Stockholm university

Veteran diplomat returns to academia

Sixty years ago, Hans Blix left Stockholm University to take up a successful diplomatic career. Now, a research centre on the history of international relations has been established at the university in his name.

Hans Blix
Hans Blix will soon turn 94 and continues to debate security policy. Photo: Sören Andersson

For many decades, Hans Blix has been a well-known name in international security policy and diplomacy and has held a number of important posts in various UN bodies. He also made an impact on Swedish politics and for a time held the post of Foreign Minister. In 1960, he gained a doctorate in international law at Stockholm University and today, over sixty years later, a research centre has been established in his name at the university. This summer, Hans Blix will be 94 and he is still active in public debate.


Doctorate in international law

Hans Blix grew up in Uppsala in an academic environment. His father was professor of medicine and pro-vice-chancellor at Uppsala University. His grandfather was professor of physiology and vice-chancellor at Lund University. Hans Blix also planned an academic career. His choice was law and international law. He took his law degree in Uppsala and then continued at Cambridge University and Columbia University before gaining his doctorate in 1960 at Stockholm University. He chose Stockholm University because it was the only university in Sweden with a professorship in international law. After gaining his doctorate, Hans Blix was employed at the university as associate professor, but he did not remain a researcher and teacher for very long.


Call from the foreign minister

One day in summer 1961 he received a call from foreign minister Östen Undén who needed an expert in legal issues in the Swedish delegation to the UN general assembly in New York. Hans Blix accepted. On the same day he arrived in New York the news came that the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld had died in a plane crash. His first task was therefore to write a memorandum on how the choice of a new UN Secretary General should be made.

This was the start of a long career in international diplomacy. The posts Hans Blix held at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs included international law expert, undersecretary and foreign minister 1978–1979.


Handled the consequences of Chernobyl

In 1981, Hans Blix was appointed director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a post he held until1997. It fell to him to handle the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in spring 1986. Hans Blix led the work of helping the Soviet Union to handle the consequences of the disaster and to build a better safety mindset around nuclear power.
“What I did at the IAEA was probably the most substantial work I achieved in my professional career. We established some important conventions in the field of atomic energy and created new structures for safety work and how to handle accidents.”


Search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

Hans Blix med skylt
Hans Blix with a poster left on the streets after a demonstration in New York in early 2003 against the US invasion of Iraq. Photo: Private

IAEA was also much involved in building the inspection apparatus for ensuring that peaceful atomic energy – and nuclear waste – would not be used for making nuclear weapons. In the 1990s, the IAEA was charged by the Security Council to perform inspections to ensure that Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein did not possess any nuclear weapons or fissionable material, or the facilities for making such material.

Hans Blix retired in 1997 and planned to write a book about the IAEA’s inspections in Iraq and North Korea in the 1990s. But the question of new inspections soon arose – and history took a different turn. When Hans Blix was on an Antarctic cruise, he received a telephone call from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The UN Security Council was to create a new organisation for weapons inspection in Iraq and Hans Blix was asked if he would head it. Somewhat unwillingly, he took up the assignment and moved to New York.

There followed a couple of years’ work to set up new inspections to find out if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But no such weapons could be found – because they did not exist. The inspections were frequently reported in the media and Hans Blix came under criticism from the USA and the Bush government for not finding the weapons of mass destruction that the USA claimed were there to be found. In March 2003, the USA and several other countries invaded Iraq to find the weapons and throw out Saddam Hussein. They succeeded in the latter but found no weapons.


Terrible status of disarmament work

Hans Blix talar
Hans Blix spoke at the inauguration of the new centre in May 2022. Photo: Sören Andersson

Hans Blix went home and wrote a book about the inspections, Disarm Iraq. He was also commissioned by foreign minister Anna Lindh to lead an international commission to produce a report on how the international community could eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix is considered by many at the highest international level to be one of the world’s leading names in nuclear weapons issues and disarmament.

Hans Blix describes Barak Obama’s first years as president as a hopeful time for disarmament work. Obama and the Russian president Dmitri Medvedev declared that the cold war was over and agreed that a new agreement should be entered into reduce strategic nuclear weapons (START). Fortunately, this was done, but since then the work of disarmament has fallen by the wayside. Today there is re-armament. The world spends two billion dollars a year for military purposes and Russia’s war in Ukraine is not improving the situation.
“Now it’s dangerous and frosty again,” says Hans Blix.


Paradoxical consequences of war in Ukraine

Hans Blix points out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is against international law. He also points out the paradox that Vladimir Putin started the war on the basis of a totally incorrect impression of reality. Putin did not expect Ukraine to put up much resistance. Reality proved to be different. Russia’s actions have also led to some undesirable security policy consequences for him: Sweden and Finland appear to be on their way into NATO and a number of former Soviet states are strengthening their contact with NATO.
“Ukraine and Georgia have clearly stated that they see their future among the democracies of the EU – and not with totalitarian Russia. The attack on Ukraine has demonstrated that it is the liberal, democratic states that represent the people’s choice of role model,” says Hans Blix.


Centre named for the jubilee doctor

Hans Blix, Astrid Söderberg Widding och Aryo Makko
Hans Blix, SU President Astrid Söderbergh Widding and the center's director Aryo Makko at the inauguration of the centre. Photo: Sören Andersson

In 2010, it was 50 years since Hans Blix became a doctor at Stockholm University, and he thus became a jubilee doctor. This was celebrated in Stockholm City Hall and Hans Blix gave the speech of thanks from the jubilee doctors.
“I’m no reporter of celebrity and not fond of putting on a dress suit. But society needs its bread and circuses and just for once I could make a funny speech,” says an amused Hans Blix.


Centre for the History of International Relations

The Hans Blix Centre for the History of International Relations was set up in March 2020 at Stockholm University. The centre is intended to be a national platform for historical research on international relations, international law and diplomacy.

Hans Blix explains that he has always liked to keep in contact with students and young civil servants, to get new ideas, hear their arguments and take part in discussions. The new centre creates the opportunity for in-depth research and discussion on diplomacy and international relations with new generations of students and researchers. Even though the pandemic has meant that the centre was only formally inaugurated May 2022, it has been organising digital research seminars for two years. Hans Blix has followed several of these on Zoom, which he says was exciting and innovative, and “bodes well for the future of the centre”. When asked what it feels like to have a research centre named after him, he answers, “I am proud, moved and feel humble. It is too much, far too much.”.


New book on the way

Ever since Hans Blix left Stockholm University 60 years ago, he has wanted to come back to academic work. He sees the book he has been working on this spring as part of realising this ambition and as an appropriate end to his career. The book is called “A Farewell to Wars”. In the book, Hans Blix has gathered his thoughts and experiences of international politics over the years.

One central observation is that, Ukraine notwithstanding, war with the traditional intention of conquering countries has almost disappeared. The Russian invasion of Ukraine came when the book was almost complete. This is certainly an old-fashioned and unlawful attempt to conquer territory, but it does not “erase” the international trend away from war. It is in breach of, but does not overthrow, the prevailing rules, according to Hans Blix.

Hans Blix says that Russia must expect to be examined according to these rules and makes a comparison with how, after the second world war, the Nazi regime was brought before the court for its cruelty and how many war crime tribunals have been held since then.

Further reading: Centre for research on the history of international relations established.


The Hans Blix Centre for the History of International Relations

The Hans Blix Centre for the History of International Relations was established in March 2020 at Stockholm University. Its activities were initiated in spring 2018 in the form of a network that resulted in a collaboration between the Department of Economic History and International Relations and the Department of History. The purpose of the centre is to build a national platform for historical research on the balance of power in the international system, focusing on government and international stakeholders, international law and non-governmental organisations, transnational companies or lobby groups from an international, transnational and global perspective.

Read more on The Hans Blix Centre for the History of International Relations.