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Tony Blair on COVID and the global future

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.

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.”

The other thing is that the challenge of democracy today is efficacy. People always think, and the media loves to play it in this way, that the challenge of democracy is transparency, or accountability, or honesty, but it’s actually efficacy. The appeal of the authoritarian leader is that they take decisions and push them through, regardless. The problem in democracies now is that decisions become extremely divisive so that people don’t like to take them. And what you end up with therefore is weak decision-making in an area where you need strong decision-making. Curiously and paradoxically in this era of social media, the public does respect people who stand up to it, as well as being sensitive to it. So that’s why you have this strange thing, in a lot of Western politics, of a sort of regard for the Putinist model of leadership from parts of the Left and parts of the Right. And it’s all to do with efficacy. I think a large part of the appeal of Donald Trump in the U.S. was efficacy. It wasn’t just around mobilizing a certain group of people who weren’t mobilized before. It was this sense that where normal politicians when they meet a brick wall in front of their objective will sit around and talk about it, these leaders will actually punch a hole through it and that appeals to people.

Whether it’s Bolsonaro or Duterte or anyone else around the world, you can see that is the appeal — that strong-man concept of leadership. If the people who are standing up for  liberal democratic values all appear to be too nice or too hesitant ever to do anything in the end, people will gravitate to a different type of politics. I think democracy underestimates its challenge around this issue of getting things done. It’s the reason why my institute concentrates on governance: the thing that I’ve learned about government is that getting the thing done is the hardest thing. Not making the speeches or working out the political strategy. It’s taking, for example, a complicated system and changing it radically. That’s really hard. And in situations where people feel they need change and conventional politics seems to offer only the status quo, the door is open for radical politics.

OR: George Shultz told us that his number-one concern is education — is that a lost cause?

Blair: If it were a lost cause, I would have stopped pursuing it. I think it’s a tough cause. It’s surprised me, what has happened in the years since I’ve left office. You look around the world today. It’s absolutely obvious that education is fundamental to the future of a country, fundamental to all of our countries. If you’re not educated, you’re not going to be creative, innovative, you’re not adaptable to different situations. You’re not equipped for the modern world.

That’s obvious and clear. But you look at most of our education systems and a large proportion of the pupils have very long educational records of poor attainment. What is the answer to that? The answer is to reform education systems. What is the obstacle to that? Teaching unions. It just is, all around the world. Every time I have this conversation with any President, anywhere in the world, and they go, “Yeah, education reform, we’ve really got to do it.” That’s what I mean by saying the challenge of democracy is efficacy. You need a leader who is prepared to come in and say, even from the progressive side of politics, “No, you guys don’t have a veto on how we reform our education systems.” And they’re prepared to take that battle on, and win it.

These are tough battles, but that’s the challenge. That’s why when you go on and on with these things not being dealt with, finally people say, “Look, I want somebody to just bust the system. You guys have been operating the system and saying you’ll change it and never making the change. So I’m just going to get someone who’s going to come in and blow it up and then we’ll see where we are.” I found this with Brexit. You put 100 rational arguments on the table as to why it was a big risk for the country and people would go, “Yeah, yeah. That may be right, but we need some change.”

That one argument trumps all the other 100 rational arguments. It’s a big challenge, and democracy has got to do some soul-searching to get itself sorted out again.

This is a change that took place over the last 20 years. 20 years ago, if I were to go into a part of the world where the governments weren’t democratic and the leadership were reasonable people but not operating a democratic system, they would say to me: “Look, in this neighborhood with my situation, I’m not ready for democracy. One day, yes. Of course that’s the gold standard. That’s where we should attain eventually. But you’re just being naive about how now’s the time.”

You don’t have that conversation when you go to such places in the world now. They don’t say, “We want to get to democracy, but we’re just not ready for it.” They say, “Oh, we’ve been looking at your system. It doesn’t function. You want us to adopt all this? Look at your crazy political debates. We need stable long-term government. That’s the only way we’re going to get our country to be effective.” This is the argument we’ve got to meet, I think.

OR: Are you optimistic or pessimistic on these questions?

Blair: I am eternally optimistic, but I am never sure whether that is a state of nature with me or the product of a rational mind. So I am an optimist, but I am more troubled than I’ve been for a long time. I think it’s possible that the world goes into quite a dark period if the economic fallout from COVID is as bad as I think it may be. We’ll work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen, but the signs are not good for global leadership, which I think is essential, and for coming together in divided politics, which I think is really needed, if we’re going to take the right decisions to forge the right path to the future.

OR: Do you think governments and monetary institutions are out of firepower to fix the economy at this point?

Blair: We’ve got to use every weapon at our disposal to be able to break the prospect of a depression. But I worry that governments have now decided that debt doesn’t matter, that interest rates are going to stay low for as long as they can see on their horizon. And therefore they’re going to go easy on things like major reforms or the use of technology to reposition and reshape public services and government. All of which I think is absolutely essential. So I think you need short-term stimulus to the economy for sure. But I’m cautious on the idea that you can just assume low interest rates are with us forever. I think there’s a lot that needs to be done by way of reform of spending, and changes in the way government works to accompany any stimulus so that it is, long-term, most productive.