A Liberal-Conservative Portrait

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On international issues Tony Blair was a liberal-conservative politician. Liberal, due to his approach of democracy spreading in NATO and EU enlargements, in the Balkan Wars and on tyranny punishment at Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservative, because no one in the Euro-Atlantic zone has defended with such strength the Western values that won the Cold War. That’s why Mr. Blair assumes that William Gladstone (liberal) and Winston Churchill (conservative) are his greatest political inspirations. We call that political coherence.

The Blair decade

Whether we like it or not, Tony Blair’s decade was undoubtedly relevant to contemporary international relations. When he came into power (1997), after three years as Labour leader, Europe was living the aftermath of Bosnia war and at the same time was confronted to its military and decision weaknesses; was looking to Kosovo as a time bomb in a worst case scenario that would not allow new mistakes; was approving the Amsterdam Treaty to redefine its own foreign and defense policy; was seeing the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland being formally invited by NATO in 1999 and Bill Clinton taking charge for a second mandate. That’s all? Not so fast. Saddam Hussein started the intimidations against UN inspections; India and Pakistan were celebrating their 50 independence anniversary from the British Empire; and Blair was establishing the Scottish Parliament, putting an end to two hundred and ninety years of Westminster’s predominance. And to conclude his era, we all have seen the 9/11 tragedy, the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also Madrid and London terrorist attacks. All these facts were in some way symbolic of Tony Blair’s era, and some of them have become crucial to his own legacy.

His foreign policy framework

The most relevant feature that Blair brought to British foreign policy was its moral, ethic and messianic perspective, not only linked to the use of military force, but also to the Western way of dealing with terrorism. His first Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, drew this precise line immediately after the 1997 electoral victory, recovering Gladstone’s internationalist approach and finishing with the restrictive political realism pursued by Thatcher and Major. If this rupture with the past was underlined in New Labour-New Britain slogan, the evident influence from the 19th century Liberals would change completely the Labour DNA on international affairs from that moment on.

It is quite important to remember that Labour’s international agenda in the 70’s and the 80’s was fully influenced by its far left wing, which defended the British withdrawal from the European Community and frequently opposed American military bases in Britain. In other words, that “Old Labour” was particularly anti-European, anti-American and anti-use of force. And it was over this ideological framework that the inner circle of Labour leader John Smith – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Geoff Hoon – worked since the mid 90’s. It was exactly in this ideological rupture that Cook’s ethical dimension took place.  And that’s why the British government was involved in seven conflicts, something unimaginable a few years ago: Iraq (1998), Kosovo (1999), East Timor (1999), Sierra Leone (2000), Afghanistan (2001), Democratic Republic of the Congo (2003) and Iraq (2003). The arguments were clear: human rights defense, Western moral superiority over tyrannies and the good (West) against evil (some of the Rest).

The first goal of this global strategy was to Europeanize the Labour Party: on the one hand, stopping the conservative and the sovereignty line; on the other hand, breaking with the “Old Labour”, by giving in 1997 a new vision – “To give Britain the leadership in Europe which Britain and Europe need”.  The second goal was to follow the continuity line of British foreign policy, the bilateral relationship with the United States. It is true that this was not interrupted during Tory mandates, but it’s also true that this was never seen by the traditional Labour Party as a recommendable friendship. This way, Blair not only gave a state dimension to his own political party reform project, but also followed the same strategy which showed to the world how the special relationship could re-dimension leaders like Churchill or Thatcher. During this time, of particular importance was the role of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats on the New Labour political strategy’s preparation and projection. It was also the beginning of a close personal and political relationship between Blair and Clinton, one of the major features of both mandates. 

In other words, even if Edward Heath was the European Community membership Prime Minister - who has jeopardized the Anglo-American relationship at that time - and if Margaret Thatcher was the symbol of that special relationship – who had jeopardized the Anglo-European relationship at that time - Blair was the first British Prime Minister who really wanted to put at the same level of importance Europe and US on the British foreign policy architecture, without endangering either of those two political circles. He translated that wish into a political manifesto and national strategy. If he achieved all these goals with entire success is a different question.

One of the key concepts to understand Blair’s era is “transatlantic bridge”. Directly connected to a genuine conception of crisis resolution by multilateral means, but using force if threats constitute a danger to international security, Blair designed his Doctrine of International Community (1999) with the help of scholars like Lawrence Freedman and Robert Cooper. According to that, the new British foreign policy should assume that “acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter” – that’s why Kosovo became an international security issue - and that a government who violates human rights should lose its legitimacy among the international community. We must remember that by that time NATO initiated its Kosovo military operation, and Europe and the US administration agreed on that because Blair gave his entire political will to develop this “bridge”. We must recognize that with entire success.

But the Iraqi crisis saw strong European and transatlantic divisions during the decision making process on whether to use force against Saddam and act exclusively under the Security Council umbrella. It’s not particularly interesting to define whom to blame; it’s much more relevant to recognize two important things: firstly, Blair wasn’t able to achieve a solid and large transatlantic unity over the regime change in Iraq or as a consequence of the WMD threat. Even if the Iraqi regime was considered a threat to international security, these arguments were not sufficient to build a strong Euro-Atlantic community which had the legitimacy, as in Kosovo, to put an end to that regime. Secondly, Blair tried to achieve a second and more expressive Resolution on the Security Council, but he also knew that China, Russia and France would veto it in any circumstance. So, the dilemma was why to keep “the force for good” hostage from these three countries? Why not to put Bush coalition of the willing theory according to this concrete mission? That is quite relevant to a politician like Blair, who has always seen threats like rogue states, WMD, human rights violations and terrorism support as reasons enough to motivate the constitution of a large coalition of those who want to act in favor of the good against evil. We call that political coherence, but coherence has its own risks.

Moreover, the “pivotal power” between the US and Europe was assumed when Washington was creating new partnerships and dynamic regional alliances with other powers like India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, Brasil, South Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Israel. For Britain and for Blair, losing the relevant status on international system that was given by the special relationship would have diminished its own role in the current era. That’s why Blair couldn’t have decided differently during the Iraqi crisis. We call that preventing the decline.

On a parallel level, Blair was always in favor of the “two states solution” in the Middle East Peace Process. He considered it a central problem in the fight against terrorism and tried to be a good influence on American administrations. This was actually one of the cards on the table during the decision making process before the Iraq war: bringing Washington to negotiations as a way to reduce the impact of the Iraq war. Proposed by the Quartet in 2002, this process wasn’t successful, as we know: Bush refused to negotiate with Arafat, although he sponsored a meeting between Abbas and Sharon without previous information to London. That’s what we call not so special relationship.

After his resignation as British Prime Minister, Blair was immediately indicated by the Quartet as its special representative and the Americans hosted the largest conference in history to deal with the peace process in Annapolis (2007).

An unprecedented third mandate

One of the Tony Blair records was his third electoral victory in 2005. Never in the Labour history had someone achieved three consecutive victories in general elections. With all the political damages that Iraq war brought to his image and after almost ten years in Downing Street, he seemed ready to continue his leadership. But three major events occurred since then and changed the political landscape.

The first one was the London bombings. Terrorism arrived in Europe after 9/11 in Madrid, but London saw it after the Iraq war, what was seen as a direct consequence of British involvement. Although, Blair dealt with that terrible event with strength enough to see his popularity reflected at polls.

The second one was the British presidency of the European Union. This strategic goal of the entire Cabinet was seen as his last chance to influence the European Union from the top, reviewing the community budget, particularly the agricultural slice (more or less 50% of the entire budget) and giving a more liberal approach to the social welfare state solutions that were and are at stake in all European states. Because the level was put so high, the achievements were defrauded, and the most we can say is that the British had re-opened a large debate in Europe but weren’t able to finished it with entire success.

The third one is the new Conservative leadership, the fourth in Blair’s decade. Lead by a young politician named David Cameron (also called “David Blaimeron” and “Tory Blair”), he gave a new hope for the right against the Labour party. Cameron has some of Blair’s features, which has being interpreted as a signal against the current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, seen as a politician with a different style from Blair. And the analysis was accurate: since Brown has come to Downing Street (2007), Cameron has always been on the top of the polls. This could be the end of New Labour, but not the end of Tony Blair’s political career: he became bigger than his own party.

Bernardo Pires de Lima - Researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and author of “Blair, a Moral e o Poder” (Guerra & Paz, 2008) [Blair, the Moral and the Power], a critical vision of the Prime Minister’s decade in international affairs.

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