(Originally published on The Sharpener)
Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, in his last briefing paper as Director of non-profit foreign policy analysts Chatham House, is suitably damning of our dear foreign policy obsessed PM – with a few nice little digs to boot:
“In Blairâ€™s case, of course, the focus on foreign policy may have been accentuated by the difficulty of playing a leading role in the management of the UK economy, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer has held sway for so long.”
Me running a Europe-focussed blog, however, I’ll ignore (most of) the stuff about The War Against Terror, and head straight to the bits on British relations with the EU which, as Bulmer-Thomas notes, were pretty much the only aspect of foreign policy in which Blair had shown any interest before becoming PM – and that largely because Europe was a good stick with which to beat the disunited Tories back in the mid-90s. Blair did, after all, start moderately well – treading a fine line between reticence to commit fully to an EU (and a Euro) which was not quite right, while making definite steps towards closer participation:
“The Amsterdam Treaty, signed in June 1997, provided an opportunity for Tony Blair to demonstrate that Britain would once again play a constructive role in the European Union, while at the same time holding out the prospect of eventual British membership of the Eurozone. The decision in 1998 to sign into UK law the European Charter of Human Rights was seen in the rest of Europe as a very positive step. The claim that Britain would be at the heart of Europe no longer rang hollow. Furthermore, Blair followed up these promising first steps with a crucial summit with President Chirac at St Malo in 1998 in which the foundations of European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) were laid on the basis of Anglo-French military cooperation.”
Ah – the St Malo Summit… Remember that? Nope – and neither does anyone else. The vague promises of an Anglo-French military alliance – to coincide with British agreements to reconsider EU-wide tax policy and the rebate – have never been heard of since and, nine years on, the tax and rebate issues have yet to be solved to anyone’s satisfaction.
(Another nice little reminder of Blair’s brilliant ability to say one thing in public and then piss off and do the precise opposite – though not overly relevant to Anglo-European relations – is of the old “ethical foreign policy” of the early Blair years, which included ehtically breaking UN arms embargoes to supply arms to African civil wars and refusing to extradite mass-murdering dictators to face trial… Nice chap, our Tony…)
And then comes 1999 and Kosovo – Blair being the guy who pushed for carpet-bombing to save civilian lives (nice one, Tone – bombing hospitals to save lives). In a tough situation in which something had to be done, he had the balls to step up, but still – was that the best he could come up with? Still, as the Chatham House report notes,
“This was a momentous decision for two reasons, both of which appealed to Blair. First, it committed NATO for the first time in 50 years to offensive action; and, secondly, it demonstrated how force could be used against a sovereign country with a degree of legitimacy without the support of the United Nations.”
And we all know how THAT precedent has ended up being used in the last few years… First, however, our Tony thought it was time to elaborate, and test his new version of international law a bit further:
“The rationale of the Kosovo campaign was subsequently set out by the prime minister in his Chicago speech in April 1999, while the war itself was still raging. In essence, this established the conditions under which Britain would support humanitarian intervention against a sovereign power with or without United Nations support… It was, in retrospect, a naÃ¯ve speech with little or no reference to history that was unduly influenced by European failures in the Balkans before Blair came to power. However, the speech set the tone for the next few years and provided the intellectual case for the military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000.”
(As another brief aside, does this little passage from that Chicago speech sound familiar? – “Just as I believe there was no alternative to military action, now it has started I am convinced there is no alternative to continuing until we succeed… Success is the only exit strategy I am prepared to consider.”)
And then into The War Against Terror proper:
“[Blair’s] desire to show empathy with the United States in its moment of grief was entirely understandable. However, his failure to try to coordinate a European response was regrettable… it gave the distinct impression that Europe was incapable of forming a geo-strategic view, that bilateral relations were the only ones that counted… Up to this point, the divisions within the European Union over policy towards the United States were not so severe that they threatened to disrupt the march of the European project… The problem Blair faced was not how to maintain European unity in the face of a threatened US preemptive
How did he do it? He didn’t. That simple. Since 2001/2, France and Germany have become ever closer, Britain ever more sidelined on the fringes of the EU. Even the arrival of ten new member states in May 2004 – affording an unprecedented opportunity for Britain to shift the EU balance of power back in her favour by getting the newcomers on her side – was not enough to do the job. Blair and co utterly failed to take the European initiative, and this failure was almost exclusively down to the utterly unnecessary distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hell, if Blair had focussed more on Europe in the run-up to expansion, the entire EU project could – just could – have seen itself reshaped on more British lines by now… As Bulmer-Thomas goes on to note, in fact:
“The European dimension of Blairâ€™s foreign policy has been particularly difficult to manage since the Iraq invasion.”
But here I also have a quibble with the report’s interpretation: “Blair can take credit for the fact that Britain is no longer the outlier when it comes to Europe”? Where on earth did they get that impression from? Precisely nothing that Britain has proposed in the last few years has had any chance of success in the EU without the support of other, less disgraced countries. And even then, very little gets done the Blair way, from his attempts to force ID cards on us via Brussels to attempts to solve the ongoing EU budget fiasco.
Blair, the report effectively concludes, gambled it all on sucking up to the big boy, and has gained nothing of substance in return:
“The root failure… has been the inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice â€“ military, political and financial â€“ that the United Kingdom has made.”
And this is what it always comes down to, for me. What, exactly, has been the benefit of British participation in The War Against Terror? What have we gained? We know what we’ve lost – any kind of standing in the Middle East, any kind of respect in Europe or ability to influence the EU agenda on significant issues without being thought of as the agents of the US (as with the recent airline data transfer situation, where Britain continued to act bilaterally with Washington, agreeing to all their demands, while the rest of the EU was desperately trying to put up a united front).
If you support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because you believe they were the right thing to do, fine. But of what benefit have they been – or are they genuinely likely to be – to Britain? And, at the same time (and please try to avoid accusations of anti-Americanism) – what have we gained from our ever-closer close relationship with the US over the last few years?
As the report notes, “No British government â€“ indeed, no European government â€“ can afford to distance itself from both the United States and the European Union at the same time”, yet under Blair we have leaned so much closer to the US that our EU ties are wearing thin. Without those ties, we are of no use whatsoever to the US. After all, Blair’s principle role after lending our support to Bush post-9/11 was to gain military backing for US ventures in the Middle East. In this, Blair pretty much failed – at least, with the EU countries that mattered. The Anglo-French military agreement of St Malo in 1998 was but a distant memory, and without French support, official UN backing for the invasion of Iraq would never happen.
“A closer relationship with Europe is not only a requirement of British foreign policy, it is also likely to be urged on Britain by future US presidents. A government such as Law and Justice in Poland does the United States no favours by combining a strong Atlanticist streak with Europhobia. What US governments want is a European Union that can make a real contribution to the international political and security agenda, and any European government with the diplomatic skills to deliver EU support will be hugely appreciated.”
In other words, nothing has changed in half a century. This is precisely what Eisenhower wanted Churchill to agree to do back when the initial talks over the foundation of what has become the EU were happening.
And whoever succeeds Bush as President will know one thing above all else – the US needs more high-profile allies on the international scene who, unlike the likes of Russia and Saudia Arabia, can also be held up as great examples of the benefits of democracy and the rule of law. Whoever can deliver those will quickly usurp Britain’s position as America’s favourite European pet. Neither Brown (with his reputation across the Channel as leaning towards Euroscepticism) nor Cameron (with his foolish decision to withdraw Tory MEPs from the leading centre-right group in the European Parliament, leaving them with only fascists and fruitcakes for partners) look likely to have the skills that will be required to keep the fine balance working – especially as Blair will have left that balance deciedly skew-wiff by the time he finally gives up office.
Yep, we’ve supported The War Against Terror. We’ve helped oust a vicious dictator in Iraq and a bunch of barbaric psychopaths in Afghanistan. But, purely from the perspective of the British national interest, was the weakening of our international standing really worth it?
Depending on the long-term outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush and Blair may well be right when they claim that history will judge them to have done the right thing. But will history be so kind when the aftermath of Blair’s obsessions with crises further afield results in Britain being both sidelined in Europe and abandoned by her erstwhile American ally thanks to this loss of influence?