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Blair and his Battle for Global Values

The journal Foreign Affairs has published in its January/February 2007 Issue a political speech by Tony Blair. I am often asked ‘How did Blair get embroiled with Bush?’ The best place to look for an answer to that question is Tony Blair himself. The article has been given a lot of publicity and has drawn a lot of comment on the web. What does Blair say? How do I evaluate his ideas?

Tony Blair as a politician came to power determined upon an ethical foreign policy. He has maintained this stand throughout his period of office. He has, in addition, talked many times about the significance of the values that he thinks are required for working together in an interdependent world (see an earlier web-log ‘Blair and reform of economic institutions’). When talking about the reform of global economic institutions he talked in terms of ‘liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice’ which are to my mind an up-dated version of the ‘four freedoms’ listed by the Allies towards the end of the second world war.

International terror has its roots, according to Blair, in alienation and political oppression in the Muslim, in particular the Arab world. Terrorist movements have their origins in ‘a combination of religious extremism and populist politics’ and the enemy is ‘the West’ and ‘Islamic leaders who cooperated with it’. Extremists reject the modern world: ‘They want the Muslim world to retreat into governance by a semifeudal religious oligarchy’. Blair is clear that globalization is essentially about modernization and democratization. Globalization is on the one hand and extremism is on the other: that is the nature of the clash and this is to be interpreted as a clash between good and evil. The clash is not one of civilizations for Blair holds that there are universal values but the ‘age-old battle between progress and reaction— between those who accept the modern world and those who reject its existence…’ This is a battle of value and the values that Blair supports are those of people who believe ‘in religious tolerance, in openness to others, in democracy, in liberty, and in human rights administered by secular courts’. These are, in essence I suppose, the secular values of liberal democracies and it is these values that are to be ideologically constructed as global values for a globalized world. Blair later in the article outlines the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and constructs the issues in the two countries as ‘in its most pure form … a struggle between democracy and violence’. It was ‘value-change’ that motivated intervention (in other words democratization) rather than ‘regime-change’.

Leaving aside the details, the core of Blair’s argument, since September 11th, is that ‘This is ultimately a battle about modernity’ and again ‘This is a battle of values and for progress’. Justice is part of the concerns and the commitment to global values outlined by Blair (here and elsewhere) requires a foreign policy of engagement and securing peace it the Middle-East or debt relief in Africa or securing policies effective against global warming.

Blair is essentially constructing an ideology of ‘progress’. His notion of ‘progress’ is reflected upon but not very profoundly. His ideas of universal values would seem to be based on the philosophers of the European Enlightenment, on Locke’s notion of ‘toleration’, on the universal progress of the human mind and (perhaps) on ‘philosophy’ versus ‘superstition’. It was the case then and it is the case now that those who live a spiritual life feel that the values of capitalism and the Enlightenment project as a whole are basically intent on undermining the basis for such ways of living. To those not deeply imbued with liberalism, it can look like a radicalized secular faith and there is something of that kind of conviction in Blair’s thinking and use of language. The rhetoric smacks of the Church Militant. The 11th September links Blair to Bush, so does his conviction.

If there is such a community of interest as Blair seems to be suggesting then to me it needs to be manifest in a variety of meeting places and political engagements. It does not come ready-made in any simple sense. Blair is certain that there is a global fight to be had against terrorism. This is a point of view that can work against seeing particular problems in particular places and hence finding particular solutions. He is equally certain that ‘we’ will need to fight to defend ‘our values’. The fight, in his terms, is clearly intended to be both physical when necessary but also moral. The trouble is that globalized capitalism has produced almost as many problems as it has solved and the fight for universal values needs to be carried on (as Blair recognizes) in world meeting places (such as the Doha Round or G8) that have little directly to do with terrorism. Blair’s ‘universal’ values need to be promoted (to richer nations as well as to poorer) rather than simply ‘defended’ (against populist radicals) or conveniently ‘assumed’. Thomas Aquinas held that it was justifiable to remove a tyrant provided that the damage done in the process was less than that that would be experienced if the tyranny endured. Values, in this sense, need to be backed by political judgment and clear thinking on Iraq did not happen from the outset. There is still a question mark with respect to current policy choices. Collective values also have to be lived and the problem is that where violence is unleashed it usually leads to an irrational dynamic. Values surely are better chosen rather than imposed, one way or another.