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a man of 'moral certainty'

Selections from FRONTLINE's interviews with historians and others who analyze Blair's foreign policy precepts, his ideas on the emerging world order, and his code of ethics.

photo of judt

Professor of European studies, New York University

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Tony Blair is an extremely interesting man. He is a man with a set of beliefs about how the world ought to look, how the world needs to be run if it is to remain at peace with itself, if poverty is to be addressed, if disease and environmental difficulties are to be addressed. So he has a world picture, which makes him unusual for most politicians who think much more locally and short term.

He also cares about the United Nations and he is very interested, above all, in multilateral activity, whether it's British and Americans or the West and the non-West. We should act in concert, because otherwise we cannot hope to achieve our goals -- [that] has been Blair's basic position. ...

Tony Blair, after all, comes from a small country that cannot hope to remake the world on its own. So he has to think multilaterally if he must think big. ... All European countries are small compared to America -- small in size, small in the economy, small in their capacities. ... Any European statesman, if he is going to think beyond the end of his nose, so to speak, has to think internationally and therefore has to think about working with others. ...

photo of d'ancona

Deputy editor, Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)

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Blair's vision can be captured in the single word -- interdependence. He thinks everything links in to everything else. In some ways it's a rather woolly vision. I don't think it has clear lines; I don't think it has clear contours. But he believes, for example, that it's impossible to sort out what's going on in the Middle East, with Iraq, with Syria, with Iran, without dealing with the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He sees fundamental links between everything. He looks at the difficulties of fanaticism in Africa and he points to the problems of poverty and so forth that have been afflicting Africa for generations. ...

All these things in his mind are interlinked and I think some people find that rather annoying. They find it sophomoric and a little bit infantile even. But the fact is that there is a fairly integrated vision that Blair has. ...

A while before Sept. 11 [at a Labor Party conference, he gave] a very, very emotional plea to the world to do something about the scar, as he described it, of Africa and its plight. At the time a lot of people thought, "Where is this coming from? What does it mean?" It wasn't really explicable in terms of anything that Blair was doing politically at the time. I think now, looking back, it's very clear what it meant, but it only became clear after 9/11. ...

[What was the big defining issue going to be?]

In America, the natural response to 9/11 was to see that this is a security issue; this was about protecting the American people from future attack. I think Blair saw it in a slightly different way. He saw it as a challenge, if you like, to Western leaders to get out and try and reconstruct the world in a way that prevented future events of this kind happening. ... It's not simply about defense; it's not simply about protection; it's not simply about targeting your enemies and destroying them. It's actually about creating an entirely new global environment in which phenomena like Al Qaeda, rogue states like Iraq simply don't happen.

Now this is a fantastically grandiose image. ... It assumes that individual powers like Britain and America can go out and remake the world. But nonetheless, I think that is the way he sees things. ...

[How would you say he views "war" in the context of his sense of moral certainty?]

During the conflict in Sierra Leone Tony Blair called in his chief defense advisers and had a long conversation with them about what the cost of a serious intervention would be in terms of human lives. A very senior defense adviser told me that he informed the prime minister that the cost could be many hundreds of lives. Apparently Blair paused for a moment, very, very carefully, and then said, "Do it."

That tells you a great deal about the way the man operates. ... This is not someone who is reckless; this is not someone who is gung-ho. But it's also someone who is capable of tremendous moral certainty when he thinks the cause is just. ...

Why has he sacrificed so much, or potentially sacrificed so much, over this?

Blair, like many politicians, has two sides. One side is almost paralyzed with fear of public opinion: He watches focus groups; he reads private polling; he changes policies on the back of what he sees in those results. The other side is a man of tremendously strong and almost perverse moral certainty. He believes what he believes; he comes to a conclusion and he sticks with it. ...

photo of smith

Labor MP; former culture secretary under Blair


There are moments certainly in [the] past few years when, in terms of foreign policy, [Blair] has identified something that he really passionately believes as a moral purpose. And he's determined, even if it means standing alone against the rest of the world, that he's going to try and pursue that.

I think there's a little bit of that that has come through in relation to Iraq. He has always seen this as something that he believes in. He believes in the rightness of the cause, and even though a lot of the world around him was saying, "No, this is the wrong thing to be doing," he nonetheless thought, "I think I'm right and I'm going to stick by it." It's what he's done in the past and I think he thought that, having been proved right in the past, he would be proved right on this as well. ...

There's also been a very clear view that he believes very strongly in the importance of the British-American relationship. He sees that as one of the cardinal pillars on which any foreign policy for our country should rest. ...

I remember there was one occasion back in September when we had the debate in Parliament. That day it opened with a statement from the prime minister about what things were happening in relation to Iraq at that time, and he was ... asked a question by one of his senior back-benchers about the nature of the American relationship. He put aside his notes and became very personal about what he was saying, and became very passionate about the importance to him of the American relationship with Britain. And I think that's been one of the things that has certainly driven him right the way through his approach to the Iraq crisis. ...

photo of kupchan

Senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


I think Blair's vision of a Europe that remains tightly wedded to the United States, of an Atlanticist Europe, is dead in the water. We are past the point of no return; the separation between the United States and Europe runs deep. And I think in some ways Blair has made a miscalculation because Britain's future is with Europe, is with the [European Union]. He is betting on the United States temporarily.

My sense is it may well mean his own political suicide. And, ultimately, I think Britain will wake up to the fact that its future, its security, its prosperity ultimately will be with Europe and not with America.

Senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World

Blair's goal was to use this crisis to move the world closer towards Woodrow Wilson's vision of a world guided by law. Blair would like to see a world where each state is obliged by law to respect the rights of its citizens and all states are bound to respect the rights of other states through a system of enforceable international law. Blair hoped that by getting the United States to go to the Security Council on Iraq and then getting a second resolution on Iraq, the world would be authorized [to go to war] and a precedent would have been established for the future, making it harder and harder to go to war without a Security Council authorization.

One fact we should all realize is that to some degree this was based on an illusion. ... All the permanent members [on the U.N. Security Council] have gone to war, some of them quite frequently, without checking in with the Security Council first. Britain didn't have a resolution in the Falklands war as I recall. [In] the Suez crisis, neither Britain nor France bothered to check in with the United Nations before they invaded Egypt. ... Every U.S. president since the 1940s has intervened at least once without checking with the U.N. -- even Jimmy Carter tried his rescue mission on the hostages in Iran without any kind of Security Council declaration.

So I think Blair has this noble vision. ... He really has given it an awesome effort, a best effort. ...

The big thing that people have always attacked Blair on is [on the question of his] sincerity. ... They kind of saw him as the British version of Clinton in a way, where there's very little substance [and] it's all style, style, style. ... Maybe it wasn't what he planned at the beginning, but we've seen a man putting his entire career and position at stake for an issue of principle, and it's really remarkable.

And his vision of the world is gone?

... I would not say that Blair has been completely defeated here. ... [His] secondary vision [is] of an Anglophone power that does its best in an anarchic world to uphold the spirit of these principles even if the reality can't be institutionally embodied.

Even if the Anglo-American alliance is forced out of the Security Council and has to operate on the side, there is still this transformative, idealistic core in the politics, and I think you have to give Blair credit for this. The Bush administration ... will have to work so hard in a post-war Iraq to make it a better place ... [and] is going to be really committed to making it better than it was. ... I think Blair is going to have a tremendous influence in that. ...

photo of kagan

Senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  read the interview

Europeans and Americans need to adjust to the fact that they don't share the same perspective on international order and questions regarding the use of military force, and the legitimacy for action. It's not something that we can wish away. It's something we need to adjust to and learn how to manage, and it's not going to be easy.

I do think that the course that Tony Blair has tried to take is the most hopeful one -- an effort to find some synthesis between the American worldview and the European worldview; again, without wishing it away. Finding a workable compromise is the great task of the future.



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posted april 3, 2003

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