numerous other places, cause horrendous suffering and losses. We have a need for realistic assessments of political, environmental and economic risks to enable us to prevent or mitigate armed violence and to judge the opportunities for constructive action. This is often difficult.


There is a story that Dag Hammarskjöld asked the Chinese Premier Chou En Lai what impact the French Revolution had on China and that the answer was: ‘It is too early too assess…’

Most people are under greater time pressure to assess realities around them.   A trader at a stock exchange was asked what his ‘planning horizon’ was and he replied: ‘3 minutes’.

I do not envy him having to think at the speed of light of the probable impact of interest hikes,, strikes, wars and  a multitude of other hazards.


To add to our difficulties, risks and opportunities vary over time – whether we deal with markets or geopolitics. Let me give two examples:

A little over a hundred years ago the means to secure that  states  paid their debts were  — shall I say – more robust than today.  This is what I conclude from a convention that was adopted in 1907 at the Second Hague Peace Conference. It prohibited the use of armed force to make governments pay debts they had contracted. Apparently, it was not out of question at that time to send a war ship to point its guns at some bankrupt coastal capital, signalling PAY!   In our more civilized time – a rescue boat with a crew from the IMF and the World Bank might be a more likely action. I think we should welcome that.


The second example: when I was State Secretary for Swedish development cooperation in the 1970s, nationalization of industries or natural resources was still a worrisome risk  for  foreign investors. Bilateral and multilateral agreements were concluded to reduce or eliminate the risk and, thereby to encourage investments. After the collapse of the state capitalist model, this is a risk that has faded.  Today, we have greater reason to worry about the reality of corruption in many countries. There is a need for international codes of conduct and compliance with them to counter this poisonous practice. Here the world corporate community could and should help.


Faulty assessments can be expensive

Let me turn now to talk about the risks of armed action to people and capital around the world. While full objectivity is hardly attainable in the assessment of such risks, we should be aware that assessments pronounced by governments are often coloured by their own interests or intentions.  Faulty assessments by governments may cost even more dearly than faulty financial ones.


The Iraq war is a case in point.  In 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regime was as oppressive as ever, but contrary to what was asserted by those who launched the 2003 war, Iraq presented  no military threat to the region.  After over 10 years of sanctions the country was exhausted.  Now, 10 years after the launching of the war, we can see that the toppling of Saddam Hussein probably was the only gain made.


The rest was loss of life and property and years of anarchy and civil strife.  The US now has to live with an Iraqi regime that is on good terms with Iran and it lives with budgetary deficits that flow in part from the armed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.   These were hardly the results hoped for by the hawks who urged the wars. They would not agree with this judgment, of course, but may rather feel that today’s problems with Iran would not have existed, if the US had followed the course that  one of them allegedly recommended :  “first march on  Baghdad, then turn  right!’


For my part, I would be more tempted at this time to ask whether the current dominant Western assessment of Iran is as flawed as that which was acted upon in Iraq.  In the case of Iraq, a main reason presented for the attack was to destroy weapons of mass destruction – that did not exist.  In the case of Iran, all agree there are no nuclear weapons. Are we witnessing a threat of an attack on intentions that may not exist? And, if bombardment of targets in Iran were to be undertaken, as is urged by some, what would follow?  As Colin Powell is reported to have said: ‘If you break the pot, you own it….’


War fatigue from Afghanistan and Iraq  — the experience that it is hard and costly to play a major part in nation building far away — may have led to a shift in US public opinion and  tempered  inclinations to act as a  self appointed  world police.  We shall see if the restraints shown by the US in the cases of Libya and Syria will guide also in the case of Iran.  Perhaps the practice of sporadic great power armed interventions without UN authorization is on the way out?  I, for one would hope so. Even with UN approval and backing armed intervention is problematic.


Fewer  wars

Let me turn now to the broader question of the risk of war and other armed conflicts. Modern peace research tells us that the number of wars is going down –and that most wars are civil wars.  This may not square with the impression we get from the media and sceptics will tell us that war will always be part of human civilization. To think differently is to be naïve.      Well, is it?

A glance at history shows us that despite the horrible wars of the 20th century vast areas of the world that used to see armed conflict  no longer face the risk of interstate conflicts.  The US and Mexico used to fight wars in the past.  No more.  The countries of Latin America that sometimes met in wars in the past are highly unlikely to do it again.   In Europe, where wars have raged as far back in history as we can see, the creation and expansion of the European Union all but eliminates a prospect of war.

Despite some frictions an armed conflict with Russia looks like a very remote risk.  Russia is not the Soviet Union.  Relations could improve if efforts were made on all sides. The EU and the US should avoid creating new sharp economic and military borders to Russia but rather pursue the policies that brought Russia into the World Trade Organization and that stayed away from further NATO expansion.    


Overall, it is as if the major part of a once very fluid world had stabilized with some areas – chiefly in parts of Africa and in the Middle East — remaining with unsettled borders and – even more – unsettled social orders.


(What has happened to traditional causes of war?)

We can gain another perspective of the diminishing risk of interstate war, if we look at the traditional causes of war and ask how relevant they are today.


 We know that in the past the most common causes have been

Wishes for self-determination

Wishes for the change of borders

Wishes to acquire more land

Wishes to impose religions or ideologies.


How present are these causes today?

Struggles to achieve self- determination were common and often bloody during the period of decolonisation.  Today, Palestinians, Kurds, Chechens, and Uigurs may   engage in some armed action to press their demands for emancipation or greater self-rule.  Scots and Catalonians limit themselves to political campaigns.  Nowhere, however, is the quest for self-determination likely to cause major conflagrations.


As to borders, many that used to be contested, have over time become uncontroversial.. For instance, the border between China and Russia along the Amur river.. The Oder-Neisse line that used to be a lethal border between Western Europe and the Communist East has become an internal waterway in the EU.  Many odd borders resulting from colonial times have remained but are likely to be adjusted without major conflicts in the future.  Only a few borders still have some potential for serious conflict.


One is between India and China in the Himalayas.  The two countries recently reached an agreement on some measures to defuse tensions on this border and that is to be welcomed. However, the differences, that once caused war between these two Asian giant states, are not solved.


Borders at sea — around continental shelves or economic zones, as well as over small islands and shallows – are still rather often the subject of controversy.  Sometimes because of possible oil resources, sometimes for other reasons.  Current examples are the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku  islands and between China and the Philippines  and other states over the Spratleys.


These disputes often lead to infected relations — and risks that could go out of hand, if the military body language that is played out is not kept under control.  There is also some risk that national emotions can push a government or be used by a government.  But again, major conflagrations are unlikely. The Chinese and the Japanese may not love each other, but there is much interdependence that holds them back.


Regrettably, the current frictions about borders at sea and islands lead many fast developing countries in the East and South Asia regions to increase their military forces – and budgets, .  An approach — urged inter alia by the US — would be for states concerned to make use of judicial means to settle differences.  They could turn to the International Court of Justice at The Hague or to the Law of the Sea Court in Hamburg.


Judicial settlement has the great advantage that a losing party is rarely seen as losing national prestige, As China wants to convince all that its phenomenal and welcome growth is  a peaceful rise and that it needs peace to continue rising,  it should have  a need for détente  in East Asia. Using judicial mechanisms could be a way for China to prevent irritants from becoming inflammations. The sparks that now fly from frictions carry some danger to the area. They are also, I think, a reason for the US ‘pivot’ to the Asia- Pacific region  and for US  military expenses remaining about 40 %  of  the world’s total military expenditures.


The armed grabbing of land – like Mussolini’s grabbing of Albania in 1939 –  seems to be a thing of the past. Perhaps Saddam Hussein, occupying Kuwait in 1990 was the last self-appointed conqueror – trying to become a new Emperor over Mesopotamia.


 Some land enclaves have been peacefully joined with lands to which they were adjacent, like Hong Kong and Macau..  India annexed Goa in 1961 without consent but also without armed clashes.  Saakashvili’s attempt to incorporate South Ossetia into Georgia by force, on the other hand was eagerly jumped on and stopped by Russia.  Other entities, like British Gibraltar, and Spanish Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco still remain separate but apparently without any grave conflicts resulting.

A few territorial entities – notably Taiwan and Kashmir — remain important flashpoints. They are mostly handled prudently – which is not a guarantee for the future..


Religion and ideology have been important triggers of war in the past, but with the end of the Cold War it is hard to imagine that differences in ideology could again ignite armed conflict. The clash of civilizations that was much discussed a few years ago, will certainly not lead to large wars. Al Qaeda is not the Muslim world.


Are there any new potential causes of armed conflicts?

It is sometimes suggested that competition about commodities could lead to major conflict and it is true that the oil and gas resources of the Middle East, of Central Asia and  — soon — of the Arctic are the subjects of  competing  great power attention and  pipeline projects. In my view these competing interests are more likely to play out in prices than in armed action.


An important development in the energy sphere has occurred with the rapid introduction of fracking that is now making the US self sufficient in gas and even exporting.  Control of the Middle East may become a less vital US strategic interest and China and Russia may find a somewhat slackening of US interest in Central Asia.


To what extent fracking  may come to be practised and change the energy  picture in Europe, China and other areas we do not yet know. As the combustion of gas yields about half as much CO2 as coal, fracking is positive in environmental terms where it replaces coal. However, the new method is also calling for the use of much water and is reported to lead to leakages of methane that is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.  While today fracking edges out both renewable sources of energy and nuclear power in the US, the operation of both these sources have the advantage of emitting no CO2 at all and, thereby, better help to counter the possibly greatest risk now facing humanity – that of global warming.



It has been common to point to terrorism as a major threat in the modern world.  After 9/11 the US ‘war on terrorism’ became global and included the major engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. US and world reactions have also comprised extensive measures of surveillance and protection. Armed actions by scattered groups have triggered special operations and a use of drones, sometimes raising the question whether  suspected terrorists should be pursued as criminals under national law or fought  as soldiers under the laws of war.


I remember a cartoon in which a judge says  to a dishevelled respondent: ‘you are accused of having killed you neighbour’s cat and  cut down his fence. Do you have anything to say in your defence? ‘To which the accused answers: ‘I claim the rights of a belligerent!’   This case might have been simple, but other cases – like that of the killing of Osama bin Laden –   may be less clear in legal terms.


It is still true that there can be a risk of terrorist attack almost anywhere, and that special objects may deserve special protection, but we should note that most terrorists direct their actions to targets and political aims in their own countries and that the term ‘war’ on terrorism is now mostly avoided.

Compared to many other risks in today’s world, that of terrorist attacks is small. Practically all the world’s governments are united in the wish to combat terrorist groups and terrorist acts are more likely to lead governments to cooperate than to fight each other.  Hence, although spectacular and shocking and having provoked the US to wage war and the world to take comprehensive measures affecting travel, transport and investments, terrorist acts have per se relatively limited geopolitical impact.


Weapons of mass destruction as a special threat

Weapons of mass destruction – WMD – are often pointed to as the greatest danger to the world and this view is mostly accepted without discussion. Perhaps the matter should nevertheless be given some consideration.

First, which weapons do we count as WMD?  After the 2003 Iraq war it was sarcastically suggested that there had been  weapons of mass disappearance. There were other frivolous readings as well…


The generally accepted reading of the term is nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.  What these three categories of horrible weapons have in common is perhaps less the potential for mass destruction than a capacity to cause terror that leads to a kind of taboo.


The weapons that really cause mass destruction of lives in today’s world, we should be aware,, are the small calibre weapons  that are found in millions and are used by soldiers, child soldiers, terrorists, and civilians.  Recently, a UN conference of governments at long last adopted a convention – the ATT or Arms Trade Treaty — under which they agreed to maintain export controls and to prevent any illegal exports of conventional weapons. The business community of the world can and should help to ensure acceptance and implementation of this new treaty.


Now to the biological weapons.  Fears are sometimes voiced that some Dr. Strangelove would produce a virus against which there would be no antidote. While this has not happened, letters with powdered anthrax were sent by mail in 2002 to a number of victims and caused some casualties and great scare in the US.  I have been told that a greater risk is that Mother Nature will one day send us a nasty creature and right now it seems the world must counter an acute risk that our existing antibiotics will be outwitted by multi-resistant bacteria. There is a grave challenge for governments, the research world and the pharmaceutical industry.


The recent use of chemical weapons in Syria evoked a compact condemnation and very nearly a US military intervention.  It is appropriate to note, however, that while  the recent use of sarin in Syria caused some 1000 casualties, the conventional weapons used in the civil war have taken far more than 100 000 casualties. Since 1993 there is a convention against the possession and use of chemical weapons. It is under this convention that most states, including the big powers — and now Syria — are destroying their chemical weapons..    


While the nuclear weapon states have not been willing to accept a convention outlawing the use of nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice has declared that almost  all uses would contravene  some existing rules of   international law. The world knows that these weapons are capable of causing mass destruction and it is thought that a nuclear Armageddon could even destroy human civilization. Yet, we might do well to remember that   the mass destruction caused in Tokyo by incendiary weapons was of the same dimension as that at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was the terror aspect that made the awesome difference.  We can only hope that the taboo on nuclear weapons will continue to prevent their use and lead to their eradication – the global zero.


Let me now revert to the risk posed by nuclear weapons and how they are handled.. The Non -Proliferation Treaty of 1968 may be said to aim at a nuclear weapon free world through two parallel commitments:

-Non-nuclear weapon states parties commit themselves to stay away from nuclear weapons, and

-Nuclear-weapon states parties agree to negotiate to do away with their nuclear weapons.


The first command is pursued vigorously and rather successfully. While some 50 years ago President Kennedy feared that there could be dozens of nuclear weapon states, the number has only increased from 5 – the P5 – to 9,  by the addition of  India, Israel, Pakistan  (that never adhered to the treaty)  and  North Korea.  On the other hand  Bielorussia, Kazakhstan  and  Ukraine surrendered their nukes to Russia, South Africa dismantled theirs and  Iraq and Libya  were stopped in their quest for the weapons .


It  is easy to understand  that if North Korea  were to retain a nuclear weapons capacity and were to provoke  technically advanced nations in North East Asia also to develop such weapons,  tensions and dangers in the region would increase dramatically. Likewise, if Iran were to manufacture nuclear weapons – which it emphatically declares it will not — it could sharply increase tensions and dangers in the Middle East and raise a risk that some others would do likewise.  There are good reasons to negotiate with both states.


Having noted the risks, which are important,, we should not jump to a conclusion that the world is milling with states that want nuclear weapons.  It is not.  The many non-nuclear weapon states that use nuclear power should not be labelled virtual nuclear weapon states. They should rather be called virtuous nuclear power states.


The NPT commitment to negotiate toward nuclear disarmament is pursued less vigorously. There is criticism that the nuclear weapon states do not feel that their own weapons pose much of a danger and need to be eliminated. Rather, it is said, they preach to others to do what they are not ready themselves to do.

The START treaty of 2009 between the US and Russia stipulated some modest reductions in the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons and carriers. It just barely obtained the 2/3 majority needed in the US Senate. Since then, despite President Obama’s platform the climate has hardened and there has been no disarmament

No follow up on START and further reduction of strategic nuclear weapons

No mutual withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons East-West in Europe

No entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996


Factors strengthening peace


I would like to mention first the enormous expansion of international law. We often think of law as the basis for court decisions, but its primary function is to give us guidance how to avoid conflict. Rules identify action that will avoid conflict. To take the simplest of examples, the rule about right hand traffic prevents accidents and disputes. It is backed up, to be sure  by courts and national executive authorities, but action by these bodies is rarely needed.  We know and respect the rule anyway. In the international sphere, too,  thousands and  thousands of rules help us to avoid conflict and these rules, too are  known and mostly spontaneously respected.  However, there are significant weaknesses. 


We must recognize t hat the absence of international legislatures that can adopt rules by majority and the necessity to have the consent of each state for it to be bound , means that on a variety of matters it will be hard to get rules binding all relevant parties. We have failed so far to get universal agreement to freer trade through the so-called Doha round about trade and tariffs and we failed at Copenhagen a few years ago to get consensus on a Climate Treaty. One could easily imagine UN rules requiring only 2/3 majority for the adoption of a treaty, as no state becomes bound unless it ratifies.  However, big and powerful states like the consensus rule, as it gives them a veto already in the early phase of rule-making.


We must recognize, also,  that  some  existing and universally binding fundamental rules are not respected as a matter of course.  The UN Charter rules regulating the threat or use of armed force in the international community have not   been very reliable.  The UN Charter was adopted in 1945 and  Art. 2:4 flatly prohibits the threat or use of force against other states. With two exceptions:

·               self defence against armed  attacks (art. 51), until the Security Council acts;

·                and armed force authorized by the Security Council (art. 42).  


These rules were meant to be part of a radically new Post WWII security architecture that gave the Security Council the task to maintain peace and to restore  it where it was broken. The Council was given great authority– even to use armed force. However, each of the five permanent members had a power of veto and, as we well know, the Cold War almost immediately paralysed the newly appointed World Police.  As in the past, states had to look to their own military force or to alliances – like NATO — for protection. A practically important  innovation, we should note,  was made even during the Cold War, when Dag  Hammarskjöld  developed the concept of  peace keeping operations – Chapter 6 ½. 


 Military actions in disregard of the Charter restrictions have occurred many times. The first time that the Council acted as foreseen in the Charter to stop aggression   was after the end of the Cold War, when in 1991 President Bush the elder skilfully organized an international force to stop Saddam  Hussein’s occupation of  Kuwait.  Bush even spoke of a ‘new world order’. However, no member state dared — or even now dares — to look to the Council as a world police protecting it.


What is today the outlook for ‘collective security’? We welcome that  the number of interstate wars has gone down and that there may be increasing restraints against launching unauthorized military interventions.  It would be rash, however, to attribute this evolution simply to a growing respect for the rules of the UN Charter.


During the Cold War the guiding principle of states was found in the old adage ‘si vis pacem, para bellum’– if you want peace, prepare for war.  With the stocks of nuclear weapons in the world numbering more than 50.000, the two superpowers  were so  well prepared  to deter each other by nuclear weapons that  they could  speak of  MAD — or mutually assured destruction –  with the rest of the world  disappearing as ‘collateral damage’.


And now?  While many leading military believe that world peace is still in large part the result of the effective mutual nuclear deterrence and wish to retain nuclear forces,  others  — like the four elder US statesmen  George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn – are of the view that  after the end of the Cold War, nuclear deterrence is no longer relevant between the US and Russia and is losing  relevance  for  other nuclear powers as well.


Whatever are the true reasons why wars have become fewer, it seems possible that the evolution may continue to lead to a less frequent  breach of the  UN rule on the non-use of force:  A US National Security Strategy adopted  in September 2002 by the Bush administration  stated flatly that a limitation of the right to use armed force in self-defence to  cases where armed attacks were occurring or imminent  would be insufficient. 


Against this background it is interesting to note that in his Nobel lecture in 2009 President Obama, while avoiding to explicitly cite the  UN Charter, declared that ‘ all nations … must adhere to standards that govern the use of force ‘ and that although he reserved the right to act unilaterally, if necessary to defend his nation, he was convinced that ‘adhering to standards strengthens those who do and isolates and weakens those who don’t.’


 It remains to be seen in the immediate future whether he thinks it is necessary to attack Iran ‘to defend the US’  even through it may be taken for granted that Iran will not launch an armed attack on the US , Israel or on any other state and that the Security Council will not authorize military action against Iran. Hopefully, the ‘mini reset’ that was achieved between the US and Russia over Syrian chemical weapons is a harbinger of further cooperation and  a resumption of  the disarmament efforts that  were  highly successful after the  détente that first followed the ending of the Cold War.


However that will turn out and recognizing that the UN Charter rule restricting the use of armed force remains an uncertain barrier against the risk of armed violence, we must note that it does contain a standard and that the UN system offers important opportunities for dialogue, conciliation and joint action.

This does not mean that the current system is working optimally or can, alone provide satisfactory governance in today’s world. We must be open to continuous reform and guard against bureaucratisation in the UN,

stress the vital importance that a competent and impartial international civil service is maintained, and remember that the UN is an orchestra of many instruments  and that failure to produce harmonious music may be due less to  deficiencies in the instruments than to musicians who refuse to play or  insist on playing tunes of their own.  


We must also be aware that increasingly the European Union and regional organizations, like NATO and the Organization of African States, share the burden of international governance, that informal groups like the G8 or G 20 function as mechanisms helping to  create  international consensus and action, and that increasingly, civil society  — the global NGO community as well as the global business community – has been brought into the dialogue and been enabled to contribute and influence.

The world has come a long way from the quarrelling and warring chiefdoms of past centuries, but it has  still a long way to go to reduce  armed conflicts, bloated arsenals and the shocking annual global military expenditures of 1.700 billion dollars,

 it has a long way to go to create  humane  living conditions for a world population that needs to further slow its growth, and

it has a long way to go to secure access to sufficient energy for all without  risking to destroy the global climate – as we are now busy doing.


I have no doubt that globalisation and the increasing interdependence of states—economically, environmentally and politically – is the single factor that pushes the hardest for cooperation and against clashes and conflict. We need all – governments, business and NGO’s — to participate in this effort and to use the United Nations as a key instrument.  As Dag  Hammarskjöld said, we should not expect the UN to take us to heaven, but it may help us to avoid going to hell.