In Other Words

Tony Blair Needs a Hug

Progressive Politics Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer 2003, London The alliance between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush over Afghanistan and Iraq has been a marriage of convenience and circumstance, not of ideological unity. The Bush doctrine of preemption and Blair’s liberal interventionism may coincide at times to justify military ...

Progressive Politics
Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer 2003, London

The alliance between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush over Afghanistan and Iraq has been a marriage of convenience and circumstance, not of ideological unity. The Bush doctrine of preemption and Blair’s liberal interventionism may coincide at times to justify military action, but the underlying approaches are very different — the former is nationalist in origin and application, while the latter is internationalist. Indeed, the Bush doctrine presents an awkward challenge to liberal interventionists such as Blair.

What Blair calls the "doctrine of international community" long predates the Bush doctrine. It was born out of the turmoil in the Balkans in the 1990s and out of Western guilt over the genocide in Rwanda. Blair outlined this approach in April 1999 in a speech in Chicago during the Kosovo conflict. He argued that the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of nation-states must be "qualified" in important ways. "Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter," contended the prime minister. "When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as "threats to international peace and security.’" Therefore, military intervention can be warranted not only to end conflicts but also to create more democratic (or more secure) societies — the very nation building that the Bush team scorned before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Writing in a recent issue of Progressive Politics, Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and former co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), defines the circumstances that justify military action. The commission’s 2001 report offered a checklist of principles: the just cause threshold (such as actual or foreseeable large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing); the precautionary principle (military force as a last resort, and deployed proportionally and with reasonable prospects); and the right authority (granted by the United Nations Security Council).

Merely by setting out these principles, Evans underlines the gap between liberal interventionism and the Bush doctrine. In his speeches of 2001, Bush justified intervention — including preemptive military action and regime change — as a defense of U.S. national security. Indeed, in a particularly revealing passage dealing with Iraq, Evans admits that "there is room for disagreement as to whether the various principles in the checklist… have all been satisfied. But the case is not an easy one to make." Evans goes on to argue that "the suspicion that a ‘humanitarian intervention’ justification is being pursued only because other grounds have evaporated is hard to shake off. If one is trying to build international consensus around the ICISS principles, Baghdad is not the best place to start." 

The problem for liberal interventionists is that all their elaborate principles have been superseded by one question: What will Washington do? Blair knows that the countries espousing liberal interventionist principles lack either the will or the military means to intervene alone; the United States must lead any significant military effort. But Blair also understands that allowing the United States to act alone will only reinforce unilateralist pressures within the Bush administration and undermine the international order Blair is trying to create. Hence, Blair’s response to the Bush doctrine has been not to highlight differences with Washington (as the French have done) but to emphasize similarities. Blair has adopted what one of his senior advisors has described as a "hug them close" approach, which seeks to balance public support with private influence.

Yet that approach has involved working on Washington’s terms, accepting that ultimately the United States will determine whether and when to intervene militarily around the world. That has left Blair seeking to rationalize his decision to back U.S. action in Iraq, as he eloquently did in his July 2003 speech before the U.S. Congress. The contrast — and the conflict — between the application of the Bush doctrine and Blair’s liberal interventionism has been at the heart of the prime minister’s serious domestic political problems in justifying the Iraq war.

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