Not any more

Canada’s place is with America, Tony Blair says

In Canada on September 2, 2010 at 07:45

For all the flak he has taken at home for his perceived kowtowing to the foreign policy agenda of the United States, former British prime minister Tony Blair still thinks there could be no better partner with whom to have a “special relationship.”

This is an overarching theme of Mr. Blair’s newly published memoirs, and one he thinks governments in Canada and Britain alike should internalize as they seek to buttress their countries’ influence in a multipolar world.

“Canada has got to decide – in a world that is opening up, [with] power shifting to the East, where America is looking at its own alliances shifting – what its place is,” Mr. Blair confided in a far-ranging interview in Washington, where he is taking part in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“You want to maximize the strengths of your relationships, so that in the evolving policy decisions that will determine the future – whether in trade, the economy or security – you’ve got a voice and a say that, looking ahead 20 or 30 years, is bigger than your size will permit you on your own.”

It is up to Canada to choose its partners. But Mr. Blair leaves little doubt about his own preference. The North American editions of A Journey: My Political Life begin with an encomium to the United States that, for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with recent history, is purposely absent from the version of the book he intended for domestic consumption.

Tony Blair interview with The Globe and Mail

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At home, Mr. Blair’s perceived subservience to America – most controversially by thrusting his country into former president George W. Bush’s war in Iraq – continues to weigh on his legacy. But for his Canadian and American readers, Mr. Blair serves up a full confession.

“In a strangely different but deeper way than when PM, I have come to love America and what it stands for,” writes the ex-Labour chief who transformed his left-leaning party into a centrist juggernaut to win to three consecutive majorities. “America is great for a reason …There is a nobility in the American character … a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing.”

Comfortably ensconced on a plush sofa in his suite at the chic St. Regis Hotel, Mr. Blair explained that one of his reasons for including such ebullient praise for the American way of life – and the values the United States shares with Canada and Britain – was to soothe the battered psyches of Westerners in the post-market crash, post-9/11 era.

“People have lost a little bit of confidence in those values – in our financial system, in the security challenges we face, maybe even in our cultural dispositions and attitudes,” he told me on Wednesday. “One of the things I wanted to do is to say to people, look, we should actually be very grateful for the blessings we have, very proud of what we’ve done. We’ve got a great future.”

In his book, which he describes as both prospective and retrospective, Mr. Blair takes a swipe at “the schadenfreude” of politicians and opinion makers on the left who seized on the financial crisis to cast doubt on capitalism itself and push for the rehabilitation of the all-powerful state. He worries that too many leaders may be falling for it.

“To start calling into question the whole of the competitive market system, it’s daft and self-defeating,” Mr. Blair said in his suite overlooking the White House. “What will lift our economies forward in the future is the creativity of the private sector and the enterprise there. If we lurch into big state solutions to this [crisis], we’ll just repeat a whole lot of mistakes of the past.”

This is a message Mr. Blair, 57, said he has been spreading to leaders in the “progressive” political parties across Europe. One presumes they include his own Labour Party, which is currently embroiled in a leadership battle that has exposed old fault lines.

The leading contenders, brothers David and Ed Miliband, represent two starkly different visions of the party’s future. Older sibling David Miliband hews more closely to the New Labour credo Mr. Blair successfully imposed on the party, removing from the party constitution the goal of “the common ownership of the means of production.” Ed Miliband, a fierce critic of modern capitalism, would return the party to its trade union roots.

For Mr. Blair, the tendency of political parties in Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States to yield to the “fundamentalists” within their ranks explains voters’ disengagement. It is also, he believes, one of the root causes of minority governments in Canada, since 2004, and now Britain and Australia.

“The era of fundamentalist political ideology is over,” Mr. Blair insisted in our interview. “The single thing political parties have to be most careful of – at the moment when the public is trying to congregate around a sensible, centrist position – is that the political activists within the parties retreat into laagers of internal fundamentalism.

“That’s not where the public is. Bits of the public will be there …You see this with the Tea Party here. But it doesn’t necessarily represent where the public is.”

While he predicted the party system will survive in parliamentary democracies such as Canada and Britain, Mr. Blair suggested party allegiances will become more fluid and political systems will have “to evolve in their mechanisms and procedures” to accommodate this shift.

But the biggest challenge facing modern Western democracies, he stressed, is this: “How do we attract a sufficient gene pool of talent into politics today?”

Since leaving office in 2007, Mr. Blair has been the official envoy to the Middle East for the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. It is this role that brought him to Washington on the very day his memoir came out in Britain. (The North American version hits the stands Thursday.) The peace talks in the U.S. capital are part of a “top down” strategy to resolve the Middle East quagmire. Mr. Blair’s principal focus, as envoy, is a “bottom up” approach aimed at improving security and living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. The talks can succeed only if Mr. Blair’s work does.

“My theory of why [peace talks] haven’t worked up to now is that too often people have tried to have a political negotiation that is divorced from the practical reality,” Mr. Blair said. “The problem is the on-the-ground challenges each side has got, which for Israel is security and for Palestine is occupation.”

For Mr. Blair, globalization has brought home in starkly apparent ways the realization that foreign policy must be informed by a combination of moral principles and self-interest. “The issue of Palestine today matters on the streets of Bradford [England], not just on the streets of Nablus or Bethlehem,” he told me.

In his book, he sets the context for his decision to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq by asserting that “posing and answering a moral question doesn’t inexorably lead to a military solution, but it establishes a framework that can do so.”

He expresses deep sadness (“tears, there have been so many, do not encompass it”) at the “nightmare” that unfolded in Iraq, and embarrassment that the casus belli (Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction) did not exist. But in our interview he defended the decision to depose Mr. Hussein.

“People say, well, the bloodshed can’t be worth it. To which my response is to say, you can’t ignore what life was also like under Saddam even though it wasn’t on our television screens every night,” he offered.

He advances one statistic. (The book offers many more.) Despite the chaos in Iraq, in 2007, the child mortality rate had still fallen dramatically to 40 per 1,000 from 130 in the final year of Mr. Hussein’s regime. The difference amounts to at least 50,000 lives saved each year.

“One should never forget,” Mr. Blair told me in closing, “there was a cost to him staying.”

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