Monday, April 03, 2006

Fran O'Sullivan: Scarred Blair isn't finished yet

Watch out world - British Prime Minister Tony Blair's got a big new foreign policy agenda and he's not afraid to pump it.

Blair is still carrying political scars from the Iraq invasion - which may yet prove fatal - but he is adamant the intervention was justified and he is not finished yet.

He now wants to intervene in more failing countries, reform the multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, "empower the moderates" of the Muslim world and create new partnerships with countries such as New Zealand to assure democracy prevails.

"There just has to be a greater willingness to use its [the UN's] collective strength and diplomatic reach to put pressure on countries to move in a democratic way."

Blair's new rhetoric will clearly raise concerns he has an Iraq Mark 2-type agenda in mind where big Western powers will just override a nation's sovereignty whenever they choose.

Says Blair: "I should say right away I am not suggesting we should go and create conflict in all these countries.

"But I do believe it is important that we stand up for democratic values everywhere . . . For example Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea where people are living in the most terrible conditions because of bad governance. The fact is, proper democracy with the rule of the law is the way people want to live.

"Whenever people get the right to choose they choose democracy - no-one's chosen dictatorship."

Blair spent 24 hours in New Zealand last week - one of only three British PMs to have visited in the past century.

He was obviously jetlagged - and rather surprisingly scruffy - when he arrived at the Auckland Town Hall on Tuesday night for a cocktail reception hosted by Helen Clark.

But his characteristic passion shone through when he spoke, without using notes, of the gallantry of New Zealand troops in two world wars.

Blair's decision to unreservedly back President George Bush's Iraq invasion inevitably dominated news media questioning here. He's loathed by MPs in his own party and faces allegations of sleaze in that Labour sold peerages for loans to finance the last election.

Despite that, the consummate professional presents an upbeat mood when he is ushered in for the last of three quick interviews at the Langham Hotel.

If New Zealanders have doubts about the Iraq invasion, that's fine. He points out British and New Zealand troops are working together in Afghanistan.

"So I think you can exaggerate this."

His big concern now is about the US "pulling up the drawbridge and disengaging" from the world.

"There are very strong and powerful isolationist and protectionist voices in the United States," he warns, "and it would obviously be very serious for the world if those voices prevail.

"There is increasingly a distinction in the world between countries that are open or closed. Do they open up to globalisation, which means for example opening their markets to trade, getting our business and industry very competitive - not being very afraid of migration - or do they close down.

"And the same is true in foreign policy - are you engaged in the world and are constantly trying to go out and resolve problems, or do you withdraw?

He's working on a major speech which he intends to deliver in the United States promoting changes he believes will make for more effective multilateralism.

"The trouble is that too often people are faced with a choice between multilateralism that appears to be of the lowest common denominator and can be weak therefore and unilateralism - that may not be the right way to put it- but a sort of ad hoc coalition which is the alternative which can have the strength but not the support."

He singles out the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as candidates for reform.

"I think that in each case we have to ask are they operating with the effectiveness we want at the moment."

In Blair's mind it's simple: the politics of globalisation lag behind economics.

"In exactly the same way that economies, communication and culture are coming right across the frontiers, the same is true of politics - yet we are not geared up to that.

"And so the economics of globalisation is driving through the societies and industries and economies of nations but the politics is kind of 30, 40, 50 years out of date."

"And we've got to change that. Otherwise what we will find is that these issues will keep coming up - and world trade is very obvious now -when it will be an utter failure of multilateralism."

Blair in full flight (if only for a truncated interview) also presents a persuasive case for thinking in new ways about terrorism. "One of the myths that the terrorists perpetrate [and their fellow travellers] that we are in danger of buying is that democracy is a Western concept. You know, religious tolerance is something that the Christians feel but Muslims don't. But this is not true.

"We were continually told that it was absurd to think the Afghans would want democracy. What we discovered was give them a chance to vote and they were desperate to go and do it.

"I'm a great believer that most people want the same things.

"They want a decent living and the freedom to bring up their families in some sort of society of mutual respect - I don't believe the Muslims are any different from Christians in that regard.

"But the question is how do we deal with it. In part through things like interfaith understanding but also by empowering moderate voices in the Arab and Muslim world that want the same type of values that we want."

The enormity of the challenges Blair lays out is mind-bogglingly large - as he concedes.

"The fact is that Britain can't handle them on its own. Neither can New Zealand and, interestingly I think, increasingly neither can the United States."

Blair and Helen Clark unveiled plans for an annual security dialogue which has been painted internally as a move for New Zealand to be Britain's eyes and ears in the Pacific.

Blair praises "Helen" as "being obviously so much more on top of this than I am on the Pacific".

He says Britons can trust New Zealanders and like them.

It takes a throwaway line from Blair to reveal motivation for why British diplomats proposed the initiative.

This week Premier Wen Jiabao will be the seventh member of the ruling Chinese politburo to visit New Zealand recently as this country is increasingly drawn into China's orbit.

British foreign affairs and security officials - like their US counterparts - are concerned China's spreading wings will upset the regional power balance.

Says Blair: "That's why we've got to make sure you're still along on our side.

"By using your connection. By being relevant. By being clear in the end your choices will be with the Western Alliance in the event of conflict there."

Blair's attempts to shift the foreign policy debate have so far fallen on stony ground as speculation mounts that he will not be prime minister for long enough to deliver on his call for a new global agenda.

His officials are vague about just when (or if) he will go to the United States to make the case for a shakeup of the multilateral institutions.

The fact is no matter how far he flies he cannot escape domestic politics.

Even his Canberra speech - praised by the Australian's influential Paul Kelly as "the best in the national Parliament since Bill Clinton", one which offered "eloquence, vision and guts that has no match in Australian politics" - basically bombed.

His blueprint for a "global alliance for global values" was immediately overshadowed when he dropped his guard by telling an interviewer it may have been a mistake to rule out a fourth term as Prime Minister.

The travelling British press corps - alert to every nuance - read his "admission of error" as a signal he will try to tough it out in the hope that someone other than Gordon Brown - his long-term Chancellor of the Exchequer and leadership rival - will emerge.

The furore followed him across the Tasman to New Zealand.

But he dismisses British media calls for his resignation. "They always do bay for my blood - I kind of get resistant to it really."

But the strain was showing.

Asked if he was himself now paying the price for his own "courage", Blair replied, "I'll tell you what I think. I think doing the job is a privilege - and you get, you know, a lot of brickbats, but so what. It beats working for a living."

But he ducked for cover when asked whether Gordon Brown will be his successor. "Well you know, Fran, I've taken a self-denying ordinance on all this. No. I've gone through all that."

If Blair has taken a "self-denying ordinance" to put the public good above personal ambition, it's clear that neither man's supporters have followed suit as Labour's internal hostilities come close to outright civil war.

But his Downing Street press officer Joanna Middleton is quick to try to cut off useful clarifications by saying, "I'm afraid we'll have to bring this to a close."

Blair again refuses to give a direct answer when then asked if he will "pass the baton" to Brown or whether there will need to be a leadership contest.

All he's had to say on this subject (not much, actually) can be found on the internet on various websites.

"I'll refer you to it . . . I just don't want any more of it."

Blair visibly blanches - then bursts into loud laughter - when told the tradition here is for Prime Ministers who have been in power for a while to be greeted on their return from abroad by previously loyal henchmen and be told, "Sorry, we don't have the numbers."

He makes it clear he is under "absolutely strict" orders from his press attaches not to further fuel resignation speculation by making media comments.

"Otherwise it goes onto soap operas - rather than policy."

Unfortunately for Blair - who is now into the legacy phase of his prime ministership - the fat lady is clearly warming up to sing.

Time is running out for him to ensure that history records his achievements through a softer and more admiring lens than those worn by his increasingly ungrateful countrymen.

He wants to start swapping policy ideas between Downing Street and the Beehive on the ways to "recast your policies and welfare state - away from the post-world war settlement to the 21st century".

Blair says the idea is to get away from "big monolithic public services and welfare systems to something that is more personalised and individualised and so on".

"The thing that people often miss in politics is that the policy agenda - the mix - is often held in common.

"How you implement it is very different: Progressives versus conservatives."

This is big-picture domestic stuff but Blair's heart's not really in it.

He says, somewhat wistfully, that one of the most difficult things in modern politics is to explain to your domestic audience why international engagement is important to domestic politics.

Nothing could be truer for him.

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