Blair’s Britain After Iraq

Steven Philip Kramer. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 4. July/August 2003.

A New Grand Strategy

When Tony Blair became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1997, he took on the great unresolved issues of the second half of the twentieth century and defined a fairly coherent grand strategy to face them. At stake was how to sustain economic prosperity and increase social equality, how to respond to the decay of traditional British national identity and British political institutions, how to develop a new relationship with Europe in which the United Kingdom would play a central and self-confident role, and how to balance ties to Europe and the special relationship with the United States.

Blair’s efforts seemed to succeed until the Iraq crisis drove Washington in the opposite direction from Paris and Berlin. The crisis challenged the cornerstone of Tony Blair’s grand strategy—that the United Kingdom could act as a bridge across the Atlantic. It damaged the new relationship with France established by Blair in 1998. It raised questions about the wisdom of the special relationship with the United States. And it even threatened the survival of Blair’s premiership. Although the military phase of the intervention in Iraq is now over, the long-term implications of Blair’s stance remain unclear for his project and for the future of the United Kingdom, Europe, and transatlantic relations.

Blair’s Balancing Act

The Blair government came to power under exceptionally favorable circumstances. Elected at the beginning of a long economic upswing, for the first time Labour won a big majority in a time of prosperity. The international and European situations were also propitious. Blair had strong affinities with President Bill Clinton, who had also steered his party to the center in search of postmodern “Third Way” progressivism. In Europe, the dominance of the Franco-German relationship had declined; France and Germany were not providing European leadership together or separately. The interventionist model of economic development they espoused—and that the United Kingdom generally opposed—had run out of steam. This seemed the moment for the United Kingdom to seek a larger role, even leadership, if it could shed its traditional ambivalence toward Europe.

Under Blair, the United Kingdom’s postwar economic decline ended. The interests of the British economy and of British society were seen as inseparable; the government successfully fostered development of a technologically advanced economic base, entrepreneurship, competition, a free market, and sound fiscal policies. It began the process of rebuilding crucial but long underfunded areas of infrastructure, such as the National Health Service and the transportation system. Traditional welfare was to be replaced by a system that enabled citizens to participate in the work process. Striving to create greater social equality not only was seen as a good in itself but contributed to a more productive society by reducing the corrosive social consequences of inequality. For the first time in many years, a British prime minister did not feel a chip on his shoulder about British economic performance vis-a-vis Europe’s.

The government also addressed the decline of traditional British identity and the decay of political institutions. Scottish devolution was its greatest achievement, but Blair also moved closer to peace in Northern Ireland than had any previous British leader. It can be argued that Blair’s reforms triggered the end of the 1688 settlement, which constituted the basis of modern British government, and that this “progressive destabilization” will lead, sooner or later, to a new political system. At the same time, the recent triumph of piecemeal reform means that the British political system remains complex and asymmetric. As a result, it is more difficult for the United Kingdom to accept an “ever closer” European Union (EU) based on the kind of political rationalism common to the continent but still alien to the British.

At the heart of Blair’s grand strategy was an effort to find a new balance between the relationship with the United States and that with Europe. Since World War II, the focus of British foreign policy has been the special relationship with the United States. This kind of permanent alliance is an anomaly in British history. For hundreds of years, the British had practiced balance-of-power diplomacy and avoided alliances. In 1940, however, the United Kingdom found itself at the edge of an abyss: with the fall of France, the British could only hope not to lose the war; they could hardly expect to win it. U.S. involvement became a matter of life and death.

As the war went on, the balance of forces between the two Atlantic allies shifted, so that the United Kingdom became the junior partner. The emergence of the Cold War perpetuated the special relationship. The United Kingdom defined its role in the alliance as playing Greece to America’s Rome. But in 1956, the true nature of the friendship was made clear when the United Kingdom and France attempted to forcibly undo Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The United Kingdom quickly learned that it could advise and collaborate with the United States (albeit largely on American terms) and act as secundus inter pares in NATO, but it could not act contrary to American wishes. What was left of the special relationship was the ability (or at least the hope) to influence American policy. As Tony Blair said, “the price of influence is that we do not leave the U.S. to face the tricky issues alone.”

Unlike the other states of western Europe, the United Kingdom and France aspired to play a role in global security, but they chose opposite means. After Suez, France decided to develop the wherewithal to maintain its independence and status as a great power.

In the United Kingdom, there has always been some support for a European alternative to the United States. Yet the basic asymmetry between the United States, a superpower, and a Europe that was more than a confederation but far less than a state, most of whose members had little desire to project power globally, meant that so long as the United Kingdom wanted to play a significant role in international security, it could not choose Europe over America.

The decline of British power, however, and the country’s relative isolation from the continent diminished its weight in the special relationship and with it, its influence. Indeed, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s talk about “partnership in leadership” with newly unified Germany demonstrated that the British-American special relationship risked becoming ornamental. When he took office, Blair therefore shifted focus, believing that by becoming more European, London could strengthen its role in the special relationship with Washington.

An Island Apart

The strategic reality of the United Kingdom’s self-definition as an island empire was weakened by World War I and destroyed by World War II. Nonetheless, it continued to inform British thought. After World War II, the Schuman Plan was developed as a means of solving a political problem—the century of conflict between France and Germany—through economic means. Still looking to its empire and to the continuation of the grand alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom declined the invitation to be a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Defense Community (which failed largely because of the British refusal to participate), and the European Common Market. As a result, Europe organized itself around a Franco-German partnership.

When Charles de Gaulle returned to power in France in 1958, he realized the potential for continental European cooperation to counterbalance U.S. dominance in Europe. Thus when the Harold Macmillan government finally concluded that it was in the United Kingdom’s economic interest to join the Common Market, the French president blocked its entry, believing that the British would serve as America’s “Trojan horse.” Although the United Kingdom later joined the Common Market, it did not embrace the Franco-German vision of Europe as a distinct political, let alone security, community.

The story repeated itself in the 1990s. The goal of the Maastricht Treaty was to irreversibly tie the new unified Germany to Europe. The primary means of doing so were European Monetary Union (EMU) and the creation of a European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI). The debate over EMU exacerbated differences within the British Conservative Party between a Thatcherite majority of euroskeptics and a pro-European minority. This Conservative disunity helped elect Labour in 1997. Thus, the positions the new Labour government took on EMU and ESDI would largely define its orientation toward Europe, and how the continent would perceive it.

Blair wanted to commit the United Kingdom to Europe. That doing so involved joining the currency union was never in doubt. But EMU was more than a symbolic act of fealty to the European ideal that would bear fruit in closer relations with Europe. It was a major economic act that could have enormous consequences for the United Kingdom’s future. It was also a political wager, and a risky one, because Blair agreed to put the issue to a referendum.

The British public has never favored EMU (although it seemed to consider it inevitable), nor did most of the formidable media barons whom Blair assiduously courted. But Blair faced a problem: whereas EMU membership would provide incremental benefits for the United Kingdom and delay would incrementally decrease British influence, defeat in a referendum would constitute a catastrophe for the government. This was one reason for caution, but there was another.

Once the policy decision was made that joining EMU served British interests in principle—but that the government would not join immediately—significant decision-making authority for the process was assumed by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. He developed five tests to determine when and whether sufficient convergence of the British and continental economies existed to justify joining. All the stars need to be lined up for the United Kingdom to join EMU: British and European economies have to match, as do the British and European politics, and Blair and Brown. Such an alignment may not be possible in the post-Iraq era. (Shelley’s lines concerning marriage apply to Blair’s relationship to Brown: “With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foeffiThe dreariest and the longest journey go.”)

Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s efforts to build up ESDI are now facing difficulties as well. The Maastricht Treaty gave the European Union a legal basis to become involved in matters of security and defense. In the United Kingdom, however, the Conservative governments of the 1990s generally opposed making use of that power to create a European security and defense institution that could compete with NATO. The United Kingdom often acted as NATO point man for the United States, which resisted ESDI during the first Bush administration and was ambivalent toward it under Clinton. London found itself at odds with Paris and, to a lesser extent, with Berlin, which advocated a more autonomous security and defense role for Europe outside of NATO.

Under Tony Blair, British policy changed qualitatively when the decision was made to cooperate closely with France. The Franco-British summit in the French city of Saint-Malo on December 3-4, 1998, called for an EU capacity for “autonomous action, backed up by credible military force” to act at times when NATO as a whole was not engaged. Once involved in the push for ESDI, the United Kingdom became its de facto leader.

Of the major European NATO states, only the United Kingdom and France have modern, all-professional militaries, the capacity to project force, independent command capability, and the political will to use military power on a global level. Moreover, because of its privileged relations with the United States, the United Kingdom could secure American acceptance of ideas anathema when proposed by France, such as the fusion of the Western European Union (a weak European-only defense organization) and the EU. Differences between France and the United Kingdom were reflected in the lengthy debate about the extent of links between the EU and NATO and about how much redundancy the EU should have in its military planning staff. But since the United Kingdom was indispensable to the success of ESDI, the French had little choice but to abandon—or adjourn—hopes for an ESDI completely independent of NATO and of the United States.

Blair’s reorientation of British policy was explained as an effort to play a European leadership role in an area in which the United Kingdom has genuine strengths, since the country is excluded from playing a leadership role in other areas of Europe (economic, political) until it joins EMU. The British commitment to ESDI is a down payment on a new relationship with Europe, the balance of which would be paid with EMU membership. But above all, the reorientation epitomized Blair’s belief that close relations with Europe are fully compatible with the special relationship with the United States. Blair’s bridging efforts reached their climax after September 11; when Blair spoke before the U.S. Congress, many Europeans felt he was speaking not just for the British but for all of Europe.

The British Iraq Crisis

That unity of emotion was undercut, however, by deep skepticism in Europe and the United Kingdom about the substance of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the manner in which this policy has been pursued. In the United Kingdom, among policy elites and the general public, few believed that the pursuit of the war on terrorism led logically and inevitably to giving priority to regime change in Iraq. In October 2001, Blair himself said that before moving against Iraq, there would have to be absolute evidence of Iraqi complicity with al Qaeda, which was not available at the time. Throughout Europe, there was widespread opposition to what was perceived as a bullying American approach and a strong belief that any intervention should take place with the authorization of a UN Security Council resolution.

What distinguished the United Kingdom from most of the rest of Europe during this period was that it not only gave verbal support to the United States throughout the crisis but was willing to make a large military contribution to the war. Blair never opposed the use of force, if necessary, to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. In fact, he supported it during Operation Desert Fox in 1998. However, he did differ from the Bush administration in clearly indicating that elimination of such weapons, not regime change, was the goal (although the probability of achieving the former without the latter was not high). According to Hugo Young, a commentator for The Guardian, Blair even said that if Bush had held back from intervening in Iraq, Blair would have pushed him in that direction. Blair did try, however, to influence the United States to operate through the UN and urged the Bush administration to work actively toward a solution between Israel and the Palestinians to eliminate a root cause of Arab grievances against the West.

British willingness to participate militarily in a war against Iraq was not the inevitable consequence of the special relationship, nor was it the result of overwhelming pressure by Washington. Four decades ago, Prime Minister Harold Wilson successfully resisted strong American pressure for British military participation in Vietnam. The United Kingdom could have publicly supported the American position on the war while avoiding military involvement, or it could have provided only token military support. British military participation was thus the result of a conscious policy choice by Blair. The key question is why he made that choice.

One factor, but not the determining one, was the momentum of the United Kingdom’s own Iraq policy. Since the first Gulf War, London and Washington had consistently enforced UN resolutions concerning weapons inspections in Iraq. The British joined the Americans in patrolling no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, averaging 2,000 Royal Air Force sorties per year. The British also cooperated in Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, using missile attacks to erode Iraq’s military capability and its ability to make chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. This operation marked the end of French willingness to participate in enforcing the southern no-fly zone.

But the dominant reason for Blair’s commitment to U.S. policy on Iraq was his intense and rather unique moral perspective on international politics. In his speech to the Economic Club of Chicago on April 22, 1999, Blair argued that the Kosovo war was a “just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values.” International affairs now had to be based on the “notion of community.” Some of his remarks pointed uncannily to the future:

Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men: Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Both have been prepared to wage vicious campaigns against sections of their own community. As a result of these destructive policies both have brought calamity on their own peoples. … One of the reasons why it is so important to win the conflict is to ensure that others do not make the same mistake in the future.

Blair saw Bill Clinton’s America as having “no dreams of world conquest,” indeed, “too ready to see no need to get involved in affairs of the rest of the world.” He also argued, “If we want a world ruled by law and international cooperation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar. But we need to find a new way to make the UN and its Security Council work if we are not to return to the deadlock which undermined the effectiveness of the Security Council during the Cold War.”

There was, of course, no Security Council resolution on Kosovo because of Russian opposition. Blair’s position, which was accepted by most western European governments, certainly seems to suggest that the ends in Kosovo justified the means. On March 18 of this year, the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Blair’s speech to the House of Commons echoed the Chicago speech.

Lord Jenkins, Blair’s erstwhile mentor, hit an important point in an earlier comment: “The prime minister, far from lacking conviction, has almost too much, particularly when dealing with the world beyond the U.K. He is a little Manichaean for my perhaps now jaded taste, seeing matters in stark terms of good and evil, black and white, contending with each other, and with a consequent belief that if evil is cast down good will inevitably follow.”

Blair’s prewar efforts were instrumental in securing passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. This resolution satisfied the United States and France by being sufficiently ambiguous that it could be interpreted to justify intervention in the case of Iraqi non-compliance or to require a second UN resolution, which the French wanted. Blair undoubtedly believed that a UN mandate for intervention in Iraq was good in and of itself. But as the likelihood of war increased, bringing with it growing disquiet and restiveness in Labour ranks, a second resolution (or at least a serious attempt to achieve one, even if blocked by an “unreasonable veto”) seemed politically necessary. Blair’s steadfast support for U.S. policy had secured him enough credit with President Bush that the United States was willing to accommodate his insistence on UN approval for some time. But the results were tragic. Ironically, Blair’s doggedness in pursuing a second resolution made such a resolution seem all the more important, and the failure to achieve it all the more damaging.

The Iraq war produced a large-scale revolt among Labour members of Parliament (MPS). Blair’s decision to support the war and to engage the United Kingdom without a second UN resolution defied two strong and ancient currents in Labour: a religiously based pacifism and a commitment to collective security. The number of MPS who favored war was arguably fewer than 100 out of 659, although Blair eventually got the votes he needed. Not many of the Labour MPS who decided to vote with Blair on March 18 did so because they supported an Iraq war, however. Of those who did find sufficient justification, few were comfortable with U.S. conduct. The Conservative side of the aisle offered more full-throated support.

Blair was vulnerable for other reasons as well. Disaffection and disenchantment are normal among those whose ambitions are disappointed. Throughout his premiership, Blair has kept his distance from the Labour Party, rarely attended sessions of the House of Commons, and made little effort to cultivate the traditional Labour movement. On some key policy issues, the most important of which was creation of foundation hospitals (hospitals with greater managerial and financial independence) within the National Health Service, Blair provoked, or was threatened with, major party revolts. Yet Blair has brought Labour back to power with huge majorities; many MPS, elected in traditionally Tory districts, owe him their jobs.

The House of Commons debate over war, in which Blair and the leader of the House of Commons (and former foreign secretary) Robin Cook eloquently argued their opposing cases, was a tribute to the vitality of British politics and provided catharsis. (Cook subsequently resigned in protest over Blair’s push for military engagement in Iraq.) Nonetheless, Blair was certainly damaged and remains hostage to the fortunes of the war’s aftermath.

The special relationship with the United States was also damaged in the short and long term as a result of the war with Iraq. The balance sheet as seen from Washington is mixed. On the positive side is the practical value of the British military contribution. Without the large British presence, it would not have been plausible to talk about a “coalition” effort. Moreover, Blair’s conviction and eloquence strengthened the moral case for the campaign. On the other hand, Blair alienated hard-liners in the Bush administration, who had never wanted the United States to become involved with the UN in the first place. They believed that the debate over a second UN resolution delayed the war and resulted in greater international anger and resentment. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comment of March 11—that the United States could go to war without the United Kingdom—was an indication of that frustration.

Their irritation will likely increase as Blair, out of conviction and political necessity, continues to strongly advocate a large role for the UN in the postwar administration of Iraq and for a distinctly British position on how Iraq should be rebuilt and governed. Blair’s advocacy will be made in public in order to reclaim the allegiance of disenchanted British liberal internationalists and to reconnect with France and Germany. The immediate future of the special relationship will thus depend on whether the aftermath of the Iraq war strengthens the unilateralist elements of the Bush administration or fosters a renewed emphasis on internationalism.

There will be serious reconsideration of the special relationship on the British side as well. British public opinion was close to that of the rest of Europe in opposing war without a second UN resolution, and this view was shared by much of the British elite. The British foreign policy and defense communities, even the most Atlanticist of them, showed very little support for the substance, let alone the style, of American policy on Iraq. At the very minimum, many believed, the United Kingdom should have set firm conditions for involvement, including such things as a second UN resolution and firm and well-defined American support for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Many question whether Bush’s America has much in common with John F. Kennedy’s, and whether the United Kingdom should continue to tie itself to a country perceived as seeking hegemony, not internationalism.

Even those close to Blair seem to be reconsidering the relationship. On March 10, Peter Mandelson’s Guardian article concluded, “It is tragic that military action could occur without full UN authority, when the case for action is so clear-cut and justified by the UN itself. But it would be an equal tragedy for America to fight alone and victory to be handed on a plate to the unilateralists in Washington, with much wider and longer lasting consequences for the future of the world than the fate of Saddam Hussein.” The not-so-hidden argument for engagement with the United States, then, is the fear that without it, America might run amok. The special relationship thus becomes essentially a strategy for containing the United States—much the same as the French position, in ends if not in means. This is far from the belief in a great Anglo-American community of values on which the idea of a special relationship used to rest.

The Battle with Chirac

For half a century, French policy has opposed either a bipolar or a unipolar world. De Gaulle sought restoration of France’s great-power status, but even he recognized that France alone was not a superpower. The long-term goal of French policy increasingly became the creation of a certain kind of Europe, a Europe as France writ large, which could play a global role. At the same time, French policy assumed a real community of interests with the United States. Thus for the French, the question was whether the United States would continue to dominate a fragmented Europe or be faced with a European Europe that could bargain from strength.

What makes the Iraq crisis unique is that France and the United States failed to achieve a compromise. What began as a policy disagreement about how to deal with Iraq became something quite different: Chirac’s effort to take the leadership of a vast coalition to counterbalance the United States. This was considered by the Bush administration as war by diplomatic means. Chirac provided cover for many countries that otherwise would not have stood up to the United States, and in doing so made a second UN resolution impossible.

Chirac’s diplomatic war was directed against the United Kingdom as well. Chirac believed that Iraq was a defining moment for Europe, that Europe needed to speak with one voice, and that France spoke for Europe’s permanent interests. The United Kingdom, as France saw it, stood in the way of that unity. Blair participated in the January 30, 2003, open letter by eight European leaders, which in effect endorsed the U.S. position. Coming a week after Secretary Rumsfeld’s talk about “New Europe” versus “Old Europe,” the letter was certainly seen as an attack against French leadership on the continent. When Blair looked desperately for some way to obtain a second UN Security Council resolution to bolster his political position at home, he found little sympathy in Paris. London sensed that Chirac was trying to destabilize Blair, and in his House of Commons speech of March 18, Blair blamed French opposition to a second resolution for having made war inevitable.

The momentum of the “logic of war” pitting France against the United Kingdom will carry over into the post-Iraq war era. Chirac can use his temporarily strong position to attempt to marginalize British influence in the EU. But in the long run, the EU can play a significant role internationally only with British involvement. That is what the Saint-Malo summit was about. The logic of the British and French national interests should lead to a restoration of Anglo-French dialogue.

Multilateralism Redux?

The major determinant of European policy, including that of the British, will be how America defines its global role and, above all, whether the United States concludes from the Iraq experience that it is better off acting within a multilateral framework than alone. Europe will define itself by the way it reacts to American strategy, which Europe has been doing for 60 years. Europe was always ambivalent about the United States during the Cold War, but the situation is now different. The world is unipolar, not bipolar. U.S. dominance is greater than before, and not only militarily. There is less agreement on the nature of threats and less belief in the fundamental altruism of American intentions. What is new and disturbing is the widespread feeling that America is the problem, not part of the solution.

There has been continuity in the way some European states react to American power. The United Kingdom tries to influence the United States from within a close alliance, and France tends to be more confrontational. However, Germany has revolted against American policy, something new in the post-Cold War era. Above all, in the last few years, the American relationship with Europe has begun to change from being a genuine alliance with a strong shared vision and common values into a “coalition of the willing,” with many states not very willing.

In 1997, before this change took place and when he formed his government, Tony Blair developed a grand strategy that attempted to make the United Kingdom a modern entrepreneurial economy whose dynamism was founded on a competitive private sector but whose state strove to promote greater equality of opportunity. It was a grand strategy that dared to open the Pandora’s box of British identity and constitutional reform, even if it lacked the will to follow through in all areas. It sought to find a new balance between a close relationship with the United States and a determination to finally become an unquestioned part of Europe.

And Blair’s government has governed well. For example, Gordon Brown is the finest chancellor of the exchequer in memory; for the first time since World War II, the British economy has done better than those of its European neighbors. By acting European, the United Kingdom has been able to gain trust among the other Europeans. By speaking loudly and clearly for what he thought was right in Kosovo and by following through, Blair came across as a true international leader.

The rise of American unilateralism and the ensuing European reaction against it, the loss of mutual trust between the two sides of the Atlantic, and the divisive nature of the Iraq crisis have led to a paralysis of NATO and a loss of faith in the value of the Atlantic partnership. This development has put the United Kingdom in an impossible situation. There is no good answer.

Another British leader might have distanced himself from the United States, as Harold Wilson did during Vietnam, providing lip service but little more. By acting out of conviction, however, Blair entangled himself in a bitter conflict with much of Europe, and by seeking international agreement on a second UN resolution, he unwittingly produced greater divisiveness. In the process, he placed his premiership in jeopardy. But it is to Blair’s credit that his personal survival is not an existential issue for his country. Much of his program has become a matter of national consensus. Blair really has changed the United Kingdom. On the other hand, when it comes to drawing lessons from the Iraq crisis and engaging in course correction, no one has the flair of Tony Blair, and it does matter—not only to the British—whether he survives. Moreover, only he can cut the Gordian knot of EMU.

The British approach of working with the United States in order to influence it, rather than confronting it in the name of multipolarity, is the best course for Europe. Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, said it well in April 2003: “We cannot accept the Messianic vision of the Americans … nor can we limit ourselves to simply opposing it. … My position is between the two, of course. We have to find the basis for an acceptable partnership.” But the day is past when the United Kingdom could somehow exist as a kind of third party, linking Europe and the United States.

The Iraq crisis proved that in order to influence Europe effectively, the United Kingdom must fully affirm its identity as part of Europe, and the Blair program toward Europe must be completed. This will take time, given the bad blood between key European states, but there is no other answer. Europe’s influence will indeed be weakened if the United Kingdom and France continue to pursue the opposing strategies that evolved following Suez. Blair has talked of Europe, which has much to offer, as a partner of the United States. A partnership that brings critical, not automatic, support would provide room for both the French and the British approach. And perhaps Iraq will teach that no great nation, not even a superpower, should act without the benefits of good counsel.