Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Like 1945 or 1980, the West is at an inflection point. In 1945, the West had to create new institutions of international governance, of defence, and of European cooperation in place of not one but two world wars caused by conflict between European nations.
In 1980, after years of nuclear proliferation, we sought the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of liberal democratic values.
In each case, the objective of Western foreign policy was accompanied by an objective of domestic policy.
In 1945, in Europe, in the UK under the Attlee government and in the USA, it was the building of a welfare state, modern infrastructure, health and education services to make available to the broad mass of the people what had hitherto been restricted to a privileged few.
In 1980, it was the Reagan/Thatcher revolution in favour of markets and private enterprise and in reaction against a burgeoning state power which seemed to hold back the enterprise of the people, not nurture it.
Agreeing or disagreeing with either inflection point is not what is material. What matters is that there was a governing project, a plan, a way of looking at the world which sought to make sense of it and provide for the advancement of the people.
In both cases, in their own terms at least, the project succeeded. Europe became at peace. The Soviet Union collapsed. Up until the early part of this century, the people saw rises in living standards and real wages. Things got better. The West was strong.
In 2022, we can reasonably say the following. For a large part of the Western population, living standards are stagnating, millions are struggling with basic necessities, and inflation is set to cause real wages to fall. If we take Britain, we will soon be taxed more than at any time since the 1940s, spending more than ever and yet our public services are creaking at the joints. The NHS, despite now accounting for 44 per cent of day-to-day public-service spending, is pretty much on its knees.
To varying degrees, we could go round the Western world and see the same pattern.
Covid has taken its toll. And now the Ukraine conflict.
Following the financial crisis, we staved off a depression through unconventional monetary policy and bank recapitalisation. There was no realistic alternative, but the policy distorted our economies, rewarding those with assets, penalising those without and was combined with austerity, cutting services upon which the poorest in society depended.
The political consequence over the past 15 years has been rampant populism. Traditional parties have seen a new generation of activists take them over, roiling conventional politics and laying blame for the condition of the people at the door of “elites”. The right has gone nationalist, placing as much emphasis on cultural as economic issues; the left to a mix of old-style state power as the answer to inequality and identity politics as the new radicalism. But there have also sprung up new parties, some green, some centrist, some to the far extremes of left and right.
Western politics is in turmoil – more partisan, ugly, unproductive; and fuelled by social media.
This has had its foreign-policy consequence. Recently a leader described to me their despair at trying to work out any consistency to American engagement in the world. Characterising the Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations, he said: “too much; too little; too weird; too weak”. I pushed back. I think the characterisation genuinely unfair. In the case of each president, there were significant achievements, most recently in President Biden’s rallying of support for Ukraine. But what he really meant, I think, is that those dealing with America today feel American internal politics dominate external policy in a way destructive of policy coherence, an analysis unfortunately shared by those who are not our friends.
The effect of all this is that, to our own people, domestic politics appear dysfunctional; and to the outside world, foreign policy looks unpredictable. Neither helps the cause of Western democracy.
After ten years of being British PM, and now 15 years of experience working with governments around the world, I have learnt one thing. It’s all about delivery. Whether in a democracy or not. That is what sustains leaders and systems or undermines them.
The challenge of democracy is efficacy. The political discourse often makes it all about transparency, honesty, authenticity. These things are important. But they don’t beat delivery. In the end, the reason Boris Johnson fell was not simply the outrage around “partygate” but the absence of a plan for Britain’s future. When the authenticity crumbled, there was nothing of substance left to fight for.
Today, 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.
In domestic policy, my view is that it is all about harnessing the technology revolution. That is the single biggest real-world change which is happening. It will disrupt everything. It should disrupt the way government works. It is the 21st-century equivalent of the 19th-century industrial revolution. It is the only solution I see to poor growth and productivity and therefore to raising living standards; the only way to improve services whilst reducing costs, for example in health care; the only answer to climate change if we want to maintain development at the same time as cutting emissions.
The problem is 20th-century politics of right and left don’t really fit with it; and politicians, now habitually more familiar with the politics of grievance, find it too “technocratic” and in any event too hard to understand.
But if we’re searching for the overarching project for modern domestic governance, I believe understanding the technology revolution, accessing its vast opportunities and mitigating its undoubted risks, is it.
Fortunately, in technology, Britain is well placed. But it requires politics to put it centre stage. And the current Conservative leadership debate revolving around “tax cuts”, presumably to be set against Labour as the “tax and spend” party, has a depressingly 1980’s feel to it.
For foreign policy, Ukraine should become a pivot point reviving our sense of mission.
Not only because of Russia but because of what it means in respect of China.
The conflict in Ukraine, where a peaceful democratic European nation has been subject to a brutal and unjustified act of aggression, with the explicit purpose of suppressing its freedom to choose its own path, on the absurd pretext that it somehow threatened the aggressor, whose leader believes in an eccentric interpretation of Russian history delegitimising Ukrainian nationhood has, for the Western foreign-policy cognoscenti, been like a very cold bucket of water thrown over the head of someone sitting in a café quietly reading their newspaper.
The first reaction to the Ukraine invasion is shock: at the horrible, unnecessary death and destruction.
But after the shock comes the realisation: this is the upending of our belief in big-nation rationality. Yes, terrorists behave like this. Occasionally far-off nations in far-off places fight each other. But this is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The nation with the largest land mass in the world. Whose leader mixes with the other leaders of major countries on roughly equal terms.
We can point to Crimea in 2014 or Georgia in 2008 and say we were warned. But the truth is that this – a full scale war waged to subjugate an entire democratic European nation – was unexpected because it is of a nature that we thought inconceivable.
Six months ago, the idea that Putin could invade the Baltic states or Sweden or Finland would have been dismissed as fantastical. Now, for good reason, the leaders of those countries know they need NATO.
At the beginning of the conflict, I argued for a dual strategy for Ukraine: as much military support as we could give short of joining the fight directly plus the toughest sanctions; but so that the military strategy could create the leverage for a negotiated solution, of course on terms acceptable to Ukraine and its people. I still advocate that approach.
The question is what Ukraine means for wider Western foreign policy. A few years back, many people in the West even queried the need for something called “Western policy”. It sounded to some provocative, even aggressive, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and post 9/11. Ukraine largely removed that query.
However, the biggest geopolitical change of this century will come from China not Russia. We are coming to the end of Western political and economic dominance. The world is going to be at least bi-polar and possibly multi-polar.
China is already the world’s second superpower. Russia has significant military might though, as Ukraine has exposed, also some military weakness. But its economy is 70 per cent the size of Italy’s.
The power of China is on a wholly different level. It has over 1.3 billion people: many more than the combined population of Europe and North America. Its economy is close to parity with that of the USA. Over the past two decades, it has pursued an active and successful engagement with the world, building connections in respect of which, as I can witness, there is deep reluctance, even on the part of traditional American allies, to yield up.
It has an ancient civilisation, one of the pre-eminent cultures, and a people increasingly well-educated and prosperous.
So, China’s place as a superpower is natural and justified. It is not the Soviet Union.
However, in recent times, President Xi has re-established the supreme power of the Communist party, has made no secret of his disdain for Western “decadence”, or his personal admiration for President Putin and his genre of leadership. He intends to remain in power for at least another decade and his clear, unconcealed ambition is to return Taiwan to Beijing control. Hong Kong is proof of what that means. It is therefore virtually impossible to think Taiwan will return voluntarily, hence the fear that China will use force rather than persuasion.
Plus, China has now caught up America in many fields of technology and could surpass it in others.
This new inflection point is qualitatively different from 1945 or 1980. It is the first time in modern history that the East can be on equal terms with the West. And at both other inflection points, Western democracy was essentially in the ascendant.
That is not true of 2022. Or at least not clear.
The importance of Ukraine is that it clarifies. As a result of the actions of Putin, we cannot rely on the Chinese leadership to behave in the way we would consider rational.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying in the near term that China would attempt to take Taiwan by force.
But we can’t base our policy on the certainty that it wouldn’t. And even leaving to the side Taiwan, the reality is China under Xi’s leadership is competing for influence and doing so aggressively.
China will not be alone. It will have allies. Russia now for sure. Possibly Iran. But the world over, it will pull nations towards it as the divisions evidenced in the G20 over Ukraine should instruct us. Sometimes out of interests. Sometimes out of dislike of the West. Sometimes because leaders share the propensity for the undemocratic model. Sometimes the nations will be pulled only part of the way. But China will compete not just for power but against our system, our way of governing and living.
At least for now. And that is a crucial qualification.
I favour a policy towards China which is what I call “strength plus engagement”. We should be strong enough to deal with whatever China’s future disposition brings us, so that we maintain our system and its values. But we should not seek comprehensive “decoupling” or shut down lines of interaction or cooperation. We are clear-eyed but not hostile.
We should show that with different Chinese attitudes to us, come different attitudes from us; that we accept China’s status as a world power; that we respect Chinese culture and its people.
China should always be given plenty to reflect upon. It does not have a monolithic political system in the same way as Russia. Xi will get his renewed mandate. But he is not invincible. And as his Covid policy has shown, strongman leadership carries inherent weakness when people fear to challenge what should be challenged.
We need to be open to the possibility China changes. But strong enough to withstand it if it doesn’t.
For this, the West needs strategy. No project succeeds without it. Pursued with coordination, commitment and competence.
The transatlantic partnership between Europe and America is at the crux. But it needs content and vigour. With our key allies amongst developed nations like Japan, Canada and Australia, and those in the developing world, particularly in the Middle and Far East, we need to agree our objectives. And stick to them. The USA will lead but must involve allies in the formulation and execution of policy.
We need political leaders prepared to stand up to domestic political pressures.
Frequently there is a crude delineation made between “realpolitik” foreign policy – basically unprincipled, and “values-driven” foreign policy – that pursued by the decent people.
But values can’t be protected unless we are strong enough to overcome those who oppose them. Strength doesn’t come from wishful thinking but from hard-headed appreciation of reality.
Governments aren’t NGOs. Leaders aren’t writing commentaries; they’re making policy.
What does this mean in practical terms?
We should increase defence spending and maintain military superiority. The USA has still far and away the world’s largest and best-equipped military. But it, and we, should be superior enough to cater for any eventuality or type of conflict and in all areas. The Americans are catching up fast in hypersonic-missile capability; but the fact that they need to should teach us a lesson.
Cybersecurity is the new defence frontier. It demands a globally coordinated response.
Second, the West has been lamentable in the “soft power” space in these last years, though thankfully, there are indications that the Biden administration is correcting course. I see this continually with my Institute working all over Africa and in South-East Asia. Not only China but Russia, Turkey, even Iran have been pouring resources into the developing world and putting down thick roots in the defence and political spheres. Meanwhile the West and the international institutions it controls have been bureaucratic, unimaginative and often politically intrusive without being politically effective.
Yet we have a great opportunity. Developing countries prefer Western business. They’re much more sceptical now of Chinese contracting than a decade ago. They admire the Western system more than we realise.
But we need to make our institutions and governments more agile, more responsive to countries’ real needs, and coordinate together. Just one example: in the SAHEL region, there awaits the next explosion of immigration and extremism. We should be gearing up now to prevent it.
Africa’s population will double in the next 30 years as China’s declines. We should be helping the new generation of African leaders to grow sustainably, to reform agriculture so that countries with masses of arable land aren’t food insecure, to process and add value to the commodities they possess in abundance.
The G7 announcement of a $600 billion “Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment” is a welcome but overdue response to China’s OBOR.
Covid-19 has spurred huge advances in medical science. There will shortly be launched the “One Shot” campaign to ensure that the new generation of vaccines and injectables for diseases like malaria, TB, dengue and even HIV/AIDS be made available to the developing world and elsewhere. Millions of lives could be saved. The West should lead it.
We must not relinquish leadership in the Middle East. This has nothing to do with oil. Or even security in the narrow sense of working with allies to thwart planned acts of terror. The modernisation movement sweeping the region – whose broad regional support is amply demonstrated by my Institute’s poll published earlier in the week – is massively important for our long-term security. The Abraham Accords with which I was involved, are proof the Middle East is changing. It is literally the last moment to give up on it.
The West has some great institutions of cultural soft power, like the British Council and the BBC. We should support them.
We should continue to lead in the climate debate.
And, as you would expect me to say, we must be leaders in technology. The US-EU Trade and Technology Council could be made into an effective piece of collective policymaking machinery.
We should ensure that legitimate concerns around data privacy and technology abuses do not shackle innovation or lose us competitive advantage. A common approach to regulation would help.
There are good policy reasons for countries near shoring, reshoring and even friend shoring, for security of supply chains. But if we let this turn into a general thrust against globalisation, in favour of protectionism, it will do us harm.
We must show staying power – commitment – even when it is tough. Even when it is not popular. This is one lesson of the Afghanistan withdrawal and, to a degree, also reduced engagement with Iraq and Libya.
This commitment must embrace our allies. If we have disagreements over 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.
India – which could and should achieve superpower status and is the world’s largest democracy – must be kept onside and inside our prioritisation and thinking. Building strong relations with emerging nations such as Indonesia is critical.
People round the world need to see we know what we’re doing. That we have a strategy. That we operate according to a plan fashioned not by the latest Twitter feed, but by deep policy grip.
Even if led by America, we all have our part to play. I won’t induce agony by talking about Brexit, but it is urgent the UK rebuild a sensible relationship with Europe, which allows us to work together in our mutual interest with the other nations of the continent to which we belong and in harmony with American leadership.
This is the foreign-policy project of Western democracy in the third decade of the 21st century: to protect our values and way of life in the era of China not rising but risen.
Like 1945 or 1980, we can succeed. One of the lessons from my time spent out in the world since leaving office, is that in the end the human spirit wants to be free – and that spirit is uncrushable.
After all, that is what is motivating the brave people of Ukraine to suffer such heartbreak. They do it because they know freedom is worth fighting for. Their peril should awaken us to ours. The old assumptions have disintegrated. The world is moving at its own pace and it won’t wait for us.
This inflection point is, in some respects, more grave than those of 1945 or 1980. We require organisation, intellectual heft, sustained focus, a sense of common purpose and a shared strategy to achieve it.
My final point: this won’t happen unless we heal our own politics. How did Britain ever reach a point where Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn came for a short but consequential time to shape our politics? Or America to a place where whether you got vaccinated denoted political allegiance?
The craziness in our own politics has to stop. We can’t afford the luxury of indulging fantasy. We need to put reason and strategy back in the saddle. And we need to do so with urgency.