Blair's 'Ethical' Policy

March 1, 2001 Topic: Society Regions: North AmericaWestern EuropeAmericasEurope Tags: AcademiaNew Left

Blair's 'Ethical' Policy

Mini Teaser: Over four centuries, British foreign policy based on national interest has served the country well. Now its greatest threat may be the moral pretensions of Messrs. Blair and Cook.

by Author(s): Robin Harris

The issue of the ICC has also exposed another fundamental weakness in
the Blairite "doctrine of international community." This is that the
latter's most important members sometimes sharply disagree. That does
not so much bother Cook, who still appears to enjoy nothing more than
the opportunity to cock a snook at the United States. But if America
maintains its objections, it may yet come to bother Blair.

This is because the Prime Minister entered office deeply and rightly
conscious of the importance of the Anglo-American relationship as the
basis for his and his country's international standing. And in that
he was greatly influenced by the career of his predecessor-but-one.

In Her Footsteps?

Indeed, Tony Blair has spent the last four years beset with something
bordering on an obsession with Margaret Thatcher's premiership. He
correctly judges that the influence that Britain wielded with the two
superpowers and their leaders--Ronald Reagan and Mikhail
Gorbachev--in the 1980s allowed Thatcher to impose her views and
values both at home and abroad. He wants to do the same.

Hence Blair's extraordinary and even undignified efforts to establish
a friendship with Bill Clinton, a man whose moral standards and
personal behavior must surely jar with his own almost too good to be
true uprightness of character. Hence also the still more bizarre
campaign to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin. It was Clinton
who described the Russian leader as "a man we can do business with",
echoing Thatcher's often quoted comment about Gorbachev. But it was
Blair who took the risk of flying off to endorse Putin even before
his election victory, and at the same time indirectly endorsing the
latter's brutal, indeed genocidal, campaign in Chechnya by describing
it as a fight against "terrorism."

Blair was lucky with Clinton, whose survival of the impeachment process vindicated the British Prime Minister's support. By contrast, his luck appears to have run out with Putin, who ever since the initial plaudits and flattery has consistently lived down to all that should be expected of a not very talented KGB apparatchik. Blair has made repeated efforts to woo Russia. He has backed Moscow in its vociferous campaign against major revision or abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty--another issue on which he will find himself sharply at odds with the new U.S. administration. He has turned a blind eye to the continued heavy-handed suppression of Russian media freedoms. He even tried to persuade the block-headed chiefs of the rusting Russian navy to accept his offer of help in rescuing their submariners, dying on the floor of the Barents Sea. But all to no avail. The prospects of Blair's friendship with "Vladimir" enhancing Britain's international standing sank with the Kursk.

The one crucial failure of British foreign policy in the Thatcher years was, Blair believes, in dealings with Europe. On taking office he therefore pledged to "end the isolation of the last twenty years and be a leading partner in Europe." One should not exaggerate the originality of this aspiration. It was shared by the Conservative government in 1979. It was still more deeply shared by John Major, who pledged in 1991 to put Britain at the "very heart of Europe." But with Tony Blair the project has become a veritable passion.

In its pursuit, he has continued to state his support for the principle of abolishing sterling in favor of the European single currency--even though the euro still looks sick and the British public remains deeply hostile. He has undergone humiliation within the ranks of the European Left, as his ideas of a "Third Way" between capitalism and socialism have been cold-shouldered by the other members of the club. Most significant of all, he has reversed Britain's previously hostile attitude toward the integration of the country's armed forces with those of the other European Union members outside the framework of NATO.

Whether Blair understood how the United States would see this radical about-turn in British security policy is perhaps doubtful. Certainly, a large measure of the blame must go to the Clinton administration, which failed properly to articulate the Pentagon's amply justified misgivings. But it was the Prime Minister's conviction that alternately massaging and intimidating the British media would prevent difficult questions being asked that finally misled him.

Blair's objective was quite simple, if also extremely cynical. He sought at one and the same time to magnify the importance of Britain's European defense commitment, thus pleasing his opposite numbers in France and Germany, while downplaying that same commitment in order to reassure opinion in Britain and America. Unfortunately, this stratagem was repeatedly derailed by unwelcome home truths blurted out by the Europeans. Thus European Commission President Romano Prodi confirmed that the planned European rapid reaction force was indeed a European army. As he told the Independent newspaper: "When I was talking about the European army I was not joking. If you don't want to call it a European army, don't call it a European army. You can call it 'Margaret', you can call it 'Mary-Ann', you can find any name."  The French, whose anti-Americanism has provided the driving force for the project, have also repeatedly emphasized that the rapid reaction force is to be the core of a European army and is intended to op erate independently from NATO.

But what most preoccupies Blair is the effect that adverse reactions in Washington might have upon otherwise somnolent British public opinion. So in the run-up to the December 2000 European summit in Nice, at which the plans for the new force were due to be agreed upon, he took pre-emptive action. Ten Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence launched a fierce campaign to deny that any American worries existed about the Euro-army and to portray British Euroskeptic newspapers as driven by blind prejudice in reporting the contrary. This campaign boomeranged spectacularly. It prompted a final and public break with Margaret Thatcher, the politician whose views on security matters were most likely to be taken seriously on the other side of the Atlantic; she denounced Blair's support for the European army as "an act of monumental folly" taken "to satisfy political vanity." It also prompted the outgoing U.S. defense secretary to issue what amounted to a correction and a rebuke. And it prompted U.S. opponents of the planned European force to speak out more clearly than ever before.

Blair's real problems do not, however, lie mainly with his domestic or even his foreign critics, but rather with the contradictions in the policy itself. He cannot indefinitely appear to adopt both Eurocentric and Atlanticist approaches. He has to choose.

One year after he had described his "pivotal" foreign policy at the Lord Mayor's banquet, the British Prime Minister returned to the same broad theme before the same distinguished audience. This time he called for, in terms that would be familiar to an American audience, "engagement, not isolation." Yet isolation from Britain's oldest and most important ally, the only global superpower, is precisely where Blair's foreign policy doctrine is ultimately bound to lead if it continues to be pursued. And this, of course, will only be the latest, if by far the most serious, in a by now lengthy list of foreign policy failures that have flowed from that same doctrine.

An Alternative Course

GOVERNMENTS must often, it is true, encounter failure in the pursuit of foreign policy. Failure does not necessarily mean that the policy itself was misconceived. Unpredictable and uncontrollable circumstances may simply have overtaken it. What is really dangerous for a nation, however, is when a government does not even know how to measure failure, for then failure risks becoming cumulative.

Blair's government continues to reinforce failure in Europe, as it does in its dealings with Africa, the Balkans and Russia. And unless there is a swift change of course, failure will characterize Britain's transatlantic relations, too. The British government re-inforces its failures for the same reason that it pursues an "ethical" foreign policy, enmeshed in unresolvable contradictions, and welcomes initiatives, like the International Criminal Court, that jeopardize British interests. It behaves in this fashion not merely because of Cook's incompetence or Blair's delusions, but because it has abandoned the concept of national interest as the lodestar by which to plot its course.

Establishing just what that national interest requires at any time is intellectually demanding. Putting the conclusions into effect may be difficult, painful and sometimes dangerous. And beyond that, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott says of politics in general is surely truer still of foreign policymaking in particular, that it is an activity in which

men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

But does New Labour, or the New Left anywhere, really have the stomach for that?

Essay Types: Essay