Blair at war

Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s speech on the role of the UK armed forces last week deserves some attention on this blog. (Read the speech here.) A lot of what he said was operational and not really of interest here, but his words on the purpose of the armed forces are interesting. As ever with Tony Blair, they are mix of the inspiring and the truly bonkers. I will try and sift the one from the other.

He starts by noting the difference between values and interests, and asserting that British foreign policy has been “governed as much by values as interests” and even that “it is by furthering our values that we further our interests”. There is a step further that he does not take, to say that our values are our interests.

The biggest single problem with the international system is that the system does not work properly. Attempts to steer the global economy or fight climate change will fail as long as the right institutions are not in place. Express our values in the global system and then it might further our interests, too. That’s the right way round, only he doesn’t put it that way.

He then moves on to the distinction between “hard” power and “soft” power. (He uses a different definition of hard power from that in Joseph Nye’s classic “The paradox of American power”.) His hard power is that expressed by the military – bombs, tanks and soldiers – and very hard it is too. His soft power is that wielded by the foreign office: fighting climate change, working for development in Africa, and so on. To Joseph Nye, that is also hard power. Soft power, to him, is not merely non-military but non-governmental. It is the things that gives a country influence because of what the citizens do rather than because of what the politicians do. The BBC is an extraordinary agent of soft power, portraying an image of the British view of the world around the world. Microsoft Windows is another (I am typing this article using it right now). Hollywood, hip-hop music, Wal-Mart: this is soft power.

It is intriguing that Tony Blair does not grasp the idea that a country can exercise international influence beyond the reach of its national government. Blair himself has tried to personalise foreign policy – his belief that he can fix the Middle East by act of personal concentration, as though he were Derren Brown or David Blaine – and does not realise that his approach makes things worse, not better.

He drops in the old, false canard that “No two democracies have ever been to war.” He should go back to Reiter and Stam’s brilliant “Democracies at war” and think again. (You can read a federalist take on this argument here.)

On the next bit, I can agree with him. He says that the military threats to the British people may well be present in countries far from the UK and need to be confronted wherever they exist (although he does not put it this clearly), which is a controversial but surely a correct way to address things. We have to defend our allies, for they embody our values (and interests, of course) as much as we do. I have no patience for the national sovereignty idea that we should only fight to defend ourselves and leave our friends to fight to defend themselves. No, the fight should always be collective, if those other countries are truly our friends.

But that’s enough agreement. The next stage of Blair’s argument is truly mad. He says, of the decision to invade Afghanistan and later Iraq, that:

“The notion that removing two appalling dictatorships and replacing them with a UN backed process to democracy, with massive investment in reconstruction available if only the terrorism stopped, could in any justifiable sense ‘inflame’ Muslim opinion when it was perfectly obvious that the Muslims in both countries wanted rid of both regimes and stand to gain enormously, if only they were allowed to, from their removal, is ludicrous. Yet a large part, even of non-Muslim opinion, essentially buys into that view.”

What’s “justifiable” got to do with it? Other people do not have to justify their opinions to Tony Blair, they are entitled to hold them come what may and Tony Blair has to react accordingly. Furthermore, possibly those other people actually have a point. Blair goes on to say:

“Global interdependence requires global values commonly or evenly applied.”

Absolutely. Why is why many people are asking how many civilians have been killed during the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq or, possibly more pertinently, why no count has been kept. Is that neglect of the duty of an occupying power really the expression of a global value “evenly applied”? It is hardly surprising that so many people have drawn the conclusion that, in the eyes of Blair and Bush, Muslim lives do not count. After all, Muslim deaths have not been counted.

Tony Blair claims that British as a nation are “proud champions of the causes of peace in the Middle East”, which may come as some surprise to the Lebanese who were bombed out of their homes back in August without protest from the British government. If the British people want to be seen in this light, they are going to have to change the things their government says on their behalf.

Finally, Tony Blair declares that terrorism is an attack on our values and should be resisted as such. He is critical of those countries that “say yes in principle we should keep the ‘hard’ power, but just not in this conflict or with that ally. But in reality, that’s not how the world is.” Aside from taking a lecture on reality from Tony Blair, that statement is truly jaw-dropping.

For what is the alternative to some kind of discrimination about which wars to fight? We can’t go round the world looking for fights to join in with. Of course, there must be decision-making over how and when to employ military force. Sometimes, regrettably it will be necessary, but Blair gives the impression that it should be the automatic reaction, the default option.

His fear is that “doing the right thing slips almost unconsciously into doing the easy thing”. Well, in other fields of policy-making, the objective is to align those two, so that the easy choice is also the right choice. That requires some imagination in the design of incentives and even more in the design of institutions. How to engineer policy-making so that it leads to the right outcomes? That is what a statesman would be thinking about today? It is missing from this speech, but that is what our interests and our values require.

About the Author