If you read the speech by Sir Anthony Charles Lynton Blair KG on “After Ukraine – what lessons for Western leadership” , take a moment or two to contemplate his photograph. Right down to the washed out tones, this is the face of a man who has split his soul into many parts and scattered them like depleted uranium shells all over the world; a tightened mask showing the strain of a twenty year struggle to suppress the self awareness of the consequences of his decisions that is nagging away at the back of his mind. As a practicing Anglo Catholic, he must have confessed to some of them, and worn out a few rosary beads, all the better to double down on the world view that led him to make them in the first place.
His central argument is that, like 1945 and 1980, 2022 “the West is at an inflection point”. He says “the West” because the rest of the world is defined in relation to it and only comes into the picture as an object for “Western Strategy” to manipulate. As always with Blair, his use of language is designed to obscure as much as it illuminates. “The West” is a shorthand phrase that he uses because it has largely positive associations (in “the West”). Try substituting “The Global North” throughout, and there is a jarring dissonance in his message. The “Global North” is redolent of Global inequities in wealth and power, ruthlessly maintained by its members, is therefore a more accurate label for the powers he is talking about, and this undermines the foundations of his argument; which is why he doesn’t use it.
This can be seen in his opaque description of 1945 as his first “inflection point”. At this time “the West had to create new institutions of international governance, of defence, of European cooperation in place of not one but two world wars caused by conflict between European powers”. This awkward phrasing is designed to skim over the nature of those World Wars – as inter imperialist conflicts between Global European Empires, the result of which was the crushing of a challenge from Wilhelmine, then Nazi Germany and replacement of the weakening Global dominion of the British Empire with the Pax Americana. Nor does he examine the beginning of a breakdown in global imperial dominion in the Russian revolution and foundation of the USSR, nor growing movements for colonial freedom. Nor the way that the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was dependent on the Red Army and largely Communist led Partisan movements in Europe; and the people of China in Asia; both Nationalist and Communist. This is the context for the West’s strategic choices at that point. Blair’s “new institutions” were those required to coral weaker European imperialisms beneath the USA’s new dominion. In 1945, the USA was producing 50% of global GDP and was able to afford to rebuild its rivals as subordinate powers, drive the Communist Left out of post war coalitions in Western Europe by 1947, and cement them into NATO by 1949. These were the initial moves in the first Cold War; predating the formation of the People’s Republics in Eastern Europe in 1948, and the formation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955.
Blair goes on to argue that the strategy for the 1945 “inflection point” in Europe was broadly Social Democratic, building welfare states, modern infrastructure for health and education “to make available to the broad mass of the people what had hitherto been restricted to a privileged few”. He can no more bring himself to say “for the many not the few” than he can note the nationalisation of significant industries, but this is broadly right. What it misses is why this was done. Marshall Aid was not charity. The calculation in the USA was that if the US did not rebuild Western Europe on its own model, and provide some hope and prosperity, the civil war against Nazi collaborators led by Communist Partisans in countries like Italy would re- erupt and the USA could “lose Europe” in the way it “lost China” by 1949.
In 1980, by contrast, the “inflection point” overturned that settlement. “In 1980, after years of nuclear proliferation, we (sic) sought the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of liberal democratic values.” This was via the Reagan/Thatcher “revolution in favour of markets and private enterprise” against “a burgeoning state power that seemed to hold back the enterprise of the people, not nurture it.” It should be noted that Blair declares himself quite agnostic about the character of the strategy launched at these inflection points, so long as there was “a governing project” whatever it might be “, a plan, a way of looking at the world which sought to make sense of it and provide for the advancement of the people.”
His problem here is that the results of the “triumph of liberal democratic values” and “revolution in favour of free markets and private enterprise” has been a shift in wealth and power from “the broad mass of the people” to “the privileged few”. As he notes, “living standards are stagnating”, while “inflation is causing real wages to fall” and public services like the NHS are “pretty much on its knees”. We could add that in countries like the UK and USA, life expectancy is now actually declining. He further notes that the 2008 crash led to emergency economic measures that “rewarded those with assets” while “penalising those without.” The polarisation of wealth has become dizzying. The mass of young people today do not expect to live as well, or as long, as their parents. Even leaving aside climate breakdown, the future looks less like a promise than a threat. Needless to say, Blair doesn’t propose anything that would change this.
Instead, he bemoans the way that “the broad mass of the people” have become susceptible to “rampant populism” and “laying the blame for the condition of the people onto ‘elites'” Perish the thought that the stagnant living standards of the many should have anything to do with the grotesque over accumulation of the few. With no answers, Blair simply bemoans the decline of centrist, consensual managerialism of the sort he embodied in government.
He goes on to argue that the “partisan, ugly and unproductive” domestic politics is destabilising for “the West’s” projection of power internationally; but with no answers to provide hope or decent living standards and, in fact supporting polices that will make the economic attack on “the broad mass of the people” worse, he has simply put his finger on an unresolvable conundrum for anyone with his politics.
He argues that as US global engagement is “determined” by domestic politics, it lacks consistency and coherence. “Foreign policy looks unpredictable”. This is nonsense, as there is a direct continuity in US foreign policy in the “tilt to Asia” and preoccupation with containing China. The tactics may change, but the strategic objective has been consistent.
In ringing the alarm that “domestic politics appears dysfunctional” he does not reflect that the economic basis no longer exists for it not to be. In an attempt to stimulate the economy to prevent it being outgrown by China, the Biden administration put in a huge economic stimulus package – $1.9 billion in 2021 – 96% of which went on consumption and only 4% on investment. The net effect of that has been stagflation; GDP growth of 0.4% in the first quarter of 2022 with inflation eating away at wages and pensions at 9.1% and a dramatic knock on effect destabilising the rest of the world. It should be noted that 75% of the price increases in the US predated the start of the war in Ukraine. With the “American dream” faltering for so much of its population, the approach of the increasingly fabulously rich billionaire class is to fund massive campaigns of online distraction designed to divide the unity of the population; racism, “anti woke”, encouraging nationalist militias like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, alongside poisonous anti feminist currents like the Incel movement, and spiced up with wild conspiracy theories like QAnon; with its tepid British echoes in the debacle of the Brexit delusion. This “turmoil” is a function of the gross inequality that Blair is unwilling to challenge, because the people pulling the strings are the milieu he moves in now. Whether he did or did not have an affair with Wendi Deng, the rumour that he might have illuminates the world he lives in.
Blair has no answers to the reasons for this crisis, so he moves swiftly on to something “new”. “Western democracy needs a new project. Something which gives direction, inspires hope, is a credible explanation of the way the world is changing and how we succeed within it”.
Now, what might that possibly be? Is there an existential threat facing the whole of humanity that’s crying out for global leadership, that countries with wealth and technology have contributed to more than anyone which requires urgent and immediate action if the despair felt by the 54% of young people who feel that “humanity is doomed” is to be turned to hope, respond to the credible explanation for why the world is heating up and give direction to everyone in overcoming it? A look out of his air conditioned apartment at the Red Heat conditions, or a quick look at the wild fires across Europe, the drought that has reduced the Po to a trickle in places and lowered the water level in the Rhine to a point that shipping barges up and down it is now in question might give him a clue. You’d think Climate Breakdown would be a no brainer. There is no bigger issue. It has the potential to unite humanity in creating a better world, because we will need one to keep temperatures down and survive it. Blair does not go for it. This is not because he is dim, but because the sort of leadership required from the world’s wealthiest countries would be as difficult for them as a camel threading the eye of a needle; as its the polarisation of wealth, domestically and internationally, and the over consumption of the top global 10% – most of whom live in “the West” – that is accelerating us beyond 1.5C. Rather than take that on, Blair, and the class he represents, ducks the biggest issue of our time. These people are no longer even in a position to pretend to be leading humanity.
He rather lamely mentions climate change in one other place, saying “we should continue to lead in the climate debate.” Debate?! How about leading in climate action? His problem here is that the West/North seeks to carry on with its current “way of life” and hopes to get away with its gigantic carbon footprints by dumping the costs of transition onto those parts of the world that have done least to cause the problem and are already suffering the most from it. Now that Senator Joe Manchin has finally scuttled the last feeble twitchings of Joe Biden’s massively watered down Green New Deal – killed it stone dead – the United States is now naked in the COP Conference Chamber; and, again, can no longer get away with even pretending to lead on the greatest challenge facing us. The prospect of a Republican controlled Congress and Presidency after 2024 (whether it is the horror of a disinterred Donald Trump or a smoother Trumpite like Ron Desantis) means that the US may be moving back to outright denial and sabotage of Global cooperation. Blair averts his eyes from the reality here, because, for him, being in a bloc with the USA is an imperative, averting climate breakdown somehow optional.
So, having ducked the global imperative, Blair fishes around and decides that the West’s domestic mission has to be “all about harnessing the technology revolution”. As Eccles once said in the Goon Show, “I’m the anti-climax”. This is no more than a re-tread of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the technological revolution” as the solution to all ills in the 1960s. So, not so new.
Its also quite clear that its more about making the world safe for Google, Facebook and surveillance capitalism in general than providing a genuine global vision, as, having make a token genuflection to “legitimate concerns around data protection and privacy” he confirms that these concerns should not “shackle innovation or lose us competitive advantage”.
The attraction of a technological/technocratic way forward for Blair is that the “20th-century politics of right and left don’t really fit with it”; which is a wonderfully confident declaration that simply isn’t true. His problem here is that investment in general, and in R&D in particular, in neo liberal capitalist economies is very low. UK business investment is still below what it was in 2008 for example. Technology is only deployed when it is profitable to do so. Without “a burgeoning state power” to “nurture” investment, on the Chinese model, there won’t be enough of it to break out of Blair’s doldrums. But doing so would require a break with the “triumph of liberal democratic values” and “revolution in favour of free markets and private enterprise” that Blair is in favour of. So, snookered.
So far, so stuck.
Moving into foreign policy its impossible to read a sentence like “Ukraine should be a pivot point, reviving our sense of mission” without realising that – far from learning anything from Iraq – he wants to do it all over again, all over the world.
His lack of self awareness is illustrated by his argument that the Russian invasion means that “we” can no longer believe in “big power rationality” ; as the Russian invasion is “a brutal and unjustified act of aggression…on the absurd pretext that (Ukraine) somehow threatened the aggressor”. Let’s go back to 2003. The UK, along with the USA and others, invaded Iraq, on two pretexts. 1. That it was involved in the 9/11 attacks – which everyone knew it wasn’t – and 2. That it had “weapons of mass destruction” capable of being deployed against the UK in 45 minutes. These WMD turned out to be a work of fiction concocted by our Intelligence Services to make the invasion sellable to the public; which should make us take anything else they say with at least a pinch of salt. More to the point, this was precisely an “absurd pretext that (Iraq) somehow threatened the aggressor” (in this case us). When you compare that with the Russian fear that 1. NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world, spending over 60% of global arms spending, and $19 to every $1 spent by Russia, has expanded right up to their borders and 2. has started the process of incorporating Ukraine, training its troops from 2014 on, and 3.has refused to discuss mutual security guarantees and 4. NATO missiles stationed in Ukraine could hit Moscow in less than 5 minutes (not 45) you might begin to wonder whose fear of being threatened was more “absurd” and whose “big power rationality” should be subject to question. For Blair, of course, reason is compliance with the most powerful force. All else is subordinate to that.
His view that Ukraine should be seen as a “pivot” is, however, not primarily directed at Russia, but China. After all, as he says, inadvertently revealing how how “absurd” are NATO claims that Russia is poised to steamroller all over its neighbouring countries, Russia has an economy “70% the size of Italy”.
China is a different kettle of fish. China has an economy already larger than the US in PPP terms and is growing significantly faster, which means “We are coming to the end of Western political and economic dominance.” Even on Blair’s chosen field of the technological mission, “China has caught up with America in many fields of technology and could surpass it in others”. 5G a case in point.
Us dominance is already unravelling. As Blair acknowledges, “China…has pursued an active and successful engagement with the world, building connections in respect of which, as far as I can witness, there is a deep reluctance, even on the part of traditional American allies, to give up” whereas “the West and the international institutions it controls have been bureaucratic, unimaginative and often politically intrusive without being politically effective”.
So, the difference with 1945 and 1980 is that the West is no longer ascendent and “for the first time in modern History the East can be on equal terms with the West”. This is a bit exaggerated. We’re not there yet, but Blair can see the writing on the wall.
What concerns Blair is that after 2008, President Xi has “re-established the supreme power of the Communist Party”. We should note that this is a Party of 90 million members and enjoys around 95% support from the population, according to studies from Harvard University; which has no reason to inflate or prettify these figures.
The 2008 crash was indeed a moment at which a lot of people in China took a hard look at the neo-liberal model and saw through its failings, supporters of being more like the US, and accepting a role within a US dominated global system, got a lot quieter and, as Blair notes, now “China will compete not just for power, but against our system, our way of governing and living.” Given that “our way of living” is unsustainable, that’s probably just as well.
Again, Blair argues “we cannot rely on the Chinese leadership to behave in the way we would consider rational”. This translates as, we can’t rely on them to do what we tell them, and they are big and powerful enough to be able to get away with that sometimes.
His argument that an invasion of Taiwan should not be ruled out because peaceful re-unification is inconceivable shows a poverty of imagination, unable to project forwards to a point at which China is constructing a prosperous “ecological civilisation”, as Xi puts it, and becomes a relatively attractive prospect for people on that island.
His presumption that divisions can be fostered and pro Western/Global North forces cultivated would require “the West” to be able to offer a more positive alternative. The example he chooses is almost surreal. “As his Covid strategy has shown, strongman leadership carries inherent weaknesses when people fear to challenge what should be challenged.” As China’s Covid policy has kept deaths there below 5,000, compared to over a million in the US and 200,000 in the UK, you might be forgiven for wondering who should be challenging what. Had China modelled its response on the chaotic insanity of Donald Trump and busines first approach of Joe Biden and had a similar death rate, they have lost over 4.7 million people by now. Clearly people must be mad not to be demonstrating in the streets to follow “our way of governing”.
Blair’s strategy for dealing with a world in which “China is not rising, its risen” is to consolidate primarily around core military alliances, NATO SEATO, AUKUS, 5 eyes, increase military spending, invest in cyberwarfare and attempt to promote “soft power”. Increasing military expenditure at a time of declining wages and life expectancy, is likely to be unpopular in the medium term. Hence his statement that “we need political leaders prepared to stand up to domestic political pressure”. There is an undemocratic logic in this, as one way of standing up to domestic pressure is to restrict and remove the levers available for people to express it.
He favours hanging tough. Once committed to an intervention, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or Iraq, it becomes imperative to sustain it. There is a strong whiff of wishful thinking about this. Permanent occupation propping up corrupt puppet regimes was unsustainable in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not primarily for domestic reasons. An armed forces permanently bogged down in two, three many Afghanistans, is not going to be capable of intervening elsewhere when needed. Blair wants his cake and eat it.
His resounding liberal human rights mission also falls foul of some of his key alliances. Even taking “the West” at its own self estimation, Joe Biden fist bumping Mohamed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia underlines the point that the USA has never been squeamish about the regimes it allies with, promotes and defends. As FDR said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s OUR son of a bitch”. As Blair puts it “if we have disagreements about human rights we should say so, but that shouldn’t prevent us supporting them when they’re faced with threats common to all of us”. “All of us” here meaning the Global 1%.
As Blair notes, “the human spirit wants to be free”. In large parts of the world that takes the form of wanting to be free of US sponsored coups and the conditions of IMF finance that act a lot like pay day loans and sabotage development.
His final point is that “the craziness in our own politics has to stop”. He cites the influence of Nigel Farage (an agent of Trump) and Jeremy Corbyn (a rare blast of sense and decency) in the UK, but is oddly silent about Donald Trump. With the US Supreme Court on an evangelical end of times rampage against abortion rights, environmental protection, and gun control, he does not mention the January 6th attempted coup, nor the pending Supreme Court case slated to hand State Legislatures the right to ignore the popular vote in the next Presidential election and choose their own slate of electors just like Trump wanted them to last time; nor the measures being driven through Republican controlled States to disenfranchise global majority voters. The “craziness” in the USA is just getting started. Blair will no doubt find a way to accommodate to that, but those who have thought like him in the past, confronted by the increasing “craziness” and rogue state aggression coming from the USA, will have to resolve a political crisis of their own.