ROUNDTABLE: Blair's Ethical Legacy

June 27, 2007

Today, June 27, Tony Blair formally resigned as prime minister after ten years in office. How will he be remembered? Marcus Roberts and Frank Spring praise his achievements.

(This is the July edition of Carnegie Ethics Online, issued a little early to mark the occasion. If you would like to comment on this topic, please email mlynn@cceia.org)


  • Blair's Record Matches His Rhetoric, by Marcus A. Roberts
  • Blair's Greatest Triumph, by Frank Spring

    Blair's Record Matches His Rhetoric
    By Marcus A. Roberts

    Ten years after Tony Blair declared his desire to enact "an ethical foreign policy" his international legacy is too often viewed solely through the prism of Iraq. It is however, Blair's three great foreign policy speeches, his 1999 'Doctrine of International Community', 2001 'Global Interdependence After 9/11' and 2003 'The International Effort Against Climate Change' that best represent both Blair's values and policies. To view Blair through Iraq alone is to ignore his extraordinary legacy in the areas of liberal interventionism, international development and climate change.

    Blair's ethical foreign policy ensured that hundreds of thousands of Kosovars reside to this day not in Albanian refugee camps or mass graves, but rather in their own homes. For the people of Sierra Leone it provided delivery from fear of the machetes of the West Side Boys while Australia's intervention on behalf of the people of East Timor owed much to the example Blair had already set. Beyond military action, Blair advanced an international development agenda of more direct aid, untied to trade, Western agricultural subsidy reductions and debt relief for poor countries. Lastly, Blair kept alive the cause of a multilateral approach to tackling climate change, in the face of U.S. opposition and even enjoyed real success in areas like the implementation of the Kyoto protocol.

    On the issue of liberal interventionism, Blair outlined his vision for matching the goals of liberal internationalism with the means of military force in his speech to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999. Blair argued that nations that engage in egregious acts against their own citizens might find their sovereignty challenged by armed force.

    The genius, however, of Blair's Chicago speech lay not only in his application of a humanitarian test to state sovereignty, but in the realism with which Blair approached the immediate challenge of Serbia's ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanian population. Blair argued that it was worth the West paying a price in terms of its own "blood and treasure" to prevent such humanitarian catastrophes where it was possible for the West to do so. Blair eschewed the idea that because the West could not act to save lives everywhere, it should not act to save lives where it had both the diplomatic and military means to do so. What followed were successful liberal interventions first by the British in Sierra Leone and later by the Australians in East Timor in which military force was used to defend those that could not defend themselves.

    The second defining speech of Blair's ethical foreign policy was his address to the Labour Party Conference a week after 9/11. Blair offered a grand strategy for liberal interventionism that focused as much on international development as it did on military force. Blair said: "The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause."

    Describing Africa as "a scar on the conscience of the world," Blair laid out the importance of Western involvement not in mitigating the tragedies of poverty, HIV, and AIDS on the continent, but in ending them once and for all. Blair made real commitments to provide more aid, untied to trade, to write off debt, to encourage Western investment, and to lower Western trade barriers.

    It's as easy as it is wrong to believe that Blair's vision was empty rhetoric, and that the military adventure of Iraq was all that came of it. In 2005, under the British presidency of the G8, Blair led world leaders at the Gleneagles Summit in committing the West to an unprecedented effort to address the root causes of extreme poverty and climate change, with huge new financial resources in developing country aid, and potentially as important for African development, a significant reduction in Western agricultural subsidies.

    The major agreements Blair brokered for developing countries came the same week of al Qaeda's 7/7 bombings in London and serve as a demonstration of his commitment to an ethical foreign policy—even in the face of bombings in his own capital.

    This refusal to give up on his wider ethical agenda mirrored his 2003 speech on the environment given as Britain prepared for war with Iraq. Blair put the case for western engagement in tackling climate change in a way that went beyond short-term national interest. Blair said: "We face a situation in which 50 million people in Asia could be killed or displaced by floods, further swathes of Africa could be reduced to desert, accompanied by massive deforestation in central and South America, and huge increases in disease, particularly malaria. And it is the poorest countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, which will suffer the most devastating effects of these changes."

    With George W. Bush in the White House, Blair found it difficult to advance his agenda of multilateral action against climate change. Blair therefore focused on leading by example with Britain achieving its Kyoto commitments seven years ahead of schedule and piloting green tax incentives to promote private sector innovation. Blair then leveraged his domestic record not only by pushing at the governmental level within the EU for a tougher approach to climate change policy but also with striking new initiatives, such as his alliance with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on curbing greenhouse emissions.

    Blair's foreign policy agenda will outlast the shadow of Iraq. At the international level, this is evidenced by the UN's adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which Blair's diplomats gave their all to make a reality. The policy offers international legitimacy to Blair's approach to liberal interventionism. In terms of international development, each year's G8 meeting now results in more money from rich nations to poor countries for development and progress on issues of trade and subsidies. The climate change agenda, sustained by Blair for years on the world stage, is now taking form as a powerful movement that crosses boundaries of politics and nationality.

    Lastly, for Blair the master politician, it is fitting that his legacy will endure at the political level. Blair's successors in both Europe and America have adopted his language and foreign policy priorities. Britain's Gordon Brown, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama all focus on issues like the need for intervention against genocide in Darfur, the cause of ending extreme poverty in Africa, the importance of tackling climate change—a political discussion markedly different from the foreign policy debates of a decade ago. What actions will now come of their rhetoric remain to be seen, but Blair's standing on these matters is secure. His ethical foreign policy legacy in linking his rhetoric to the world's reality from Kosovo to Africa to the world at large is a strong one. It is a record that deserves great credit beyond Iraq.

    Blair's Greatest Triumph
    By Frank Spring

    Tony Blair departs from Number 10 Downing Street this week to a chorus of derision from critics of his decision to accompany the United States into war in Iraq. His association with President George W. Bush has made him the target of criticism in the U.K. and abroad. The May 25-June 7 issue of the British periodical Private Eye is typical of this, featuring a cover of Blair and Bush in the Rose Garden with a speech bubble rising from the outgoing Prime Minister containing musical notes and the words "I Did It Your Way," and he has elsewhere been called a lackey and lapdog of Bush.

    This characterization is inaccurate. In fact, Blair has pursued his foreign policy in a way that is altogether different from Bush, and there is no better example of this than what might arguably be Blair's greatest triumph—peace in Northern Ireland.

    When Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, one of his first acts was to declare an "ethical foreign policy" for Britain, repudiating pure power politics as the model for his government and vowing to apply his nation's and his party's (and presumably his personal) values in foreign affairs. This notion has pleasant and potentially valuable connotations, but is open to charges of vagueness. Increasing aid to destitute countries and populations and providing military assistance to populations at risk are clearly part of such a policy, but the implications of an ethical approach when a nation's national interests are at stake are not immediately clear.

    By contrast, the Bush Administration has pursued what might be termed a "moralist foreign policy," and its application is straightforward—a simple refusal to engage with anyone who does not meet a set of moral standards, in this case determined by the Administration, for behavior and guiding beliefs. While the effectiveness of the position is open to dispute, there is no escaping its essential logic: If someone engages in behavior or holds essential beliefs that you find to be abhorrent, they do not deserve engagement or rapprochement.

    The operational test of Blair's commitment to an ethical foreign policy came in Northern Ireland, where the conflict between Unionists and Republicans, spilling over into the U.K., had tested British territorial integrity and cost the lives of U.K. soldiers and thousands of civilians. The intensity of the conflict escalated in the 1960s and had claimed the lives of over 3,000 people by the mid-1990s.

    Northern Ireland occupies odd ground on the spectrum of foreign and domestic policy in the United Kingdom, being both a territory of the British Crown and a fundamental priority of the Republic of Ireland. When asked whether Northern Ireland falls into the realm of domestic or foreign policy, one British foreign policy specialist answered "Neither. It falls under Northern Irish policy."

    Whatever its official status, Northern Ireland clearly benefited from Blair's ethical foreign policy. From its inception in 1997, the Labour government made peace in Northern Ireland a top priority, dispatching top negotiators and political assets to the region to secure peace. In this action the Blair government was preceded by the government of John Major, whose government issued the critical Downing Street proclamation [1993], paving the way for peace talks by declaring for the first time that Northern Ireland had the right to self-determination.

    What makes Blair's decision to aggressively pursue peace in Northern Ireland remarkable is his commitment in the face of resistance and his willingness to deal directly with organizations and individuals of remarkably unsavory reputation. The Irish Republican Army had attempted to assassinate both of Blair's predecessors and a splinter group conducted the most horrific terrorist attack in Irish history just a year after Blair's election in what is believed to have been an attempt to derail the peace talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile, the Ulster unionist paramilitary groups, while less inclined to overt hostility against the British, continued to conduct assassination and violent reprisal missions against Republican groups during the peace process, making Blair's job all the more difficult.

    It isn't difficult to imagine how the Bush Administration would have approached this problem. Rightly or wrongly, it would have pursued a policy of non-engagement with the two sides until both behaved in a manner that the Administration found constructive. It is hard to envision the same Administration which chastised the world that "you cannot condemn al Qaeda and hug Hamas" being willing to engage the IRA in a process which could ultimately lead to its highest officers having a seat at the table of government.

    The Blair government meanwhile remained resolute, and Blair stayed personally committed to peace in Northern Ireland by any means available, including direct negotiation with known murderers and terrorists. At no time did the British government close the door to peace talks or waver from its commitments as laid out in the landmark Good Friday Agreement, in spite of recalcitrance and occasionally outright violence on both sides of the Northern Irish dispute. The Blair government, in particular Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, also engaged in what might be termed creative diplomacy, driving the opposing sides closer to a power-sharing arrangement by promoting policies in Northern Ireland, which both found less than appealing, including increased sexual education and gay-rights provisions.

    The conclusion of this effort came in the winter of 2006, when negotiations between Republicans and Unionists entered a critical phase. Blair was deeply involved in these negotiations, personally calling leaders on both sides of the talks during the Christmas period to smooth over conflicts between the parties. The result was a power-sharing agreement for the government of Northern Ireland with the potential to bring lasting peace to the region.

    From a strictly moralist perspective, the result is not necessarily a success. Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander, will act as Secretary of Education in the new government, while the Reverend Ian Paisley, who for decades was one of Northern Ireland's most divisive figures, serves as First Minister. There is merit to the belief that McGuinness should be in prison and Paisley, whose virulent anti-Catholic polemic has been a roadblock to peace, deemed unfit to govern.

    From an ethical perspective, these criticisms are cosmetic. After 40 years of violence, there is now the possibility of lasting peace in Northern Ireland. That the Blair government deigned to negotiate with dangerous and vicious men in order to achieve this does not diminish the value of the peace, nor will it make the slightest difference to the families of those who would otherwise have been murdered had the conflict continued unchecked. Time will tell if the Northern Irish peace will hold, but Blair need not reach for the broad sweep of history to justify his decisions in Northern Ireland—they have saved lives already, and his ethical foreign policy has succeeded where a moralist one would not even have begun.

blog comments powered by Disqus