Skilled in the hunt for mass discretion

Disarming Iraq - State Building
September 17, 2004

Hans Blix is a long-serving Swedish/United Nations civil servant, accustomed to balancing any strong statement with a courteous look at the opposing arguments, but preferring, wherever possible, to avoid strong statements altogether. Disarming Iraq ought to be full of fascinating revelations, the work of an international knight errant. But that's not Mr Blix's style.

The clear position of the US Government - that Saddam Hussein mucked UN inspectors about for 12 years, was a menace, would dish out weapons of mass destruction to terrorists and so had to be got rid of - provokes from Blix circumlocutions and a weary understanding that you should never say never, all things are possible, of course the Americans have a case but, dear me, so do their critics, let me try to put this less clearly, more ambiguously, with more nuance, oh dear, I'm so determined not to be misunderstood that it may be prudent if, as a preliminary, I avoid being understood.

The above does not mean that Blix cannot write clearly. He can. For example, "The safeguards system as it was designed was too weak to ensure the discovery of clandestine installations in a closed society." But 16 years as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, answerable to the UN, meticulously overseeing inspections only when the inspected governments consented, have left Blix, well, blunted.

One should not be cross with him. In answer to the many questions he considers, he often answers "I did not know", because, unlike many journalists and ambitious intellectuals, he is formidably honest and modest. So there he was, in the midst of one of the biggest rows of recent decades, surely able to spill the beans on Bush and Blair: Did they know? Did they lie? If anybody has the clinching evidence, surely Blix has. But he does not dish the dirt. He writes rather like Lord Butler on how we got into the Iraq War or Lord Franks on the Falklands.

These retired mandarins are cleverer and better informed than the rest of us. But they believe that to use the power of revelation incautiously could damage not just a political leader or two but the government structures we value. Butler and Franks were discreet because they were writing official British reports. Blix is writing his own book and should be free of constraints. Except, that is, the constraint of his own personality. Blix's book is a bit like those long reports he delivered to the UN: essential reading for diplomats and journalists dealing with the subject, but frustrating for most readers.

To get inside information on how the US and UK governments twisted the intelligence on Iraq, read the joint Congressional report, published in July. The Americans are simply more open about such things than British mandarins or this Swedish UN functionary.

Francis Fukuyama's book is far more interesting. It says something we all need to think about.

In the most important task facing the UN and the big democratic powers, they are not simply failing but are achieving the opposite of what they intend. The world needs them to strengthen the institutions of weak countries, first to achieve economic development and, second, to contain terrorism. But - both when they practise "state building" and when they deliver aid - they regularly damage recipient countries' key institutions.

Aid agencies are required to deliver the help specified - clean water, Aids treatment, whatever. They have found that paying the government of a recipient country or a local agency to do the job siphons money into corrupt hands and leaves the task badly performed. So they bring in honest, competent outsiders. Fukuyama sums up the result: "The international community... is actually complicit in the destruction of institutional capacity in many developing countries."

This is a disaster, above all, for Africa. He quotes the World Bank's African governors: "Almost every African country has witnessed a systematic retrogression in capacity in the past 30 years; the majority had better capacity at independence than they now possess." In short, our generous impulses are screwing the victim societies.

Fukuyama summarises his case: "The direct provision of services almost always undermines the local government's capacity to provide them once the aid programme terminates."

The contradiction is agonising and appears insurmountable. "Those footing the bill for aid programmes," Fukuyama writes, "want to see the maximum number of patients treated and do not want their money to go to local bureaucrats, even if those bureaucrats must provide healthcare services in the long run."

He concludes: "The problem of capacity destruction cannot be fixed unless donors make a clear choice that capacity building is their primary objective." Try telling that to someone who has just donated £50 to save a baby in the Sudan. He/she will probably suspect you of being in collusion with a crooked Third-World bureaucrat.

Fukuyama applies a similar argument to state building (which many Americans confusingly call nation building) - the job of constructing civil regimes in "failed states", where war or vicious tyrants have destroyed the ability to apply liberal rules.

In the 1990s, in Somalia, Haiti, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, he writes, "nation building exercises have played a critical role" in bringing peace, but the international community has "crowded out the weak state capacities of the targeted countries, so that, while governance functions are performed, indigenous capacity does not increase".

For example, in Bosnia, he concludes that, seven years after international action brought the Serb-Croat-Muslim war to an end, UN-appointed experts were doing much of the governing: "Despite the holding of elections, there was no meaningful democracy." This illustrates the fact that "we do not know how to transfer institutional capacity in a hurry". And if we try to do the job at an appropriate speed (for example, over several years, possibly decades), we risk being branded colonialists.

Fukuyama has no solution. But, for me, it is enough that he offers so clear a diagnosis. He has put his finger on two crucial failures of the rich, powerful states. His book should make a lot of people think.

His last comparable work, The End of History , elicited much snide comment, especially from left-inclined intellectuals. Certainly its title was hyperbole. But the job of a title is to win attention. And it succeeded.

This book too can be criticised. He writes: "The Soviet Union began collapsing because its dictatorial character delegitimised the regime in the eyes of its citizens." I spent time there in the Gorbachev years and am sure Fukuyama has got this wrong. What started the collapse was the economic failure of the communist system, which left the shops empty and the Soviets unable to continue their weapons race against the US.

I have dozens of other niggles, particularly about scattering his text with bracketed references such as "(Weingast 1993)", so that it feels more like a seminar paper than a book. And I would have preferred more detailed evidence in support of his arguments - less academic abstraction. But I shall definitely read his next book. And I recommend anyone with a serious interest in world affairs to do the same.

Brian Lapping is a founder of Brook Lapping, which makes television series on recent history.

Disarming Iraq: The Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction

Author - Hans Blix
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 285
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7475 7354 9

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