The ghost of Gladstone stalks the world's stage
Amoral foreign policy? No other European prime minister would even think of it. Tony Blair's global diplomacy is quintessentially British, rooted in the 19th century, when Britain was a superpower and India was under its rule.
It is 1829 and Lord William Bentinck has just made a historic decision, outlawing a practice known as suttee, in which the widows of Brahmins immolate themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. A barbaric custom, the future governor concluded, not worthy of the empire. The British also suppressed the thug-cult of the goddess Kali, whose devotees roamed the Subcontinent, strangling travelers they came across as a macabre act of worship. Significantly, neither edict had anything to do with religion, or converting locals to Christianity. "The primary object of my heart is the benefit of the Hindus," wrote Bentinck, high-mindedly. While 19th-century Britain was one of the most fervently Christian societies of its day, its foreign policy was founded on universal principles of human rights that, Britons felt, transcended the bounds of any one religion and applied to all people around the world.
So too for Tony Blair, visibly descended from this liberal tradition. As the man himself put it in a speech on Oct. 30, America and Britain are fighting "because we believe in our values of justice, tolerance and respect for all regardless of race, religion or creed." While Bentinck could hardly have said it better, the figure who looms largest in Britain's moral pantheon is William Ewart Gladstone, Britain's legendary Victorian prime minister— and one of Blair's avowed heroes.
After witnessing the treatment of political prisoners in Naples following the revolution of 1848, Gladstone wrote a fiery protest to the prime minister of the day. Notably, the British government subsequently distributed it to every ruler in Europe, a not-so-subtle reminder that here is a global code of conduct, even for sovereigns. A generation later Gladstone dropped another bombshell of a pamphlet on the "Bulgarian horrors," denouncing the massacres of thousands of Christian Slavs under the Turkish sultan and demanding that Britain change its traditional pro-Ottoman policy on grounds of grave abuses of human rights.
Humanitarian interventions for human rights and economic development based on free trade for the sake of the poor: if there are main themes in Blair's diplomacy, they are these, just as under Gladstone. Nearly two centuries ago they led Britain into what remains the longest and bloodiest but also perhaps the most beneficial humanitarian intervention in world history— Britain's suppression of the African slave trade.
Lest it be forgotten, slavery was abolished in Britain and its colonies in 1833. But because it still flourished in the United States, Cuba and Brazil, the horrors of the trade continued unchecked. To British policy makers of the day, this was not merely a humanitarian scandal. The accompanying anarchy and piracy also blocked Africa to peaceful commerce, eliminating any chance for the Dark Continent to develop and prosper. So it came to pass that, for most of the next generation, the largest single fleet in the British Navy was dedicated to the suppression of the slave trade. Ports were blockaded; suspicious ships were stopped on the open seas. When slaves were found, they were taken to Sierra Leone, set free and provided with land, tools and humanitarian assistance as they attempted to start new lives.
These ventures cost British lives— sometimes in combat, but more often in disease. At a time when tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever could not be treated, British sailors stationed in these perilous latitudes died in great numbers. Nevertheless, Britain persevered and— after 1861, when the U.S. federal government joined the effort— finally triumphed.
We can hear the echo today, when Tony Blair calls (as he did in Davos) for preferential tariff concessions to poor countries. When he supports American interventions in support of universal standards of human rights, he is following the trail that Britain blazed when it was a global superpower. When he urges his country to adopt the euro, he is also honoring tradition. In the 19th century Britain helped create what was in effect a global monetary union based on the gold standard.
Even Blair's problems have their roots in British history. His biggest headache— relations with the EU— goes back to 18th-century debates over whether Britain should pursue a "blue water" strategy, ignoring continental Europe while developing its own global trade. Then as now, British Tories (a.k.a. Conservatives) favored keeping Europe at arm's length. Blair's New Labour, like the old Whigs, thinks Britain has no choice but to engage.
The return to foreign-policy themes from Britain's imperial past is not just nostalgia. Former U.S. secretary of State Dean Acheson once cruelly but accurately observed that since World War II, "Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role." Blair seems to believe that Britain can rediscover just such a role, not just by acting as America's loyal sidekick but also by persuading the United States to embrace Gladstonian ideas of human rights, international law and economic development in its foreign policy. George W. Bush at first glance might not seem particularly sympathetic, but Blair's betting the war on terrorism will change that. Call it a new world order— short of an empire, perhaps, but clearly a role.
Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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