Sir Brian Urquhart Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The United Nations After 9/11: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart, Former Under Secretary General of the United Nations; February 23, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Twenty-First Century Global Problems

Let's look at three core problems: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological [as well]; the network of terrorist groups, non-state actors who for various reasons may aspire to use these weapons; and failed states and rogue states -- rogue states, because they're in the business of providing weapons to anybody who will buy them, and failed states, like Afghanistan before the war, which have become a haven [for terrorists]. Can the UN, the international community, address these problems so that the "sheriff" (namely the U.S.) doesn't have to act alone or think it has to act alone?

I think it does have to do this. If the UN doesn't face up to these things and find ways in which it can function more expeditiously and more effectively on things which weren't originally anticipated, then it's going to get left behind. I say it with deep regret, having spent a great deal of my life working for it. It's no good having an organization which aspires to be effective, but which is looking in the wrong direction.

But there are some encouraging signs. After all, the UN had done a great deal of nation-building in the last fourteen or fifteen years, since the end of the Cold War, and that wasn't something it was supposed to do. In fact, it was exactly what it wasn't supposed to do. It's been working within the boundaries of states all over the world, sometimes with success, in which case you never hear about it, and sometimes with degrees of failure, in which case you hear all about it. For example, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia were disasters, and we all know about them. Nobody has ever heard about Mozambique or Cambodia, or fifteen other countries where the UN has been essentially doing nation building. This wasn't something that the UN was supposed to do. It was supposed to function between nations, not within them.

Rogue states and failed states have become tremendously important. It isn't just nuclear proliferation either, it's all sorts of other things -- money laundering and drugs. Also, they're very dangerous in something like an epidemic. If you have areas of the world which are under no control at all, this is a problem for the World Health Organization, because epidemics now communicate themselves much more easily because people travel all the time.

Let me just say one thing about the UN. I worked there for forty-one years. It is one of the most irritating, frustrating and, on occasion downright silly organizations you can possibly imagine. If you can think how foolish people in the U.S. Congress or the Houses of Parliament sometimes make themselves in public and multiply that by 200, you've got the UN. This is something that's going to happen. It's a representative institution, and representative institutions make asses of themselves in public, nationally and internationally.

But there is, within that framework, some very important potential. There's quiet diplomacy, which goes on twenty-four hours a day. There's the Secretary-General and the Secretariat, who, contrary to general belief, are rather effective and not, incidentally, a great bloated organization. The worldwide Secretariat of the entire UN system, which is all the specialized agencies -- the Bank, the Fund, and the UN -- is smaller than the public service [sector] of the State of Wisconsin, so let's just be a little bit careful about the "bloated" business. The UN is not very efficient, I have to say, in some respects, because it's recruited from all over the world, and you have to work hard to get a common standard going, but it does work.

The nineties were a testing time for the UN, and things in a way went badly. The Cold War was over; a "new world order" had been proclaimed by the first President Bush. The Iraq War ended with victory for the coalition, or the allies. But then the UN was confronted with a series of situations which were not like the traditional aggression across national borders that it was used to. It became the fall guy, the scapegoat, in this period. Talk a little about that, because what you had was a series of events, which you touched upon earlier -- Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia -- where each became a disaster, where the UN took the blame but it may not have been the sole guilty party.

Well, the UN, let's face it, is the fall guy. It's very useful to governments, and it's been true ever since it started. I vividly remember when the Hungarian disaster took place in 1956. Eisenhower, in his memoirs, was very frank about this. He said the United States wasn't going to go to war with the USSR about Hungary. And so, of course, the U.S. passed it to the UN, and then had a lovely time saying the UN was absolutely useless because they hadn't thrown the Soviet Union out of Hungary. This is a classic case.

The most recent scandal, curiously enough, was Bosnia. Everybody knew that that was going to go badly, seriously wrong. NATO, up to that time, had never fired a shot.

Since 1945?

Yes. The poor UN during that time had not only fired a shot but was also being fired at in many parts of the world. The United States was determined that NATO would not go into Bosnia -- it's in Europe, after all, Bosnia; it's NATO's home ground -- and would not go in there while there was fighting going on, because they might have casualties.

So the fighting was going on in Bosnia, and they went to the UN and said, "Let's have a UN peacekeeping operation in there." Well, even though I had long since retired, I kept saying, "This is totally ridiculous. Peacekeeping operations are virtually unarmed. They cannot function in a war situation." They've never been put into a fighting situation for that reason. They are the pretext for the people stopping the fighting, but they don't go into wars because they're not allowed to use force. The Secretary-General and others also pointed this out, much to the annoyance of the Clinton administration.

So they put a UN force into Bosnia with a hopeless mandate. The Russians, being the traditional allies of the Serbs, would not agree to use force against the Serbs and the Serbs were the main problem in Bosnia. So we had a peacekeeping force in there for nearly three years, and everybody had a lovely time saying how bloody useless the UN is.

Then we had something even worse. There were five towns threatened by the Serbs in Bosnia. The Security Council does a lot of very silly things, but this was silly and also criminally hypocritical. They declared them "safe areas" under UN protection. The Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who actually is a very intelligent man, an Egyptian, said, "I can't accept this. I'm responsible for the troops on the ground. I need 35,000 more soldiers to garrison these 'safe areas' you've declared because they're the most unsafe places in Bosnia; that's why they're called 'safe.'" The British ambassador made an outrageous speech saying that his request was ridiculous, very extravagant, and so on. The Americans said the same thing. The Secretary-General never got 35,000 troops. And what did we get? We got Srebrenica, which was garrisoned by 500 Dutch troops who had not received rations, weapons, or ammunition for the last three months, so they were on the ropes anyway. And the attacking force was a large Serbian force with all tanks and everything. Seven thousand Bosnians died, and of course, the UN and the Dutch were blamed.

I don't mind the UN being a scapegoat. It always has been; always will be. But, really, there are limits, and that was the frozen limit.

You told me a story yesterday evening that I would like you to repeat, which was that at the time that Iraq invaded Iran, you encouraged the Secretary-General to do something. Tell us a little about the reaction, because it's a good case of how we have a sense of international norms, of the way we would like the world to work, but we're dealing with power politics. Tell us about what you proposed, what happened, and what the response was by the American and British ambassadors.

Well, this is really a personal story, but it makes the point very well. I forget, when did Iraq invade Iran? 1980?

I think that's right, '80 or '81.

I'm sorry to say it was in the Carter administration. Anyway, this was a flagrant case of aggression. The Iraqis simply poured across the border into Iran with no provocation, no pretext, nothing. I persuaded the then-Secretary-General, the regretted Kurt Waldheim, to call an emergency meeting of the Security Council, which he did. This was extremely unpopular. The British and the Americans said, "What on earth did you think you were doing?" I said, "Well, you weren't here then, but when this organization was set up, its primary objective was to stop aggression. The primary objective was to stop Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, whoever it was, and it doesn't matter if you don't like the victim. The Security Council might as well go home if it discriminates between the victims of aggression. That's not what the Charter says." They said, "That's a lot of nonsense; let these people fight it out." Of course, they hated Iran for obvious reasons, the hostages and everything else. It was shameful.

Saddam Hussein didn't manage to defeat the Iranians. He inflicted terrible damage on Iran. He used chemical weapons, missiles, God knows what, and eventually, after ten years of massacre, had to give it up.

I think that the Security Council's shameful performance was the reason why he invaded Kuwait. It may also have been the reason why he didn't think anything was going to happen last year, because he thought the UN was a paper tiger, and the United States was the biggest paper tiger in the whole zoo; they weren't going to do anything. After all, in1980, when he did something patently and flagrantly wrong, nothing happened. In fact, the United States gave him helicopters, intelligence, means to make chemical weapons, the whole lot. He was an ally, and Mr. Rumsfeld and others went to Baghdad.

Let's talk a little about the Iraq War, and use this as a vehicle to grade the UN. The buildup to the war, the debate in the Security Council and so on, how do you evaluate the international processes that occurred? Of course, the U.S. got mad, didn't get its way, and went in on its own. But were you pleased with the way the UN acted in that buildup to the war? Was it meeting its mandate?

Yes, it was. The UN is not just one country, and the Security Council, after all, is fifteen countries. The whole object of it is to get a consensus on doing something very important and sometimes very dangerous. There was no consensus on invading Iraq at that time.

It was the British, my compatriots, who are very good at creating insoluble problems, who put together Iraq. Under the Turks, it was three separate provinces, but the British thought it would be a neat idea to have a new country called Iraq, so they did that. Nobody except a bloody dictator like Saddam has ever been able to make it work. The Security Council did what it had to do. It reflected the majority view that occupying Iraq was a bad idea.

There's a new book, incidentally [Disarming Iraq], which I was talking to Harry about last night. It's by the Chief UN Inspector, Hans Blix, who is a very canny Swede. He was running the inspections, which finally got stopped because the coalition went into Iraq. It's devastating, because it turns out that none of the WMDs existed at all. What existed was a shoddy, broken-down, pathetic country run by a deluded, very brutal, extremely corrupt dictator. They couldn't do anything. Their army was a joke. They had no weapons. They had destroyed them, curiously enough, in the UN inspections after 1991. But when they said they had destroyed them, of course, nobody believed them. When the Iraqis said, "Look, we destroyed all these things; we wanted to get the sanctions lifted. They were no use to us anyway. We have destroyed our weapons, and you people, the inspectors, actually blew up most of the stocks, including the entire nuclear establishment, and took the fissile material out and flew it to Russia" -- nobody believed this at all.

If there was a reason for going into Iraq, it was Saddam Hussein's crimes against humanity. This was a terrible regime. It was a festering sore in the Middle East.

It was unwise for President Bush to say that the UN was irrelevant, because it was clear to everybody who knew anything about Iraq that [the U.S.] was going to need all the help they could get to get them out of Iraq. It was easy enough to go in and take Baghdad, and it was a triumphant military affair, brilliantly done; but to stay there and to try to make something of an incredibly difficult country was something else. They were going to need all the help they could conceivably get, especially from the UN.

Lakhdar Brahimi, who went there to find a way to restore sovereignty and set up elections, was asked the other day, "What do you think about democracy in Iraq?" He said, "There's a tendency in the United States to think it's like instant coffee, you pour in the water and leave. It takes two generations, at the minimum, and you have to stay, like the United States did in Germany and Japan." We're trying to get it done before the next U.S. election! I don't think that's a very sound approach.

There's something that I want to ask you, because you are the person who, with Ralph Bunche, put peacekeeping together -- I remember you telling me once that you all were sitting around and deciding what color the helmets would be, and you came up with blue.

Once Iraq forms a sovereign government, it's not clear [whether] it will grant us the legitimacy to remain there. If through circumstances there should be a need for some sort of military mission of the UN to further the transition from the American [sanctioned] president -- let's just assume that the U.S. would decide to get out -- how would you look at that problem? Would you just say, "Well, it's not something that the UN could do"? Help us understand how you would think about the problem with regard to whether the UN should do it and how it should do it.

The UN could set up a peacekeeping operation, but it needs three things: It needs resources and money, it needs a political mandate, and it needs Iraqi cooperation.

The UN is run on a shoestring. When you look at the amount of money the Department of Defense or NATO spends, it's absolutely breathtaking. They spend more for breakfast than the whole UN budget for a year, literally. We don't have that kind of [military force]. I think what the UN ought to have is a rapid reaction force of the best possible quality -- something of the Delta Force or the British SAS, people trained to do things without too much fuss and do it better than anybody else. That could be easily done, but the United States and others don't want that because it would give the UN too much of an identity of its own. They think it's a terrible idea to have an international force which wasn't specifically under the control of a government; it would be under the control of the Security Council and the Secretary-General.

Every year, there are three or four cases such a force is desperately needed. It is needed now to secure the international people who are going to go to Iraq to try to get the thing on track again, so that the Americans can leave. They have to have security which has a UN identity, because the Iraqis have been colonized since the dawn of time. They're very touchy about foreigners taking over, and rightly.

Governments are scared that the international organization which they're all members of would acquire something which had an identity and an ability of its own. But until it has that, the UN is not going to work very well.

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