Glass Half Full

An Interview with Tony Blair

Octavian Report: Given everything that we’ve seen, from COVID to the rise of populism, do you think we are at an inflection point for the West?

Tony Blair: Yes. I think it is an inflection point. In my view all the things that were there before COVID are there now and will be there after COVID, but intensified, and more vivid, and probably accelerated. So I see big political divisions arising after COVID. The strange retreat of the U.S. from pretensions to global leadership causes a lot of anxiety across the world. I think the economic fallout from COVID is going to be considerable. I think that also will increase the salience of all the issues that were there before COVID. So I think the Left will be campaigning on the exposing of great injustice and will want the state to have a bigger and bigger role. There is a risk that the Right retreats into economic nationalism and empty immigration sentiment that was there before COVID and is there now possibly in an even bigger way.

The question really in my mind is: is it possible for people to recoil from all of the division and partisanship and decide that they want something different? Namely a sense that the problems are practical, that they may require radical solutions, but they should be evidence-based and that the world is better working together than going in separate ways.

Sarah Sze, Shorter than the Day. 2020, Powder coated aluminum and steel, 48’ h x 35’ w x 35’ d. Commissioned by LaGuardia Gateway Partners in partnership with Public Art Fund. © Sarah Sze. Courtesy of Sarah Sze. Photo Credit: Nicholas Knight.

OR: How do you think we got here?

Blair: We got here by a combination of the objective and the subjective. The objective factors were the financial crisis and its aftermath, with significant numbers of people with stagnant incomes and a feeling that the ladder of opportunity was no longer so easy to ascend. A feeling that post-9/11 military engagements did not turn out in the way that people wanted and in a way that made the West hesitant about leadership and left a vacuum. Subjectively, social media is a revolutionary phenomenon. In my view, it changes the way we conduct politics, it changes the way we look at the world, and it encourages the shrill and the unreasonable (in terms of political dialogue).

All of that is combined to narrow the space in the center. What it's also done is push the activists in both political parties further to the extremes. I would say that if you look around the Western world today, the Right has become more Right, and the Left has become more Left. And in quite a traditional way, even though you would have thought that the 21st Century would have ushered in an era where people realize these are not particularly intelligent ways of looking at the world when they're based on ideology. I think there's a sense that in an era of change, the people in the center are offering the status quo and the people on the Right and the Left are offering "radical solutions" in circumstances where people want radical solutions without quite knowing what they might mean. This creates very fertile territory for populists. They come in, they ride the anger while not really providing the answer. But it's very effective politics.

OR: What can be done to revive the international order and the political center?

Blair: I think if you look at this in institutional terms, you get into a whole set of arguments that are really quite difficult to resolve around institutions of global governance: reform of the IMF or the World Bank, or the U.N. Security Council, the G20, the G7. I think it starts with America and Europe finding a common voice on issues to do with global leadership, rediscovering the importance of the value system that they share, being prepared to take a long-term view of the way they want the world to evolve when the world is going to have at least one, but maybe two major power centers to the East: China and India, potentially. At the moment, I don't see that happening. Indeed, Europe is somewhat fractured. The relationship between America and Europe has never been weaker at any point in time in my lifetime.

But as a practical politician, you want to start somewhere. So start with that. And with the attempt to fashion an agenda that, whatever the differences, has a lot in common, and starts from the point of view not only of what interests we're trying to preserve, but what values we try to advocate.

OR: Do you think the rise of China could be the unifying factor for such an alliance?

Blair: It should be. It's very obvious, because Chinese power and the rise of China are completely natural and correct. The problem is that it's been accompanied not by what people like me used to think when we were in office — a steady evolution of the Chinese system towards more openness, probably a fundamental reform of the Chinese Communist Party possibly leading to a multi-party system (even within a very managed framework). Instead, in the last few years, the Chinese Communist Party has tightened its grip completely and gone for a model of strong central control plus nationalism.

I'm someone who believes that you will be confronting China, you will be competing with China, but you've got to keep the space for cooperating with China. This needs a strategic framework, not ad hoc reactions on a transactional basis. The West needs to be strong enough to stand up to China, should China become overly aggressive and should that nationalism be played upon by the Chinese leadership in a way that is threatening.

So yes: I see the rise of China as the biggest geopolitical change of this century. And again, COVID has deepened or accelerated the move towards a much more questioning and hostile position from the West, but we still lack a strategic framework within which we could try and govern that relationship.