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Blair’s mixed legacy

There’s nothing like a sojourn on the beach in Mexico to catch up on the reading list, and my vacation this past week in Ixtapa provided a welcome occasion to read Tony Blair’s new memoir. The book has already attracted much comment and generally favorable reviews, and for good reason. It is a thoughtful and ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images
Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images
Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

There's nothing like a sojourn on the beach in Mexico to catch up on the reading list, and my vacation this past week in Ixtapa provided a welcome occasion to read Tony Blair's new memoir. The book has already attracted much comment and generally favorable reviews, and for good reason. It is a thoughtful and engaging read, as far as political memoirs go. Though the writing is not terribly elegant, it is conversational and clear, and blessed with some nice turns of phrase.

There’s nothing like a sojourn on the beach in Mexico to catch up on the reading list, and my vacation this past week in Ixtapa provided a welcome occasion to read Tony Blair’s new memoir. The book has already attracted much comment and generally favorable reviews, and for good reason. It is a thoughtful and engaging read, as far as political memoirs go. Though the writing is not terribly elegant, it is conversational and clear, and blessed with some nice turns of phrase.

On substance, the book provides a compelling account of the ten years that Blair led Britain, a decade of consequence that included military intervention in Sierra Leone, and wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. His accounts are often defensive, but then considering the criticism that Blair has endured, what might seem defensive can also be seen as a needful, well, defense of the record.

Even Christopher Hitchens, no naïf when it comes to detecting guile, finds the book a persuasive testament to the sincerity of Blair’s convictions. Especially his aversion to tyranny and commitment to promoting liberty as a universal value. This may be credible to most U.S. readers, but it will meet with much more skepticism in Britain, where Blair does not enjoy the esteem that he is held in the United States. Many Brits still regard him with a jaundiced eye, a product largely of lingering hard feelings over the Iraq War.

The book’s release last month generated headlines in Britain. There was the obligatory tut-tutting over Blair’s accounts of his conversations and interactions with the Royal Family. But the real focus was on the plight of the Labour Party, particularly Blair’s tortured relationship with Gordon Brown, and the ongoing existential anguish afflicting the party’s search for identity (e.g. "are we New Labour, or Old Labour, or Reformed Labour, or Unapologetic Labour, or… ?"). Blair’s deep and abiding commitment to his "New Labour" project pervades the book — and this, as much as personality clashes or conflicting ambitions, accounts for his rivalry with Brown. Unfortunately, now that Labour has chosen as its new leader Ed Miliband (the Brown protégé) over his brother David (the Blair protégé), the New Labour project faces an uncertain future at best.

Perhaps most interesting for the U.S. audience is Blair’s take on the U.S.-British relationship. He writes unapologetically of his clear commitment, even conviction, on the strategic priority of the alliance with the United States. It is always revealing to see the United States through another world leader’s eyes, and in Blair’s account, America really is indispensable, evidenced vividly by his entreaties to enlist President Clinton behind the Kosovo bombing campaign and eventually the credible threat of introducing ground troops.

Yet the relationship went both ways, and no world leader stood more firmly onside the U.S. during our day of need than Blair. It is bracing to read his remarks to the British people on the evening of September 11th: "We… stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from the world." Lofty rhetoric, to be sure, but rhetoric that Blair backed up with actions, even at considerable sacrifice by his nation and political cost to himself.

As he says in the book, "I believed in the alliance with America, I thought its maintenance and enhancement a core objective of British policy, and I knew that alliances are only truly fashioned at times of challenge, not in times of comfort." Blair also rejects the frequent charge that Britain’s alliance with the United States has hurt its interests and global standing: "… our alliance with the US gave Britain a huge position. Those who thought our closeness with America was a problem in the rest of the world could not have been further from the mark. On the contrary, it gave us immediate purchase."

Yet as much as Blair makes a persuasive case for the shared interests and values that form the structural foundation of the U.S.-British alliance, his tenure in office also demonstrates the ineluctable role of personal leadership. The alliance flourishes under leaders committed to it, such as Clinton, Blair, and Bush. Absent such leadership, it drifts. Just look at the diminishing of U.S.-British relations under Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama, or the continuing questions it faces under Cameron and Obama. As Hitchens points out, most previous British prime ministers believed they faced a zero-sum choice between either closer ties with the United States or with Europe; Blair demonstrated that it was possible to maintain strong ties with both.

The book has its flaws. Perhaps the most significant is Blair’s rather blithe treatment of the massive growth in Britain’s domestic spending under his government. Yes, his New Labour brought some needed market-based reforms, more choice and competition to some areas of government. But it also oversaw an expansion of annual government spending on an unsustainable scale, from £243 billion to £403 billion.

This reckless trajectory continued under Gordon Brown, until the economic recession choked off the tax revenues from the embattled private sector, leaving Britain with crippling deficits. Now as the Cameron government tries to balance the nation’s books with profound cuts in government spending, the already- stretched defense budget is not being spared, as announced last week (for two thoughtful takes, see these posts by my Shadow Government colleagues Kori Schake and Tom Mahnken).

These cuts unfortunately hinder Britain’s ability to be a robust security partner for the United States. It would be a regrettable irony of the Blair legacy if his government’s bloated domestic spending came to undermine his visionary commitment to the U.S. alliance.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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