The Blair Project

When Tony Blair went on television within hours of the September 11 terrorist attacks to declare that Britain would stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States, the British prime minister entered a moment of total personal and political clarity--an epiphany. He would give George W. Bush and the war on terrorism unflinching support and use his new political leverage with the Americans both to keep the war from spreading and to insist that serious reconstruction must be part of the eventual peace.

Since September 11, Blair has thrown himself into the task of building and maintaining a sustainable global coalition and supporting the kind of social reconstruction that he recognizes must follow any military success. When President Bush spoke to Congress, Blair was there. In the last weeks, he has also met with President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Yasir Arafat, and many others. His cabinet colleagues have journeyed across the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. When U.S. missiles were fired on the first night of the strikes against Afghanistan, British submarines joined in.

At home, Blair's solidarity with the U.S. response to September 11 has earned him an approval rating in excess of 70 percent--good, though not Blair's best since his election in 1997. But the war has also brought charges that he is acting as Bush's secretary of state and folding Britain's interests too tightly and non-negotiably within the framework of U.S. intent. One British commentator observed acidly that Bush was behaving like a prime minister and Blair like a president. Blair's actions have provoked from Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, the complaint that he is ignoring Europe.

More than Bush, Blair faces a peace movement at home. Its first London rally, organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in mid-October, attracted about 20,000 people and allowed doubters among Britain's two-million-strong Muslim population to make common cause with an old left, which could have between 50 and 100 supporters on the Labor benches in Parliament. But open parliamentary opposition to British involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom has been rare. Only Plaid Cymru, the party of Welsh nationalism, is explicitly at war with the war.

The London newspapers, meanwhile, have supported the prime minister. The Daily Telegraph, the leading Conservative title, has done so with such enthusiasm that it has guaranteed Blair's ability to inflict huge collateral damage upon the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, who, since September 11, has become even more invisible than he seemed during his dull campaign for office.

Whatever else motivates Tony Blair, then, his post–September 11 stance can also be seen as good domestic politics. He struck the right instinctive note with the public, marginalized his political opponents, and took on his preferred role of strong leader propelled by urgent moral concern.

Blair's deeper reasoning about international affairs--and so the context for his support of the present military engagement--can be best read in two speeches. The first was delivered to the Economic Club of Chicago on April 22, 1999, when NATO was in the middle of its military action aimed at removing Slobodan Milosevic's Serb army and police from the disputed territory of Kosovo. The second was Blair's speech to his own Labor Party conference 20 days after the atrocities in New York and Washington.

The Chicago speech, like many of Blair's more important statements, was very much his own work; it expounded for the first time his "doctrine of the international community" as it is now styled on the Downing Street Web site. Polished and Churchillian it was not. It's not hard to imagine the Chicago banker tapping his watch as the prime minister laboriously set out his six-point plan for reforming international institutions, followed by his five-point checklist for judging the appropriateness of international intervention in conflicts.

Blair's argument, however, deserved more attention than it got at the time. The war in Kosovo, he insisted, was "a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values." If the West allowed Milosevic's ethnic cleansing to stand, it would be guilty of the kind of appeasement that had led to conflagration in Europe twice in the twentieth century. Taking aim at the doubters inside the Pentagon and the State Department, who had learned from humiliations in Vietnam, Somalia, and elsewhere to think first about exit strategy, Blair said: "Success is the only exit strategy I am prepared to consider." By success, he meant not just winning the war but delivering "a Marshall plan for Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, too, if it turns to democracy." He continued: "We need a new framework for the security of the whole of the Balkans." There would also be effective work by the international-war-crimes tribunal.

In addition to the moral justification for entering the conflict, Blair outlined a new doctrine of national self-interest predicated upon realities of global interdependence. Only by fighting could the West protect its interests against global financial instability, drug traffickers, and the intolerable migrations of refugees.

Today, Blair's six-point plan for global institutions seems overtaken by events. The Group of Seven hasn't gotten far on overhauling global financial regulation; the World Trade Organization round in Seattle is now remembered only for the street conflict that greeted it; and reform of the UN Security Council is still awaited. Blair's fifth point--on global warming and the importance of the Kyoto Protocol--has been sandbagged by a Republican president on the side of Big Oil.

At the same time, his five-point checklist on intervention looks remarkably prescient: Are we sure of our case? Have we exhausted diplomatic options? Does the military assessment offer prudent and achievable goals? Are we prepared to be in this for the long term, including the task of rebuilding? And is our national interest truly engaged?

In intellectual terms, the prime minister's recent speech to the annual Labor Party conference in Brighton added nothing to the Chicago doctrine. But it did reveal Blair's relish for the enterprise under way in Afghanistan. Tellingly, it began with these words: "In retrospect, the millennium marked only a moment in time. It was the events of 11 September that marked a turning point in history, where we confront the dangers of the future and assess the choices facing humankind."

Here we see two things. First, Blair is wincing a little at the recollection of his own overblown rhetoric about the "radical century" in prospect as progressive governments dominated the early years of the new millennium--but mostly at the specific folly of the Millennium Dome, a large tent on the banks of the River Thames that is now expensively rotting and unsalable after a millennium year of dud celebratory events. The Dome is, I believe, the only specific policy error for which Prime Minister Blair has formally apologized.

But Blair has not lost his taste for millennial language or his lofty sense of mission. September 11, he says, has shown that he was right all along: We live in historic times, to which the values of progressive, communitarian politics are perfectly matched. Even the mood music of his Brighton speech resonates with the idea of community. (Blair recalls attending the church service in New York for British victims of the disaster: "A very British occasion. Tea and biscuits . . . raining outside . . . strangers making small talk.")

In this performance--designed to boost party morale at the conference and to work on television--there was none of the extended reasoning or cumbersome lists of Chicago. But every idea in the Brighton speech has its roots in the previous lecture. Here are a few of the Brighton sound bites:

"There is a coming together. The power of community is asserting itself. We are realizing how fragile are our frontiers in the face of the world's new challenges."

"To the Afghan people, we make this commitment. The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before."

"Europe needs a strong Britain, rock solid in our alliance with the U.S.A."

"It is in taking the best of the Anglo-Saxon and European models of development that Britain's hopes of a prosperous future lie. The American spirit of enterprise; the European spirit of solidarity."

And finally: "This is an extraordinary moment for progressive politics."

For Blair, September 11 is seminal, not because he thinks that the world has changed in some unrecognizable, incomprehensible way, but because the united response to the attacks confirms his vision and mission, validates his philosophy, and fills him with new self-confidence. Thus, he goes on to promise that this new global community will do on the international stage what socialists have dreamed of in recent years: bring justice and prosperity to the Middle East and Africa as well as to Afghanistan.

No wonder Tony Blair has emerged as such a driving figure in world events since the terrorist attacks on Manhattan and Washington--arguably the most influential British prime minister in Washington since Winston Churchill. Blair calculates that for Bush British military support is nice to have, but British political effort in maintaining the coalition is indispensable. Above all, Blair supplies energy to the American cause. He is a politician with the oxygen of belief in his lungs and the adrenaline of urgency in his blood.

For Blair's critics, however, all this smacks of hubris and hot air, a mere rhetorical overlay of what, essentially, has been the position of all British governments since the Second World War: namely, that if Uncle Sam's trumpet sounds, Soldier Tommy picks up his musket. Even Harold Wilson, the grumpiest prime-ministerial adherent to this point of view, managed to avoid opposing the Vietnam War.

With Blair, the danger of more attention being paid to presentation than to substance can never be wholly set aside. Even in the past momentous month, his government has been taunted by accusations of grubby spin-doctoring, not least over the matter of an e-mail written on September 11 by a political adviser to Stephen Byers, Blair's Transport Secretary. In it, the author, Jo Moore, suggested that the horror in the United States created a good moment to slip out some politically inconvenient news about the expenses of local-authority councillors. Although Blair has condemned her words, she remains in post.

But it is wrong to say that there is no intellectual underpinning behind Blair's doctrine of intellectual community. The work of Robert Cooper, author of The Post-modern State and the World Order, springs to mind, along with other third-way writings. Since 1997 two new think tanks have been born in the wings of the Blair administration: the Foreign Policy Center, which has made a cause of pointing to the close links between domestic and foreign policy in areas such as drugs and migration, and the Policy Network, which is seeking to draw together third-way thinkers around the world.

The intellectual enterprise of the third way is mostly ignored, mocked, or reviled in Britain's mainstream press, which prefers to see the world in familiar terms of left and right. The real threat to Blair's mission, however, comes not from skeptical journalists or from the political left and right, but from the risk that the doctrine of international community--having just about achieved success of a kind in Kosovo--will be seen as failing in the bigger test now under way. Does anyone believe, for example, that Israeli-and-Palestinian reconciliation lies within the reach of Western politicians, even if the Bush administration has received a short, sharp lesson in the complexities involved?

For Blair, the ecumenical Anglican who has been flying around the world with a copy of the Koran in his pocket and a stalled peace agreement on Northern Ireland in the back of his mind, there is (politically, instinctively, and emotionally) no other way of going forward than to continue the relentless search for negotiation, compromise, and trust in the other party's better nature. On October 12, the prime minister gave a press conference for Muslim journalists--part of the public-relations effort in which he has been grilled on al-Jazeera, the Arab television service, and has put his name to articles in Muslim publications. Why, he was asked, had it taken September 11 to make Britain and the United States serious about resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Blair replied that the question was unfair, since the Clinton administration and its predecessors had made concentrated efforts to achieve a deal and that he himself had met with Yasir Arafat no fewer than 11 times since becoming prime minister in 1997. Blair also points out at every opportunity that NATO fought for the interests of Muslims in Kosovo.

We know that this rings thinly in many Muslim ears. We know, too, that Blair and his doctrine of international community will need luck, perhaps more than any politician is entitled to expect.

But if the war in Afghanistan does achieve its objectives speedily, if Osama bin Laden is brought to justice, and if these two things are perceived as having debilitated the world's most dangerous terrorist network, Blair will be able to proclaim victory for the doctrine of international community and, presumably, to enjoy more leverage than any previous British prime minister in pressing his more far-reaching ideas about international relations in Washington. This will be so especially if, as seems likely, the best that the West can hope for in Afghanistan is partial success, which would require indefinite high-military vigilance.

Quite how Blair's stated political agenda of reforming the UN Security Council, opening the WTO to a wider set of views, and driving forward with the Kyoto process will play in George W. Bush's Washington, we shall wait to see. Still, it does still seem a shade remarkable that President Bush's number-one ally is a British prime minister who believes in "just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values," if territorial values include America's access to oil and the right to burn it with little regard for the global environment.

The doctrine of international community, Blair style, offers no easy road.