Glass Half Full

An Interview with Tony Blair

OR: Do you see the risk of a serious confrontation with China in the next 10 years?

Blair: I continue to think it's unlikely because, as I always to say to people when they use the Cold War analogy, it's not really like that. In 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed, America's trade with the Soviet Union was roughly $200 million. America's imports from China in 2018 were something like $550 billion.

So even if you think there's going to be a certain degree of decoupling, repatriation of supply chains, and so on in the next few years, it's hard for me to see that the economic ties still won't count for something — and they will certainly count for something with Europe, that's for sure. China is making a series of very strong moves. It wants to assert hegemony in the South China Sea. It aims for technological superiority. One Belt, One Road is a massive strategic play that the West completely underestimated when it was launched.

Now, I think there are also a lot of structural weaknesses in the Chinese system, and these will be a constraint. I don't think all this will result, over the next 10 years, in a full-on confrontation. I think there are very good reasons for thinking that will not happen. But the very fact we're having this conversation is an indication that what was at one time unthinkable is now thinkable, at least.

OR: What do you think is the right way to open post-COVID? And what do you think we should do to prepare for future emergencies?

Blair: The sensible thing would be to do two things. First, we should put in place much better international preparations for any future pandemic. That means the right facilitation of working together on how you develop vaccines, how you accelerate any search for a vaccine or a therapeutic, sharing data and making sure that every technological innovation that is required to manage or live with a disease is put into place. Those global things I think are very simple and obvious to do. I'm not sure we'll do them, but you need the World Health Organization.

It's frankly unfair, a lot of the criticism they’ve received, because they were never brought into being to handle a global pandemic of this nature. So I would restructure all of that. I think building that containment infrastructure is really important. And the reason it's so important is because the economic damage is going to be horrendous.

This is really difficult for America, or the U.K., or other developed nations. But in the countries that we work in, in many of the poorest parts of the world — and I've got programs all over Africa with teams of people working with leadership there, to try and help them manage COVID — there's barely an African President that I'm talking to who isn't frankly saying to me, "Look, the cure is worse than the disease. We're going to kill our economies. We're going to make ourselves incapable of dealing with malaria, HIV-AIDS, the other diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people in Africa every year, because we're all focusing on COVID and we don't have the healthcare system able to cope with it.”

OR: Given that the justification in the U.S. and elsewhere for the lockdown and quarantine was to buy time to build out hospital and test/trace capacity, why didn't we see any follow through there?

Blair: I've got a feeling that people will look back in two or three years’ time and think, "We went crazy with this. We created a situation in which we put our economies into shutdown on a very indiscriminate basis." And my institute has published a paper saying the world needs to have mass testing. You've got to look at the most vulnerable groups and all the most vulnerable places. You should have a lot of variation in what you do, and a lot of flexibility in how you do it. The other thing is that you need to explain the risk calculus. Otherwise, you end up in a situation where you think you can eliminate risk entirely in this.

You can't eliminate all risk, of course. The thing is to minimize it as much as possible via sensible measures, but part of the calculus of risk has got to be the damage that you're doing (by the severity of the lockdown) to your economy and your ability to treat other health conditions. And that's why it also requires governments to cooperate together. So that, for example, when you're reopening schools, people are sharing all the information around what's happening. You think about this disease and you look, for example, at what is the evidence about transmission from children, or by children. You look at, for example, how to stop people spreading the disease more than others — the so-called “super spreaders.” Or why is it that some people's immune systems have this overreaction, and others’ don't? There should be a huge collaboration on all these things so that you can know as much about the disease so that you can also get a better strategy in place to defeat it.

OR: How do you account for the precipitous decline in the quality of political leadership?

Blair: Well, I think part of the problem is it's quite hard to convince people to come into public life now. This is where the partisanship and the vitriol put people off. It's a certain type of person that loves to engage in excessive and extreme verbal combat with other people. Personally, I don't enjoy it. I don't hate the people I disagree with.

This is where, as politics becomes much more part of that, it becomes harder for different types of people to come through. And then you get people who end up having done nothing but politics all their life. I always say to people, "I'm shocked by how much I've learned in the 12 years I've been out of politics. Would have been helpful to have known that when I was in it."