Blair’s different vision

I disagree with Peter Beinart that he and Tony Blair were wrong to support the Iraq invasion. But I absolutely agree with him that Blair has a fundamentally different, and far better, idea than George Bush of what needs to be done in the post-9/11 world.

When September 11 hit, Beinart writes:

…Bush learned what Blair had several years earlier: Pathologies incubated in other countries can threaten the United States. But there were two key differences. First, for Bush, the lesson only applied to terrorism (and, relatedly, to weapons of mass destruction). Second, for Bush, interdependence only flowed one way. In the war on terrorism, the Bush administration began aggressively demanding that other countries change their internal behavior. But, led by sovereignty-obsessives like John Bolton, it still rejected any suggestion that interdependence required changing how the United States governed itself.

From America’s preaching about human rights while it operates Guantánamo Bay to its demand for tougher nonproliferation rules while it builds a whole new class of nukes (not for deterrence but for potential battlefield use)–this is the basic contradiction at the heart of Bush’s foreign policy. And Blair, as gently as he can, has been pointing it out. “There is a hopeless mismatch,” he declared last month at Georgetown University, “between the global challenges we face and the global institutions to confront them. After the Second World War, people realized that there needed to be a new international institutional architecture. In this new era, in the early twenty-first century, we need to renew it.”

To build that new architecture, Blair proposed empowering the U.N. secretary-general to respond rapidly to emerging humanitarian crises, before the next Bosnia or Darfur spins out of control. He proposed revamping the Security Council to include India, Germany, and Japan–so it better reflects the power realities of today. He urged fundamental reform of the International Monetary Fund. He proposed an international uranium bank that makes peaceful nuclear power easier and nuclear proliferation harder. And he called for a powerful U.N. environmental organization to coordinate dramatic action on global warming.

And then Blair turned the knife. “What’s the obstacle” to such efforts, he asked? “It is that, in creating more effective multilateral institutions, individual nations yield up some of their own independence. This is a hard thing to swallow…. But the [alternative is] … ad hoc coalitions for action that stir massive controversy about legitimacy or paralysis in the face of crisis. No amount of institutional change will ever work unless the most powerful make it work.”

Beinart calls Blair a tragic figure, and I tend to agree. Despite the prime minister’s supposedly close relationship with Bush, he was either unwilling or unable to persuade the American president to pursue a more multilateral and cooperative path. (Didn’t the thousands of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan give him some leverage?)

Telling the rest of the world to stick it may feel good, and sometimes it may even be necessary. But as Blair understands, it is not in itself a strategy for achieving a more peaceful, safer and democratic world.