Failure in his own terms

Tony Blair

I thought when I saw the advance billing of Tony Blair’s speech at Georgetown University last Friday (which you can read here) that I would have some interesting thoughts on global institutions to react to. Of all the people who have been in a position to observe things closely within the global system, Tony Blair is surely one of them.

Such a disappointment, then, in his speech. Some commonplace references to enlarging the Security Council (to bring in Germany, Japan and India, for example) but no reference whatsoever to the veto on the Security Council (of which more later). It matters more how the members of the Security Council behave than how many of them there are.

He suggests that there should be a “UN Environment Organisation”, although how this would fit together with the present UN Environment Programme he doesn’t explain. He suggests that the “UNEO” should be “commensurate with the importance the issue now has on the international agenda”; in his own speech, it is listed “finally”, which tells its own story about importance. If environmental issues really were central, they would be incorporated directly into the work of the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF, rather than corralled separately to make sure they don’t get in the way of making money.

More positive is his attempt to list global values which underpin the international community and which are supported by people around the world. Perhaps not all people, but the overwhelming majority of them. The global values he lists are liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice. Straightaway, a federalist will ask why the rule of law is not on the list. Bringing the rule of law to the anarchic community of states is the precondition of achieving the other four values he hopes for. And in a world where different cultural values lead to different interpretations of liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice, a consistent understanding of the rule of law is likely to be a better place to start.

If an illustration of these different interpretations is needed, the crisis in Sudan will serve as a good example. The government in Khartoum claims to be restoring civil order: the rebels claim to be defending their communities. Depending on which way you look at it, these are both true. But this lack of clarity about how to interpret the crisis is not the cause of international inaction.

The countries that might be tempted to take action in Sudan are well aware of the close relationship between the Sudanese government and China. Sudan has a lot of oil, which China is helping to exploit. Potential interveners do not want to cross the Chinese, and even if they did, China has a veto on the UN Security Council.

I picked on Sudan as an example because Tony Blair, in his speech, did exactly the same. However, I think it rather supports my arguments better than his.

If countries wanted to take action, they could try. There is no shortage of recent examples of attempts to take action in the name of Tony Blair’s global values. The point is that, in the absence of a global framework for those values (i.e. the rule of law), every such attempt will risk being seen as partial and motivated by selfish national interests instead.

This brings me to the question of Iraq. Any speech by Tony Blair on the international scene has to get to Iraq in the end. He devotes part of his speech to an appeal for help. Past arguments about the rights and wrongs of the war should be left behind, in the name of supporting the fledgling Iraqi democracy.

“If Iraqis can show their faith in democracy by voting for it, shouldn’t we show ours by supporting them in it? By ‘we’ I don’t mean the countries of the MNF [Multi-National Force], I mean the entire international community.”

That sounds fine, but I’m not yet ready to move on from the rights and wrongs of the war. Tony Blair’s speech to the Economic Club, Chicago on 24 April 1999 gets closest to expressing his own views on the rights and wrongs of war as such. (You can read the speech here.)

He sets out five conditions for war, of which number three is “are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake” and number four: “are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers.”

These aren’t tactical or practical considerations, but principles. If those principles aren’t satisfied, then real doubts about the permissibility of war follow. Basically, they mean that the job should be done properly or not done at all. And, in the case of Iraq, it is hard to argue that the job is being done properly. The miscalculations made by the invasion force actually, in Blair’s own terms, cast doubt on the whole exercise.

In his speech, he does observe that “I am not suggesting that these are absolute tests. But they are the kind of issues we need to think about in deciding in the future when and whether we will intervene.”

Evidently, they weren’t thought about. Probably even if they had been thought about, the war would still have been wrong. The task of occupying Iraq and turning it into a liberal democracy was beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to achieve. Even the hyperpower turned out not to be hyper enough. Hence the appeal to the international community for help.

How, having got that off my chest, back to the problems of contemporary Iraq. And, yes, the international community does have a duty to help now. To that extent, the Euston manifesto gets it right. (Read about the Euston Manifesto here.) But there is more that needs to be said.

There has to be a difference between these two scenarios:

(1) the British and Americans invade Iraq against the advice of the rest of the world, believing that their example will eventually convince the others to follow them

(2) the British and Americans invade Iraq against the advice of the rest of the world, making such a mess in the process that others then have to follow them to bail them (and the Iraqis) out

The problem I have with the Euston view is that it draws no such distinction, refusing to learn lessons from how this war was started and failing to propose any means of resolving a similar situation if (or rather, when) it recurs.

The Blair speech recognises that there is something to be acknowledged, attaching to the support of the international community “two ‘ifs’. If’ the international community could see the struggle for security in Iraq as part of the wider global struggle against terrorism. And ‘if’, we would commit the same energy, engagement and raw political emotion to the rest of the agenda which preoccupies the world at large.”

Matthew d’Ancona reports in today’s Sunday Telegraph that:

“In private, his allies rage that the international community is still not putting its shoulder to the wheel to assist Iraq in its reconstruction, and they have a point.”

But the international community has a point, too. To retrieve some good from this situation, Tony Blair’s second “if” has got to be taken seriously. But will it?

We have been here before. Tony Blair’s fine speech to the Labour party conference in October 2001 made essentially the same argument.

The problem is that, for all the words, we don’t see enough action, and even less do we see action that lasts. There is a reason why federalism is attached to institutions and not only to personalities or even policies. This is it.

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