I leaned over to the other Australian lawyer, who was also grinning kinda goofily in the firelight.
“At this exact moment, would you trade anything for being here, now?” I asked.
“Nothing at all, mate,” she replied.
We were being groupies. Metaphorically, Elvis had entered the building.
We were standing in a small circle of graduate students chatting with Hans Blix. Or more aptly, asking polite questions and grinning in the face of the sprightly 76 year-old’s warm, genial and incisive answers.
It’s always astonishing to meet someone who’s made a big contribution to your field. Especially when you’ve previously only encountered them as a name in the papers, or as a character represented on stage (in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”). The feeling is only enhanced when you are writing your PhD on WMD – it’s a bit like being a theology scholar and bumping into St John the Devine, or deciding to write on pacific resistance and having tea with Ghandi.
OK, it’s less astonishing as: (1) Blix has had a much smaller influence on world history; and (2) has the distinct advantage of not being dead.
That said, he has been a professor of international law, principal advisor on international law to the Swedish foreign ministry, Swedish foreign minister, served 16 years as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed up the UNMOVIC inspection team in Iraq for 3 months or so until the second invasion – and drafted chunks of the Stockholm Declaration which helped lead to such things as the Kyoto Protocol. (Widely reported claims that he is a rally driver are totally unfounded - he sees the pass-time as an irresponsible use of fossil fuels.) He now heads up the Stockholm-based WMD Commission of independent experts (which includes Gareth Evans).
I’d been to his lecture series during the week: they were calm, deeply historical and laced with a dry wit. But most compellingly, with optimism too – and an unexpected respect for politicians (“They have the difficult job of making decisions on less than 100 percent evidence. Sometimes 70 percent, sometimes 50. What I would criticise is a lack of critical thinking.”) Asked for his assessment of George W. Bush, he referred to the comments in his book, “Disarming Iraq”: boyish, energetic, a persuader – but a pragmatist, not as ideologically driven as many of his cabinet.
Still, I had my one, burning question: “Dr Blix, you’re aware of David Hare’s play “Stuff Happens”? How does it feel to already be a character in a history play?”
“I saw it in London. (Shrugs) I didn’t think I was that hapless.”
Then he smiled.
“But maybe I was … I often think of what Churchill said about Attlee, ‘He’s a modest man with a lot to be modest about.’ We all have a lot to be modest about.”
He clearly felt as though he had become a symbol carrying the weight of expectations of the peace movement, when his role had never been to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to war – but what I think he underestimates is the appeal of a person of integrity, getting on with their job diligently in the face of great pressure, and the present belief in independent experts as preferable to spin doctors in getting at the truth.
His parting thought for us all was interesting, coming from the man to speak about WMD inspections: WMD is important, yes. But the environment, that’s what’s really important.
The man is deeply pro-nuclear: seeing the containable risks of peaceful nuclear power as preferable to the certain high levels of fossil fuel pollution we currently live with.
An interesting and inspiring, but deeply humane, figure.