Blair's "Ethical" Policy

By Harris, Robin | The National Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Blair's "Ethical" Policy


Harris, Robin, The National Interest


BRITISH Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, were all the quicker to congratulate George W. Bush on confirmation of his election because they knew that they had a good deal of ground to make up. For months Labour Parry figures had scarcely concealed their scorn for the Republican presidential candidate. Blair's eminence grise, Peter Mandelson, then Northern Ireland secretary, was even indiscrete enough to tell journalists his opinions of Bush and his policies at a drinks party before Christmas, and then had to issue a public retraction.

If the problem were simply the result of New Labour nostalgia for the cozy relationship built up with the Clinton administration, it would have little long-term significance. But its roots go much deeper than that and lie not in personalities but in policies, indeed in conceptions of the very purpose of Western foreign and security policy. Even on the occasion of Messrs. Blair's and Cook's formal felicitations, their words, consciously or not, contained more than a hint of trouble to come. "President-elect Bush", said Blair, "is a man who shares our values [and] wants Europe and America to stand side by side." Still more significant, Cook looked forward to working with the new President and to "keeping Britain as that unique bridge between America and Europe" [emphasis added].

Policymakers in Washington ought to study and reflect on these apparently anodyne phrases and the attitudes that lie behind them. They need to ask themselves whether America really wants Europe to stand at its side rather than to stand behind its leadership. And they should consider and then articulate whether they expect Britain to be a "bridge" ("unique" or otherwise), or whether they prefer the traditional British role of highly effective and strongly committed ally. These questions, which the Clinton administration was happy to fudge, and the Blair government even more so, will sooner rather than later have to be resolved.

Pivots and Policies

TONY BLAIR has a sense of the historic, if not exactly of history. He wants, as his friend Bill Clinton ever more desperately wanted, to be seen by posterity as having shaped events and bestrode them. In a November 1999 speech at the Lord Mayor of London's banquet, the traditional annual occasion for a British prime minister to review foreign policy, Blair thus expansively reflected upon the legacy of empire. Successive generations of British politicians from Churchill to Thatcher had, he said, tried and failed to find for Britain a satisfactory post-imperial role. He continued:

However, I believe that search can now end. We have got over our Imperial past, and the withdrawal symptoms. No longer do we want to be taken seriously just for our history, but for what we are and what we will become. We have a new role.... It is to use the strengths of our history to build our future not as a superpower but as a pivotal power, as a power that is at the crux of the alliances and international politics which shape the world and its future.

This was vintage Blair. The passage has a self-confident, even visionary assertiveness that smacks of Margaret Thatcher. At the same time, it reassures the liberal media with its appeal to modernity and internationalism. And, equally typical, it contains at its core an embarrassing intellectual vacuum.

"Pivots" are, of course, in fashion. Paul Kennedy, for example, has argued that a "pivotal states strategy" should be at the heart of a realistic American approach to foreign and security policy. [1] But Kennedy's category of pivotal states was not one within which any British prime minister would greatly wish to see his country slotted. Such states are "pivotal" precisely because--like Mexico, Algeria or Egypt--they face a precarious future, and because that future matters to the West as a whole. Clearly, Blair was not talking about that kind of pivot.

In truth, it is difficult to envisage why any state or any individual would voluntarily act as a pivot. …

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