The Peculiar Phenomenon of Tony Blair 


Twice last week I found myself on the telephone, talking to friends about Tony Blair. One of them was calling from London. She had been made so claustrophobic by the overwhelming opposition to Blair, and to Blair’s conduct of the war on terrorism—in the left-wing press, among her left-wing acquaintances—that she wanted more perspective. She asked how Blair’s performance in the weeks since Sept. 11 looked to outsiders. Was British policy admired abroad? Was it mocked?

The other telephone call came from a Washingtonian. He had rung to talk about other things, but he was also irresistibly drawn to the subject of the British prime minister. Blair is marvelous, said my other friend, who is about as conservative as anyone I know. He continued on in that mode for several minutes: We thought he was a phony, we thought he was a pompous version of Clinton, we thought he was a bore—and now we think he’s a great statesman.

These views are worth repeating, because the contrast between them so beautifully reflects some of the ideological havoc that Tony Blair has wrought over the past few weeks. Suddenly, American conservatives love Tony Blair, because they think he’s fighting for their cause: “terrific” was the word Bill Kristol used, deploying no other adjectives. Suddenly, a large chunk of the British left hates Tony Blair, both because they think he’s fighting for the American conservatives’ cause, and because they think he will lose. “All this war on terror is doing is spreading terror,” wrote one Guardian columnist. Another called the war the “slaughter of the world’s poorest by the world’s richest.” More Labor politicians defect to the anti-war opposition every day—and not just the usual cranks, either.

Yet listen carefully to what Blair is saying—and to what he has said in the past—and it rapidly becomes clear that neither group has assessed the man correctly. While it is perfectly true that Tony Blair is supporting the American conservatives’ cause, he isn’t supporting it for the reasons that they support it—or even for reasons of which they would necessarily approve. For the most part, the American right and indeed the American center are charmed by Blair’s support for America because they think it derives from Britain’s loyalty to America. They believe Blair speaks of “standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States” because of his deep faith in the hallowed Anglo-American “special relationship.” The British left, on the other hand, think Blair is simply on an ego trip, that he hopes some of the superpower magic will rub off on him and on Britain if he hangs around George Bush long enough. As the leader of the Little Satan (alongside the American Great Satan, in the immortal phrasing of Iranian fundamentalists) he adds to his own luster and glory.

Yet the roots of the old “special relationship”—the idea that Britain was playing Greece to America’s Rome, that an “old” power was helping educate a “new” power in the ways of the world—actually have very little to do with Blair’s attitude to the United States today. He isn’t particularly interested in vague notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority either or in some sort of community of English-speaking nations. I don’t even think he’s supporting us because he likes us, necessarily. And while there is clearly a touch of egotism about his fiery speeches, I’m not convinced that Blair is doing this for himself either or even for Britain. Patriotism was never his strong point.

As he has himself said many times, what motivates Blair is something different: His semi-mystical, near-religious, and rather ill-defined belief in the overriding importance of international cooperation. If we all work together we can eliminate poverty. If we all work together we can bring international peace. If we all work together we can make the world safe for democracy—or something along those lines. In an interview last spring, he told me of his distaste for the every-nation-for-itself school of foreign policy. “There used to be an idea that you just looked after your own national interest,” he said, but “I also think that there is a moral dimension to it.” He specifically mentioned British interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo as examples of situations in which national interest was subordinate to the higher, more moral, cause of international cooperation. Since Sept. 11, he’s repeated these beliefs. “There is a coming together,” he said in a recent speech  to his party: “The power of community is asserting itself. I have long believed this interdependence defines the new world we live in.”

And later, “We can’t do it all. Neither can the Americans. But the power of the international community could, together, if it chose to.”

That sounds to me like a somewhat convoluted call for international government, or at least for international cooperation of a kind that I suspect might make a lot of American conservatives slightly queasy. Certainly it makes me slightly queasy, if only because of the sheer vagueness of the language.

Yet while I can quite see that not everyone in the United States would have had the chance to read all of Blair’s speeches, it is more surprising that this sort of language hasn’t struck any chords with his opponents at home. Socialism used to be internationalist. Why doesn’t Blair’s rhetoric inspire his own socialist party? I suspect this is because British socialists are not much interested in abroad anymore or at least nothing beyond the borders of the European Union. World peace is no longer a goal; fighting globalization, fighting American influence, fighting anything else that distracts from their domestic agenda is far more important.

Blair’s devotion to a form of Wilsonian international idealism doesn’t, of course, mean that Blair will necessarily be a less reliable military ally of the United States. But it does mean that he has another agenda, aside from simply fighting Osama Bin Laden. In the wake of this war, I expect, for example, that Blair will support the creation of an international legal system or a permanent international criminal tribunal, if not to try Bin Laden, then for others of his ilk—whether America wants it or not. I imagine he will start talking about creating an international body to fight terrorism, about international police.

Most of all, because Blair is fighting this war for reasons other than pure pro-Americanism—and because his support is so wobbly at home—he will not write us any blank checks. Should the war take a direction that doesn’t suit his vision of international cooperation, he may be less than enthusiastic. Perhaps this will never happen, but do be warned: At some point we may find out that we are not quite such good friends as we thought.