Creeping UK isolationism will continue unless we face up to Tony Blair’s dire legacy

John Hulsman
Blair is the primary reason that Great Britain is in the foreign policy mess it is today (Source: Getty)

Barcelona – As he frantically tries to stop his party consummating its suicide pact with the highly gormless Jeremy Corbyn, it is suddenly easy to remember why former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a giant among pygmies during his reign as the most talented politician of his generation.

Eerily able to comprehend Middle England, Blair understood as no Labour politician ever has that the people of Britain are all for decency and fairness, provided it is recognised that the market is the motor to achieve these lofty and altruistic aims.

While being thoroughly modern (for Labour at least) about domestic politics, the former Prime Minister came to office as an honourable throwback to his party’s golden age in terms of foreign policy, personifying Great Britain’s long-standing two-party consensus on both internationalism and London’s imperative to punch well above its weight in foreign affairs.

For the country, whether led by the Tories or Labour, maintained its Great Power status during the Cold War, even as by all material accounts it would have been far easier (and psychologically more comfortable) for Britain to finally recede into the woodwork as, say, The Netherlands has done. It is to Blair’s credit, and in stark contrast to today’s creeping isolationists on both benches, that he never remotely entertained that castrating possibility.

Read more: Blair, sniffiness and the UK's apprentice problem

But what the gods giveth, the gods taketh away. For while he was the last Prime Minister to wholeheartedly strive to keep the UK at the top table in terms of global power, Blair is also the primary reason that Great Britain is in the foreign policy mess it is today, with his Waterloo undoubtedly being the noxious Iraq War.

Blithely channelling his inner Gladstone, Blair – for at least a generation – thoroughly discredited the idea of Britain running an activist foreign policy, following his decision to serve as a wilfully blind Sundance to George W Bush’s know-nothing Butch Cassidy (do remember the Bolivian army got them).

It is almost impossible for me to explain to my countrymen in the US the damage Iraq did to the Special Relationship specifically, and to the cause of an activist British foreign policy more generally. Enter the David Cameron of last week, determined to stop the foreign policy rot that has certainly characterised his premiership up until now (as it did the unhappy time of Gordon Brown).

First, the good news. The Prime Minister did press the chancellor in the July Budget to ringfence defence spending at last, so as to meet Nato’s agreed 2 per cent of GDP spending minimum. In one sense, this is pretty thin gruel.

For practically, the two per cent threshold is the bare minimum needed to keep the alliance’s three great military powers (UK, US, and France) capable of full-spectrum operations, from peacekeeping to the most advanced war fighting. Hitting this basic target – the subject of much recent worry in Washington – is truly the absolute least London can do, and still be taken seriously by the rest of the world in strategic terms. At last and at least, the Prime Minister acted on this vital point.

However, then he reached for the disastrous Blairite intellectual safety blanket of labelling the threat of radical Islam as the fight of our time. Speaking as someone who worked on this issue in Washington incessantly in the years after 9/11 with a single-minded intensity, it’s just rot. Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk were surely a shockingly under-studied second-order problem before 9/11; for all the chaos and destruction they have caused since, after it they became a shockingly over-studied second-order problem. Radical Islam is not about to emerge as a Great Peer competitor of the West (as China might over time).

Nor can it truly destroy western civilisation as, say, Hitler and Stalin – genuine existential threats – could well have done. Isis can destabilise the important Middle East and, if either of these wholly barbaric groups possessed a nuclear weapon, they could well try to use it. This does require us in the West to develop an activist, creative, thought-through policy of intelligence, policing, and, yes, even ideology to combat radical Islam.

But as a man who runs a successful political risk firm, I must gently say we have endured far worse threats in recent memory. This reality then also requires us to take a deep breath and tell our people the true nature of the threat, rather than aping – as Blair so fatally did – Winston Churchill, who I think saved the world from the greatest threat to civilisation in 1,000 years.

After Iraq, the British people will never again trust a Prime Minister to run an activist foreign policy until every problem is not falsely compared with Hitler. It’s time for Great Britain’s elite to be grown-ups, if we want the people of the country to do the same.

Related articles