Latour, Blair and British Foreign Policy, Pt 3 The Blair View

October 11, 2013

The legacy of Tony Blair hangs heavily over British politics.  The Labour Party is still marked by the Blair/Brown rivalry, David Cameron’s political strategy and style was modelled on Blair. In foreign policy the dominant ideas of British foreign policy come from the Blair era and the area is inevitably marked by the Invasion of Iraq.  This is often described as Britain’s worst foreign policy mistake since Suez but the Suez was over in a few months and we could get on with dealing with the aftermath.   Iraq dragged on for six years.

In this post I want to look at Blair’s foreign policy thinking because it provides a context for the way that Britain’s foreign policy priorities and organization have developed. What’s the connection between Latour and Blair?  Blair is perfect example of the tendencies that Latour was critiquing.

I want to take as my texts, Blair’s 1999 Doctrine of the International Community speech and his 2006 pamphlet A Global Alliance for Global Values

The first of these was given in Chicago during the Kosovo Crisis with Blair concerned to shore up US support for the war and made the argument for a broader doctrine of humanitarian intervention.   There are three characteristics 1) axiomatic globalization – everything is connected to everything else 2) ambition – he reels off a list of six projects to undertake once the Kosovo Crisis is over, overhaul global financial regulation, a new global trade round, a reorganization of the UN, a reorganization of NATO, action on global warming and addressing third world debt.  3) The rejection of a language of interests in favour of values.  ‘In the end values and interests merge.  If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights an open society then that is in our national interests too.  The spread of our values makes us safer.’

A Global Alliance for Global Values is based on speeches that Blair gave in the year before he stepped down as Prime Minister as such it’s less rooted in concrete politics but I also suspect that it actually reflects the way that Blair’s thinking developed after 9/11.   The message is very simple: we need to work together to defeat extremism.  A few choice extracts

To win the battle of values, we must prove beyond any question that our world-view is based not just on power but on justice; not just on what is necessary, but on what is right.

Regrets?  Not enough intervention:

There are many areas in which we have not intervened as effectively as I would wish, even if only by political pressure. Sudan, for example; the appalling deterioration in the conditions of the people of Zimbabwe; human rights in Burma; the virtual enslavement of the people of North Korea.

Our opponents don’t just need to be killed but  first they have to admit that they are wrong about everything.

This ideology has to be taken on – and taken on everywhere. This terrorism, in my view, will not be defeated until we confront not just the methods of the extremists but also their ideas. I don’t mean just telling them that terrorist activity is wrong. I mean telling them that their attitude to America is absurd, that their concept of governance is prefeudal, that their positions on women and other faiths are reactionary. We must reject not just their barbaric acts, but their presumed and false sense of grievance against the West, their attempt to persuade us that it is we and not they who are responsible for their violence.

He then takes up the political strategy of radical Islam  but you wonder whether he’s talking about himself

Sometimes political strategy comes deliberatively, sometimes by instinct. For this movement, it was probably by instinct. It has an ideology, a world-view, it has deep convictions and the determination ofthe fanatic. It resembles in many ways early revolutionary Communism. It doesn’t always need structures and command centres or even explicit communication. It knows what it thinks.

This brings me to a fundamental point. For this ideology, we are the enemy. But “we” is not the West. We are as much Muslim, as Christian, or Jew or Hindu. We are all those who believe in religious tolerance, in openness to others, in democracy, liberty and human rights administered by secular courts.

This is not a clash between civilisations: it is a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace in the modern world, and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand, and pessimism and fear on the other.

The crucial point about these interventions is that they were not just about changing regimes but changing the value systems governing the nations concerned. The banner was not actually “regime change” it was “values change”. That is why I have said that we have done, by intervening in this way, is more momentous than possibly we appreciated at the time.

He has a solution although it sounds more like the Pope, or Habermas or Kant than a prime minister

The answer to terrorism is universal application of global values

And from the conclusion

In my nine years as Prime Minister I have not become more cynical about idealism. I have simply become more persuaded that the distinction between a foreign policy driven by values and one driven by interests, is wrong. Globalisation begets interdependence. Interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system to make it work. Idealism becomes realpolitik.

That is why I say this struggle is one about values. Our values are our guide. Our values are worth struggling for. They represent humanity’s progress throughout the ages. At each point we have had to fight for them and defend them. As a new age beckons, it is time to fight for them again.

Four comments

If Latour sees a plural world then Blair is with the modernists 110%.   Running through this is the drive to construct a single world based on the truth – although Blair is remarkably vague on what ‘our values’ are.

In The Passions and the Interests Albert Hirschman argues that the language of interests was developed in the seventeenth and eighteenths centuries as a check on the passions: the passions may be unlimited and a concern with interests can place a restraint on those passions.  The pursuit of values is inherently unlimited.  In these writings there are no concerns with resources or even with priorities, more fundamentally there is no discussion of how you balance different values Blair is a firm believer in the view that all good things go together.   Essentially he does what Schmitt accuses liberals of – replacing politics with ethics.

One of the key rhetorical strategies is what might be called axiomatic interdependence – everything is connected to everything else – so there is no option so we have no choice but to react.  The problem is that this isn’t true, not everything is connected and it is differences in exposure generate different positions which again produces politics.  The global is local at all points.

How can Blair advocate such a sweeping foreign policy with such unlimited ends?  Like previous British prime ministers Blair saw Britain’s role in building a bridge between the US and Europe.  He believed that if there could be a unified West that united around his mission  it would be possible to pursue the sweeping foreign policies that he advocated.   It can be argued that in the first half of his premiership he went some way towards achieving the (eg Clarke 2007) but with Iraq the wheels came off.  The result though is that British foreign policy thinking became focussed on the concept of global solutions to global problems with global coalitions.  This doesn’t require a very strong concept of British foreign policy because what he’s talking about is a Western foreign policy where, in his mind, the West can achieve anything that it puts its mind to.  My concern is that British foreign policy remains strongly marked by the Blairite assumptions even though the world is very different from what it was at the end of the 1990s.

In the next post I’ll take up some of these implications.

Clarke M (2007) Foreign Policy, in Seldon A (ed) Blair’s Britain, 1997-2007, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 593–614.
Hirschman AO (1977) The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


  1. Robin,

    This is a wonderfully thought provoking series of posts.I know you are discussing the cultural context for British diplomacy but much that you say resonates here. After all, Blair’s 1999 Doctrine of the International Community speech was given in Chicago. He articulated Western liberal interventionism better than Clinton and later Bush. His values articulation was key to American liberals’ support for the Iraq intervention.

    The idea that we are on a path to one world and need to clean up the recalcitrant bits by force — not officially war — is the central point. In such a world there is no need for diplomacy. Just a use of force against the malevolent leftovers of the past and economic development to spur on the progression toward the inevitable single future. No need for politics (diplomacy) at all since difference will be obliterated or grown out of.

    This view is reflected in the curricula of American public policy schools. Diplomacy may exist in the schools’ name but it is rarely taught. A case in point is the new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale. Their MA has two tracks—international development (including the field of global health) and international security. Only recently did they add diplomacy as an afterthought but not a track of study. Could it be that Blair is working his magic at Yale too? Or, is he just riding a broader wave of Western liberalism?

    So looking forward to more in this series.

    • Thanks Donna

      Interesting point about Yale which fits very well with the direction I’m heading in. There’s been an unfortunate conjunction with the kind of ideological reading of the world you see from Blair (and the neocons and liberal interventionists) and the smart foreign policy thinking. In the UK and the US as well as the northern Europeans the drive has been to get defence, diplomacy and development to work together more but as defence and development have plans, budgets and lobbies diplomacy gets squeezed out.

      If we’re looking at world where the West is relatively weaker and the others are more Westphalian (and that includes the democracies) then diplomacy needs to play a much bigger role.

  2. […] to British Foreign Policy via Tony Blair, Part1,” October 8, 2013; Part 2, October 8, 2013, Part 3,October 11, 2013, Part 4, October 15, 2013, Part 5, October 28, 2013; “German Democracy Support in […]

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