Former undersecretary-general of the United Nations
“Whose Century Is It?”
Martha Saxton, professor of history and women and gender studies: Good morning. My name is Martha Saxton. I’m in the History and Women and Gender Studies departments. I’m delighted to see you, and welcome to all of you. This morning it is my very, very great pleasure and honor to introduce our guest, Sir Brian Urquhart, who has really more achievements than I could recount if I had all morning to do it. So I’ll just talk about a very few of his accomplishments to give you a flavor of what kind of a life Sir Brian has had.
He was at Oxford when World War II broke out and he volunteered, winding up in the first cohort of British paratroopers. He was grievously wounded on a jump when his parachute didn’t open, but he made his way into combat after that in Sicily, North Africa and in Europe. He was among those troops who first arrived at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.
The war all together and this experience in particular moved him to work for world peace in the aftermath of the war. He joined the earliest British efforts to shape the United Nations and served in a variety of capacities, including undersecretary-general, working closely with Dag Hammarskjöld, Ralph Bunche, U Thant and a number of others. During those years he served in troubled nations all over the world. Using whatever materials he found, he developed peacekeeping as we know it today.
If you have a chance to read his absolutely fascinating, and sometimes hilarious, book, A Life in Peace and War, you will see how challenging the early resources he had at hand were. He managed to settle a mutiny of the troops in Patrice Lumumba’s Congo with a Moroccan military band and their mascot, which was a large and fragrant goat. He also worked as negotiator and peacekeeper in some famously difficult areas, including Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus.
In addition to decades of brave and innovative work for world peace, Sir Brian has published biographies of Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche. He’s worked as an editor at Time magazine and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. It would be hard to find a person with more hard-won, firsthand knowledge of this preceding century, or anyone more qualified to talk to us about whose century this one is. Sir Brian has said he would like to talk for about 20 minutes, and then he would be very happy to take questions.
Please welcome Sir Brian Urquhart.
Urquhart: Thank you very much, Martha. I don’t know how I’m going to live up to that.
I have a feeling that commencements bring out the worst in grandparents. I’m going to try to resist referring to the good old days and “When I was a boy we used to …,” and that kind of thing. Of course, we have to mention that we pine for the old simplicities and I’ll try to keep that down, too. I must say I do wish to be back in the age when a telephone was just a telephone. Or when you wanted to go to Europe you took a boat. Or when you rang up an institution or a business or shop you got a human being on the other end of the telephone. But these are very minor cavils, and of course they’re completely outweighed by the vast compensations of the period we live in. Especially for old people.
I think one of the best things, really, when you get to a considerable age, is to be able to look back over the rollercoaster of the last hundred years and to form the impression that at least some lessons have been learned. And if you look at it overall, people in the world are beginning to be much better off in large numbers than they were before. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t terrible areas of poverty, there aren’t terrible areas of disaster — as now for example in China with Burma. But I think that it’s true that the capacity to help those people if they will accept help is much greater than it was. And the effort to try to reduce under $1 a day, no water, no shelter — which is about 1 billion people at the minute — is really being pursued so that we can reduce the shameful poverty that still exists, and used to exist in a far greater measure than it does now.
Of course, this is an obligatory statement, but I actually mean it. Best of all is, on this day, to think that the graduating class of Amherst and their brothers and sisters all over the world in much larger numbers than revealed the truth before, are probably going out into the world far better informed. I think far better motivated than they were, say, 90 years ago, and that they really do have some idea of the rather formidable agenda of new, so-called, global problems, which they are going to have to help the human race to face. Of course, we all know horribly well what the major ones are. No doubt, just when we think we have a grip on them, some new and even more surprising problem will turn up. For example, we’re just now beginning to learn that the world has too many people to feed in the shape it’s in now. What are you going to do about that?
But first, I think the most dangerous problem still is the problem of nuclear proliferation, especially when it’s taken with, a problem that would be less formidable of, extremism and terrorism. There has not been much progress to curb nuclear proliferation. It does seem to be a matter of time, unless we can do much better before something goes very seriously wrong. I would put that as number one.
I think the next one, probably I mentioned it before, is the coming shortages of both food and of usable energy. We know about the energy problem every time we fill up the car, but it’s been with us for a very long time and people just didn’t want to face it. The oil companies particularly didn’t want us to face it, so now we have a very serious problem. It will require a huge effort, a change in the way people live, in order to go forward with something different. I think the food problem is only just now being faced, except in a certain number of sort of specialist agricultural and other circles where they’ve been warning about this for years but nobody listened.
I think that climate change is certainly in a league all of its own. This is a problem that inflicts the entire planet and every organism, plant, animal and every person on it. Again, we’ve known about it for some time. Governments have been extremely slow to follow the lead of a great number of environmental organizations who’ve pointed out that this is an enormous challenge. Deemed that as the years go on it becomes more and more difficult to be sure to do anything about it. A burst of speed is required there. That, of course, is now showing its dangers particularly in one field, which is the extraordinary increase in natural disasters. There is a very high increase in all of these things from cyclones, like in Burma, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and droughts. Things are moving quite fast even if we aren’t. That’s really enough to be going on with. As I said, no doubt something new will turn up.
I worked for 41 years in the United Nations. I was one of the first people to join it in the secretariat. It always seemed to me that there was a fatal flaw in the United Nations. They’ve had a wonderful plan for international cooperation, but except to say that national sovereignty was the basis of the United Nations, it never explained quite what a problem that was going to be. Much of the time that we spent working on various things all over the world, was trying to find a balance between, on the one side, national sovereignty, and on the other side, international responsibility.
Everyone from the New York Times down, when something goes wrong believes the United Nations ought to fix it. Very often it can’t. We now have an absolutely unique situation where the junta in Burma — who I must say are probably the most backward people in the ruler’s seat in anyplace in the world. I don’t know how many centuries back they go, but they are very, very recessive. They are now refusing the enormous amount of international aid, extremely well-organized through experience, which they could have got for the two and half million people made homeless, and the starving and the already suffering from epidemic diseases, not to mention clearing up the over 100,000 dead from that disaster.
This is because they have claimed that they own the national sovereignty in Burma and they can tell everybody else to go away, even if a large part of their population in a main city has been devastated by a huge disaster. I think this is obscene and contemptible. But you won’t find many governments saying that. What they say is, “You’ve got to take it slow. These chaps are very touchy.” Touchy my foot. They are people who are entirely interested in their own survival and power. So far, they’ve gotten clean away with it.
Governments do not like to talk about curbing national sovereignty and yet almost everything that happens requires it. This has been, I think, the unspoken problem with making organizations like the United Nations work. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to discuss this and see how it is, for example, that [governments say] that everybody to else, because there’s a huge amount of the world that doesn’t pay any attention to national sovereignty very much. Most of the commercial world, the world of big international corporations, scientists, education, culture and entertainment, these are worlds which are now genuinely international. Curious enough, in the world of governments, national sovereignty is the ticket which always comes in first.
In 2005, in what seems to be now a somewhat farcical procedure, there was the biggest meeting of heads of state ever held at the meeting in New York. The heads of state, with a great deal of fanfare, adopted a whole new principle which was that if any people in the world was in great suffering and their government either could not or would not help them, the other governments had the obligation to protect them.
We’ve tried that in Darfur with very little success so far, because the huge relief operation and the large peacekeeping operation are both totally hampered by the policies of the government. As I mentioned before, we have an amazing and unique experience in Burma, where a government has decided not to receive international aid, not to receive, for example, the help of the United States Navy which has five ships sitting off the Irrawaddy Delta with everything the wretched people who haven’t been contacted there, who have survived, really need.
I think this is something that we need to think about. People, not just organizations, but people pay a very heavy price sometimes before this old-fashioned idea from the Treaty in Westphalia in 1648. It was a new idea then, not a very good one it has always seemed to me. Too late now.
The reason I chose this title for this talk, “Whose Century Is It,” is throughout my life I’ve been extremely irritated by pompous editorials and endless puff pieces in the media saying that when I was young, it was the British century, far from it. When Hitler got on the front page of Time magazine there was a lot of talk about the German century. Of course, it should have been the Nazi century. In fact, Hitler himself said it was going to be the “Thousand Year Reich.” Fortunately, it only lasted about 14 years, but it was more than enough. I think that if it was alright before, then it’s no longer very relevant, these kind of complimentary pieces about, ostensibly, and order in which there’s one leading nation and all the others follow.
When I was—here we go—when I was young, it’s hard to believe Britain, the United Kingdom, ruled over more than one-quarter of the Earth’s land surface. The pound sterling was the international currency of reference. The British Navy was still trying to be the force which policed the seas and helped people in trouble and so on.
Of course, the country was broke, even after the First World War. In fact, it had been going downhill steadily since the 1890s when it was overtaken by both the United States and Germany as industrial powers. The Versailles Treaty actually increased the size of the British Empire by tacking on various parts of the Middle East and Africa. This empire was bleeding the country dry. It was an extremely bad economic investment.
Typically the British, they managed to get rid of it partly by blaming the United Nations and partly by having a really, very serious policy of decolonization themselves. Trying to hang on to all of these territories which had been British, and which had therefore missed the Industrial Revolution because they were [unintelligible] sources of raw material, together get a hold on the 20th century. Most of those former colonial countries have had a lot of trouble and are just now beginning to come to the fore as serious economic rivals to others in the world.
When I was at school, we were always being confronted by schoolmasters and others who would talk about the British way of life. Some even would say things like, “bloody abroad begins at Dover,” and that sort of thing. The concept was we were all going to serve the empire when we grew up. In fact, the most difficult overseas post to get into, curious enough, in the British Empire was the Sudan Civil Service, a kind of elite service which was incredibly hard to get into. One was always told you should strive for that, and if you couldn’t do that you should go into the foreign office or the Indian Civil Service. The fact of the British Empire began to vanish in the 20th [century] when it had just expanded.
By 1939, we had World War II, which people now forget was very nearly won by Hitler. It was a miracle that he did not win in 1941, which, if you look at the military figures and a capacity of the various countries involved, he should have done. Fortunately he made a very huge mistake, which was lucky for all of us. By the end of World War II, the British still had an empire but it was a huge liability. It began in 1947 with India becoming independent and now it’s just a dream.
The United States [was then] unquestionably the great power of the world. Again, it’s extremely hard to remember, but in 1945 when the War ended, the United States under President Roosevelt and then under President Truman had done a series of things which no great country had ever done before. Such was their conviction that they were going to win the war that Roosevelt and Churchill, in 1942, already ordered the setting up of a huge relief and construction organization to give new life to the world which had been conquered by the Nazis and the Japanese. It was called the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. I don’t how many have ever heard of it, but it’s extraordinary. It was run by Governor Herbert Lehman, the former governor of New York State, a perfectly extraordinary man, and its aim was to give 2,000 calories a day to every person surviving in the liberated territories all over the world, including China and the Soviet Union. It did that, and it also provided enormous quantities of various kinds of wheels — truck, trains, and so on, to get the economic life going again. It was a huge success. I suppose that’s probably why it’s not very often thought about now, but this was typical of the attitude of the United States towards the world. Later on, we had the Marshall Plan, which unquestionably was what started the extremely prosperous Europe we have today, and I think, made it almost certain that the Cold War would be lost by the Soviet Union.
Then Truman himself did something which I think was very courageous. When North Korea threatened South Korea in 1950, Truman decided that he would invoke the United Nations charter and go in with the United Nations force to throw the North Koreans out of South Korea. Again, that was a war that was very nearly lost and it was won with great casualties on the United States and other sides.
I think it was important because before that the Soviet Union and the Chinese communist government, which had just come into power in Beijing, believed that the United States was a kind of a peace-time patsy that really didn’t care about anything and would not do anything to stop Communist expansion. They got a very nasty shock. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Soviet Union and China were extremely cautious forever after about, in anyway, tipping the balance in the Cold War so the United States would lead action. There is no question that if ever the American Century was justified, it was justified by that remarkable period.
But, of course, things change. We now have a number of developments which I suppose were foreseeable, except I don’t think the Chinese economic miracle was foreseeable. It is the most extraordinary performance. With something like a 10 percent growth rate, they have galloped into an extraordinary place in the world economy, including earning an uncomfortable number of U.S. dollars. I don’t think anybody could have necessarily foreseen that, and I don’t think anybody necessarily, even the Chinese, understands it. Something a little like that is happening in India. These are two countries in the world that are more than 1 billion inhabitants and so they are a very large part of the world’s population.
Incidentally, I should have said in talking about the extraordinary statesmanship of the United States during and after World War II, that of course the United Nations, the whole system, was the brainchild of President Roosevelt. In fact, he had been using the name United Nations, along with everybody else on the Allied side, since 1942 as a very convenient psychological stimulant to the Allies. For example, if you look at the surrender documents for Germany and Japan, they didn’t surrender to the Allies; they surrendered to the United Nations which didn’t in fact exist at the time. But never mind, they did it. It was a brilliant use of a name which was just a dream during the war. It was after San Francisco in 1945 that the organization actually began to exist.
Unexpected things happen to the reputation and position of great states. There was something very unexpected about the Southeast Asian economic miracle, and it has meant, combined with the current recession, that the position of the United States and that part of human activity is very much, for the moment, reduced.
I’m sorry to say that many of the policies of the Bush Administration have played havoc with the extraordinary respect and admiration which the United States joined in the world at large. That will be a major task to restore. But I don’t really think that the word superpower is probably too applicable anymore. It was applicable, really, to two countries [that] had the most devastating nuclear armaments, namely the Soviet Union and the United States. Now that people don’t pay that much attention to that anymore, though I think they should, it does seem to me that probably a single superpower, the surviving superpower, is not a terrific name for the United States.
The United [States] should be seen as, probably still, the one country in the world which takes interest in both global problems and is prepared to lead the rest of the world in trying to do something about them, or indeed to [avert] disasters or even outbreaks of violence and so on. This is an extremely important position, which as far as I know, no other government is either willing or capable of doing yet. Certainly not China or India, and I don’t think Europe, either. It’s usually the United States that takes the initiative when something really frightful happens. That position needs to be shored up and respected.
There’s a lot of talk now—I don’t know why this is, and it isn’t really people trying to explain why the 21st century isn’t going to be the American century. I think the talk of the century is wrong for a country now. There’s one huge change where even the words didn’t exist in 1945. The words “globalization” and “global” are, like “environment,” are quite new. This does describe a very rapid process that is taking place in the world. A global problem is a problem which no one single country, however possible, can possibly handle by itself. I think it applies to the four or five problems that I mentioned before. This is where leadership is much more important than having a century named after you and I think this is where the United States’ strength is.
The other thing, of course, where the United States has a huge lead is in culture and education. Of the 500 or so top universities in the world, more than half are in the United States still. There’s a lot of talk about how China and India train more engineers than the United States. The United States doesn’t have over a billion inhabitants, and in their engineering they include everything, including motor mechanics and that kind of thing. If you do that, of course, they do — they’re much bigger.
But if you look at trained engineers, the United States is still considerably ahead. This is one of these kind of panic-making statistics which turn out to be untrue. Of course in, dare I call it, culture, which includes entertainment and communications and everything else, the United States is by far ahead of anyone else. They’re very lucky to have the English language as it has become the Lingua Franca of so many places, including India. It is a huge influence on the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s an influence all right. I think that you have to feed these things into your views about the position of the United States or other countries of the world as you go out from Amherst and face what is, unquestionably, a very interesting world and a very challenging one.
There’s a book by a man called Fareed Zakaria, which I dare say some of you have read, which is called The Post American World, which is extremely readable. It’s also very good at shooting down some of the kind of received wisdom that we all go down [on] so often. He, for example, has pointed out that China and Russia and Europe are aging, in terms of the average age of the population, extremely fast. The United States is not. Zakaria points out the main reason for this is immigration. This is the United States’ secret weapon for keeping young and it will certainly last for another 50 years or so. This is the kind of useful thing that Zakaria writes about and it is extremely worthwhile looking at.
I think—coming here makes me feel obliged to say this—I think that there is a great deal too much importance attached to labels like the “American Century” or to all of this attention that is paid to politics, to short-term politics, celebrity and, indeed, all the stuff the media still tends to get very excited about. What to me is most important, looking back on it and trying to look forward, is the actual quality of a nation. The quality of its people. That is something you can’t build in one generation or by some ingenious program of international help.
It’s something that the people of a nation build for themselves over the years. It is the quality of having a personality which everyone respects; of behaving in a way which you think is the right way to behave to other people; of being interested and concerned about problems far outside your own little domestic sphere and being determined to do something about it; of generosity, which the United States is remarkable in its international generosity, both governmental and non-governmental; and above all, of seeing the world as it actually is—thinking out for yourself what the world is really about.
Everyone is always talking about the global village. It doesn’t really help. The world is a very diverse place, full of divisive elements of one thought or another. But I think the United States at its best is an extremely good example of a nation which has its own quality and it’s a quality which can greatly help other people, and is very important with its own life. Incidentally, what is desperately needed in the quality of a nation is a fairly skeptical sense of humor, without which people tend to go down the wrong road extraordinarily quickly. It also makes it easier.
That’s what I think I like to think about on a day like this. Coming to Amherst, taking part in this great affair, and thinking of all of you people going out and having all of these experiences, good, bad and different, and actually coming out of it with—I would like to say for most of you—with something that is very good for you and is good for other people. I think that’s what this commencement is about and I’m delighted to be here. Thank you very much.
Audience member: What, in your view, is a good example of a good influence of the United States, and another example of a bad influence of the United States?
Urquhart: Well, I would say I think that the New Deal and the extraordinary capacity of the United States to think about the world after the war, when in fact it was losing the war in 1942, had a huge influence on everybody. They thought that the United States was real and very courageous, and potentially very powerful. Of course, it was. I think that the whole idea of international relief, of the obligation of a great country to help people who weren’t so fortunate, which now is being taken on by others, was remarkable. It had not just an influence; it had a remarkable effect in getting people in the kind of misery they were in at the end of the War.
I think that possibly the worst idea that was ever had was in the original George W. Bush national security policy, which was the idea of preemptive war. Everybody has been talking about preemptive war; it’s not a new idea at all. But it’s a very bad idea because once you get into it, you can’t get out of it. Iraq is a perfect case in point. I think that this was an extremely bad idea. I think it was also prompted by the illusion, that apparently Rumsfeld and Bush had, that because the United States outspends all of the world’s countries put together on defense expenditure, and had a terrific army, a terrific air force and a terrific navy—everybody knows that—that somehow this was usable in situations where military power didn’t function very well.
It was all very well for the British to take huge parts of the world over, because in those days people believed in imperial bluff and gumbo diplomacy and they weren’t very nationalistic. Now that’s completely changed. There’s a remarkable Marine general called [Anthony C.] Zinni, who was the commander of the Central Command before the Iraq War. He’s a very outspoken person and not at all popular in Washington as a result. He said, in his characteristically salty way, that Saddam Hussein in 1990, when he was got out of Kuwait by the United States leading a UN operation, was the last bloody fool on Earth that thought he could confront the United States in traditional world war battle. That is, with an army with tanks and artillery and lines of infantry and so on. Nobody will do that now. They will use everything else, as indeed they have done in Iraq and are doing now in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a very difficult problem because I think the United States was absolutely right to go in there, but the trouble of having got in there is it’s extremely hard to see how they’re going to pull out operation and make it a success. I think that for that reason Iraq was a terrible mistake.
Audience member: What must the United States do specifically to restore its reputation in the international community after Bush?
Urquhart: That’s a very tall order. I think everyone knows what destroyed it. I don’t think it was a very good idea, for example, to say that international law is all nonsense, and that the more international laws broken and the more treaties we pull out of the better. Considering the United States was the author of a lot of this caused a terrible impression. I think the Iraq affair, and the shenanigans that took place to justify it, was extremely damaging. I think also what is perceived abroad as an extremely arrogant and superior attitude to other countries is a great mistake. The Iranians, after all, no matter how lunatic their president obviously is, have been there for 4,000 or 5,000 years. They feel rather strongly about being treated as if they were kind of street urchins who are making a fuss in the street. I don’t think it’s a good idea. It doesn’t matter if you have to deal with the government. It’s a religious, revolutionary government and it’s very difficult to deal with, but that’s what they’ve got. I think there’s a whole number of very obvious things. I think if they would revert to the old, to being the great protector and the great empowerer of the international institutions that they’ve created—that would be a good start. Other governments would then see the previous mistakes were a kind of aberration which is not going to continue.
Audience member: How do you respond to the political debate going on now between people who say that the United States president, the next president, should not engage in unqualified discussions with our enemies versus those who say that the worst thing in the world would somehow be cowering and [unintelligible]?
Urquhart: I think it is mostly common sense. After all, we were engaged in continuous and very, very hot diplomacy with the Soviet Union for the 40 years or so before it vanished. The same is not true of China and the result was we got something we should have avoided, which was the Vietnam War. We didn’t ever recognize China until 1971 when Nixon had the breakthrough, and I think that was a huge mistake. It’s probable that the Korean War would have been avoided if China had been recognized, but I think it’s certain that it would have been possible to avoid the Vietnam War. Every other country in the world, no matter how much they dislike Communism, thought that you should actually deal with the government in power in Beijing. It’s an important country.
You used the word “unqualified” — you’re absolutely right. You don’t want to dive into an empty pool, that’s a certain way of knocking yourself out. You have to fill the pool with a certain amount of useful and valid negotiation before the president travels off to talk to [speak to] whoever it is, the president of Iran or something. But that’s very different from refusing to recognize the existence or refusing to talk to governments who everybody else recognizes. It’s a very dangerous game.
I noticed nobody ever points out both the two terrorist organizations that people love to hate in the Middle East, both Hamas and Hezbollah, one in Gaza and one in Lebanon, were actually elected, I hate to say it, in a democratic election to the political position they now have. It’s unfortunate. We’ve haven’t heard so much about democracy since that happened and I can easily see why.
At some point you’re going to have to deal with these people because they actually own, and are the most powerful element in, a state. Like the PLO. It’s an unpleasant memory, but the PLO was the agency, which in the late 1960s, at last got the world to wake up and understand that the Palestinians were not just 3 million refugees in very, very dreary refugee camps that would stay there forever. They were people to whom a future had been promised at the time of the emergence of Israel in 1948. That had been a promise to them that something would be done that wasn’t done. They were all languishing. It took the PLO and a lot of very nasty terrorist activities to get the world’s attention again. I think it was deplorable, but the truth of it was that without there would be the Palestinians, who are extremely worthy, extremely intelligent—and I think very courageous people—were simply not going to realize the future they’d been promised.
Now at what stage do you start talking to Hamas and Hezbollah, I don’t know. These are really heavy terrorist organizations. They are also religious organizations and they have a lot of pull. But that’s not a job for the president. That’s a job for special envoys and diplomats and so on to really try and work it out. I’m dead against saying we talk to everybody and region any old time. I don’t think that’s what anybody said, though.
But at least what both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama were trying to say was that you mustn’t, as a matter of long-standing grievance, refuse to deal with an important country. We ostracized Iran from the time of the American hostages on. Nobody else did that. I think that was an unwise thing to have done because certainly there was a very considerable feeling that the young people in Iran were not like the Islamic revolutionary government. They’re full opposite. They’re very, very highly educated, sensible people, and their great inclination is to go the American way and not the Islamic way. By having no representation in Tehran for 25 years, you’ve really lost that opportunity. I think it’s a mistake.
Audience member: Sir Brian, you were [unintelligible] and how it has developed over time since then?
Urquhart: Like so many things, my memory is extremely faulty on this but I’ll try. Incidentally, I think it’s wonderful that Mohamed ElBaradei is here and is going to talk. He is one of the most, to my mind, important and interesting people in the world because he has become, and that agency has become, the world’s monitor of nuclear matters. Nothing could possibly be more important. The International Atomic Energy Agency was one of three parts of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. The first part of that was two huge conferences on peaceful uses of atomic energy, at which were represented the best scientists in the world, from both sides of the Iron Curtain and everyone else. They were fantastic conferences. All of this information had been secret before and a huge amount of stuff was declassified and made public. It made a great difference.
The second one was a radiation committee because people were only just beginning to realize at that time that, this was in 1956, how dangerous radiation was and how little we understood about it. The third one was the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its principle function in those days, at the height of the Cold War, was to help governments realize the peaceful uses of atomic energy as something you could actually do. They would advise on it and they did that.
I think it took the end of the Cold War for the agency to really come into its own. Certainly it was the major factor in the monitoring of the sanction and the weapons of mass destruction problem in Iraq from the end of the Kuwait War in 1991 until 2003. They did an extraordinary job. They were extremely active, very courageous, and I think they outwitted—which is quite difficult to do, or was quite difficult to do—they outwitted Saddam Hussein’s security operators.
And they did, in fact, as it now turns out, get the attempts at nuclear development in Iraq completely closed down by about 1993 or 1994. There were no nuclear programs and much of it was destroyed. Much of the nuclear material was taken out of the country. This was an extraordinary achievement. I think if more time had been allowed before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it would have been possible to prove fairly conclusively that that is what had happened. But they had to re-inspect everything all over again in order to do that and they couldn’t do that in the time. And of course the time was dictated by the weather. If it was after March, it was simply going to be too hot to conduct their operations in Iraq. I think that was a major disaster for everybody.
Now the great emphasis in the IAEA, which wasn’t true at the beginning, is on this monitoring and accounting for nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons programs and so on. ElBaradei has been extremely active in this, and that’s why I think it’s a wonderful thing to have him here. Really, when it’s all said and done, it’s one of the most dangerous games in the world and to have someone as levelheaded, as experienced, and as well-prepared as he is—because he has a very, very good staff—he won’t solve problems but he can at least be there to try to get an accurate picture of what the problems actually are. That, I think, is a huge advantage. I do think it is a great pity they disbanded the Iraq monitoring system, which was way ahead of anything that had been done before. But they did it. I think that was a great mistake because this was something that really worked and it’ll be very difficult to recreate it from scratch again.
Audience member: In your opinion, what it the number one [unintelligible].
Urquhart: I’m sorry to say this is not my subject, but it won’t stop me from talking about it. I warn you in advance I’m very likely to get this wrong.
I think there’s a rather natural feeling of disbelief in the world of non-nuclear powers about the anxiety of the United States, and other nuclear powers, to make sure that nobody else has nuclear weapons. This does not start the thing off on a very friendly basis. And I think that has applied all along. I suppose that there is a way of speeding up the disarmament of the nuclear armories of the United States and the Soviet Union, but then, of course, there’s always China, which has a huge military establishment. Incidentally, part of the nuclear part is in the middle of the earthquake zone, which we haven’t heard about yet. But I don’t really know.
Is there anybody in this room who’s an expert on this subject? Because it does seem to me that it’s going very slowly. There are huge quantities of weapons all over the place. You now have far more nuclear powers. You now have Pakistan and India, for a start, which is a very, very complicated thing. Especially in Pakistan. The government is not too stable there and I think this is dangerous. Of course it creates great reactions in other places. I don’t have any doubt that the Iranians, among other things, are extremely anxious to be on the same nuclear footing as its two absolutely huge neighbors. And of course there is Israel which has probably the best nuclear establishment, apart from the United States and the Soviet Union, in the world. That does create the desire to have a nuclear establishment because you can’t get away from it.
Now whether there is a way in which the United States can go after that, I’m not so sure. Former Senator Sam Nunn, for example, has a major program for trying to safeguard and reduce nuclear armories, or whatever you call it. I don’t know how much support he is getting, but it’s a very important thing to do, to make that somebody can’t just bribe someone to hand out some useful quantity of nuclear material. It seems to be one of the things that has kind of gotten stuck. I don’t think that it helped when, with the assistance of John Bolton who was the Assistant Secretary of State involved, that they got out of the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty. I think the nuclear test ban treaty is pretty much dead in the water, as far as I know, isn’t it? I think people, perhaps, have become so preoccupied with terrorism that they don’t really see the connection between terrorism and nuclear weapons which could be a horrible connection. I think it’s the thing that everybody fears most. I’m sorry, that’s a very inadequate answer but it’s not my subject.
Audience member: [Unintelligible].
Urquhart: I’m not up to date on what is exactly going on about this. Certainly, it is obviously, from the United States point of view, extremely desirable, to get the main body of the troops out of there, and above all, get them away from being the main responsibility when things go wrong. I think that is a terrible situation to put soldiers in and it has happened. Nobody quite knows—perhaps they know in Iraq, I don’t—how strong or weak or promising the Al Maliki government is. Every now and then it does things which appear to be almost what was required of it, and other times it doesn’t.
I have always thought it isn’t just the United States which is worried about Iraq. It’s a very, very important country in that region and it does seem to me that if you want to withdraw the United States forces, and I think it’s a very valid aim, you have to bring in the local people. After all, it’s only been 20 years since there was a 10-year war between Iran and Iraq. The Iranians lost some unbelievable numbers—over 1 million killed—and a lot of damage [was done] to the country.
Of course, Iran is interested in what happens in Iraq. It would be stupid if it wasn’t. And the same is true in a funny way of Syria. After all, it has a very large, more or less, unmarked and undefended border with Iraq. What happens is extremely important. Turkey has a major problem with Iraq. Iraq is the place where Turkish militants, Kurdish militants from Turkey, go when they’re being pursued by the Turkish armed forces who, once or twice, have not stopped at the border but have gone after them within Iraq itself. I think that, I hope, that there’s a much greater effort to talk to all of these countries about this other common problem. It’s not going to go away.
I don’t think the United States can possibly solve it by however good its generals and ambassadors are. And they are very good. It’s a neighborhood problem of extreme importance. I think that’s the only way you will every get a situation in which the United States can gradually begin to pull back. Otherwise, if the United States just gets up and leaves, and the whole thing falls into bloodshed and horror, that’s going to be a terrible thing for everybody, not least the United States.
I think that you really have to regard this as a local problem as well and use the interests of all those countries instead of not talking to them. Syria’s a kind of important country. Iran is a very important country in this matter. Whatever you may think of their governments, it’s really necessary to try and get them to find some common plan which everybody can stick to and get the right result.
Audience member: [Unintelligible].
Urquhart: I think you’ve done it already, in Washington, with the occasional [unintelligible]. That’s one of the great problems of decolonization, as a matter of fact. Everybody always says how irresponsible the new Third World countries were, but they had to pretty much start from scratch, particularly in Africa where they were divided by tribal divisions and all sorts of things. And they’re beginning to do it and it takes generations to do that. Once you’ve done it, it’s very important, it seems to me, to safeguard it.
I don’t think the United States has a problem with that but to do that you need security, you need reasonable economic situations, not necessarily great prosperity, but some. And you need to try to avoid extremism, which cancels that whole thing out all together as that’s happened, for example, or is beginning to happen, in Pakistan. It’s beginning to happen in Iran. And a number of other countries. If that happens, you’ve lost the national quality and it will take generations to restore it. I don’t think it’s something that anybody can do. I think it’s something that people have to do with all of the various leaders of society. All the intellectuals and scientists and the administrators and all those people. That’s all part of it. I think the United States is a remarkable example of having done it. They’ve produced a national quality, which is very much admired in the rest of the world. It’s very difficult. You [can’t] by having some UN program to improve the quality of the people of Zimbabwe or something. They’re going to laugh. But it’s something you have to bear in mind so you don’t start losing bits of it.