A Conversation With Tony Blair

Friday, December 4, 2015
Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Tony Blair

Former Prime Minister, United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland

Gary E. Knell

President and Chief Executive Officer, National Geographic Society

Tony Blair reflects on his time as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, and shares his decision-making process in foreign policy and the lessons to be learned for today.

The History Makers series focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy, international relations, or at noteworthy moments in recent history.


KNELL: Good morning—


KNELL: —Council on Foreign Relations. I used to run “Sesame Street,” so we say—(gesturing)—“good morning.” (Laughter.) So actually today’s topic with the prime minister is going to be all about the Muppets, but we didn’t—(laughter)—we didn’t warn him about that, I don’t think.

BLAIR: Probably would be better if it was. (Laughter.)

KNELL: I’m not sure the prime minister needs a long introduction, but you know, just looking it over, his nearly quarter of a century as an MP alone is quite an accomplishment; 10 years as prime minister, one of the longest reigns there; and of course, since then he’s done incredible work in the Middle East, having been over there 150 times; and then working on faith-based initiatives; working in climate change issues; working on African issues; and, of course, sports.

And there is a rumor around that you are the most famous fan of Newcastle United. Is that true or not?

BLAIR: That is true, but tragic. (Laughter.)

KNELL: That will be tweeted, I can tell you. (Laughter.)

So I am the presidency (sic) of National Geographic, and we are very excited to be here today and honored to be with the Right Honorable Tony Blair. We’re going to start a little bit with just a few questions, then we’ll open it up to the audience.

You were elected originally in 1983. There was a famous prime minister named Margaret Thatcher there. And a little bit of the impressions of that period and the influence of her on your politics and political development and foreign policy, despite coming from quite different perspectives.

BLAIR: I mean, she was obviously the completely dominant political figure, and I was just a very new MP with a Labour Party that just suffered a shattering defeat. I have to say I learned a lot from studying her because she was a remarkable leader in many ways, even though obviously we were from different political perspectives and I disagreed with some of her domestic policy particularly.

But she taught me two things that were very important. The first is that people do respond to strength of leadership, and in difficult times they would prefer to have strong leadership even if they don’t always agree than have a sense of—have a sense of inertia. And the second thing is that she taught me something that stayed with me later as well, which was around policy and policy development. Because in some ways, of course, she was an arch-conservative, but in other ways she was actually a radical politician at the same time. In other words, this is the first time I had thought about a Conservative Party as actually a radical party, when normally, as its title implies, it’s a party that keeps the status quo.

So she was very much about changing the status quo. And what was interesting to me was that some of those changes were driven in part by right-wing ideology, but some of them were driven by changing times. You know, so the move from very heavy state control to a more vibrant market, I was kind of—when I was hearing her arguments—there’s nothing more disconcerting in politics than when you’re head-to-head with your opponent and they’re making an argument that you are vigorously opposing, and at the same time as you’re vigorously opposing it you’re actually being persuaded by it. (Laughter.) So this—(laughs)—so it wasn’t that I agreed with all the things she was doing, but I could see part of what she was doing was to do with the changing world and not really to do with whether she was on the right or the left. And I carried that, really, in a sense into the sort of new Labour project, where I also thought that there was a conservatism on the left that could be every bit as debilitating as the conservatism on the right that I had opposed.

KNELL: Fascinating.

So, some 14 years later, you’re prime minister after winning quite a mandate. And in many ways, you’ve been described as sort of the intellectual godfather, in some ways, of humanitarian interventions, thinking about places like the Balkans, Rwanda. You know, we’re now in this situation where intervening or not intervening is becoming such a quagmire and such a difficult decision for our president and the prime minister and everyone else. There was a debate in Parliament just the other night. What went through your mind back then? It was a quite different time, some 20 years ago, but I’d—we’d love to hear about that.

BLAIR: I think you’ve got to divide this into two quite separate categories of situation in which you intervene.

One is what I would call the Kosovo or Rwanda situation. And there intervention is obviously difficult, but I was very clear that intervention—we didn’t intervene in Rwanda; I wasn’t in power at the time. But I think in retrospect, probably if that happened again today, there would be a—certainly I would feel that we should try to intervene. And in Kosovo we did, and the outcome there has been relatively benign. I’m not saying there aren’t real issues, because there are still, but it’s interesting to me.

I work in that part of the world, in the Balkans, today, and I do pro bono governance projects with both the prime minister of Albania and also with the prime minister of Serbia. And the prime minister of Serbia, who was actually part of the Milosevic government, is someone I’ve come to admire and work with, and I think he’s doing a great job for the country. But the interesting thing is, despite everything we went through—and obviously, Serbian people still very much oppose that intervention—nonetheless, the country is now in accession negotiations or talks about accession with the European Union. The Balkans is in a basically benign state.

So I think the reality, and my reflection on my time in government and also my time since, spending so much time in the Middle East, is that that is one category of intervention, but there is a distinction when you’re intervening in a situation where Islamist issues will come into the picture. In other words, where you have—where you have intervention as an Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or Syria, you are going to have a massively more complicated situation and context into which you’re going because there will be these what I’ve come to understand, at least in my view, are deep-rooted and deep-seated forces, both Shia and Sunni, around what I would say is an abuse of religion, but nonetheless strongly motivated by religion. And when you are intervening in those circumstances, you can remove the dictatorship, let’s say, relatively easily—in many cases, at least—but then what comes afterwards is very hard because you’re trying to stabilize the country in the face of forces that are trying to destabilize the country and turn it into a different type of society and in a different direction altogether. So that’s my reflection now.

And I think, you know, that’s—I mean, intervention can, as I say, cover many different elements. But I was—I was always of the view that if you were able to intervene and remove a dictatorship, provide people with some chance of democracy, in principle this would be a reasonably progressive thing to do. But I think the experience post-9/11 has taught us that where you do that in a country where the issues around Islamism will come to the fore, then it’s going to be a far harder task. And there, you know, that’s a whole—I could talk for many days about the difficulties of that.

And actually, today I’ve had—I’m publishing a kind of 8,000-word essay on what I think is the basic principles that would help us in today’s world, looking at this based on my own experience—Afghanistan and Iraq—but also more recent experience: Libya, Syria, and the Middle East. But I would say these are fantastically difficult questions.

And the other thing that’s interesting to me is, you know, I always think, when I came in in 1997 as a fresh-faced youth—which is what I was in those days, believe it or not—(laughter)—and, you know, the world seemed relatively simple. I mean, President Clinton was here in the U.S. You know, we used to work closely together. In economic policy, you basically had a balanced market economy—let the market operate. I think we took it along pretty well. Everything—you know, we did Bank of England independence. We introduced minimum wage. But essentially we were—we were managing a liberal market economy. It seemed reasonably clear what the new economic order was. And in foreign policy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’re in a new world order. Even after Kosovo it seemed reasonably steady.

And then 9/11 and the financial crisis has meant that all the policy prescriptions that we thought were relatively clear and straightforward, all our thinking that seemed to be fairly obvious, it’s a much, much tougher situation today. And I find that people who are in power today, I think the decisions in economic policy and in foreign policy are phenomenally difficult. So—which is a long way of saying, you know, I approach this with a huge amount of humility today.

KNELL: So there’s so much—so many people are trying to figure out the connectivity of how do we connect parties around issues, whatever they are. And you’ve been leading this Quartet for a while now in the Middle East, and—

BLAIR: I’ve stepped back from that now, but I’m still heavily involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

KNELL: But even around that issue, where you’ve had to deal with the Russians and Americans and others and the Europeans, and you know, how did you find common ground around even those parties to connect around some possible solutions?

BLAIR: Actually, in respect of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I have to say I found, even though it seems weird that a body comprising the U.N., Russia, U.S., and the EU could agree about anything, in actual fact I didn’t really find that a big problem. The problem is the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which, again, I could bore you for hours on. But I think right now the state of the politics on both sides is such that the only way you’re going to get progress is through the involvement of the region, and the Arabs particularly, in helping carry this process forward.

But I still think, by the way, it’s of fundamental importance to the region. I think that it’s a big mistake to think, with all the other things happening in the region, the Palestinian issue doesn’t matter. It does. It matters profoundly. And its resolution should still be a big priority of the world.

KNELL: Moving forward, moving backwards—where are we right now on the Israeli-Palestinian question?

BLAIR: Well, at the moment we’re stuck. I mean, that’s not a massive insight. I mean, it’s just the reality.

But we’re stuck not because it’s impossible to see how you could resolve it. I mean, I always say, to me, the most frustrating thing about the Israeli-Palestinian issue—as opposed, for example, to the Northern Ireland issue—is not that it’s so hard to think what the outcome is, but actually you know perfectly well what the outcome is, really: it’s two states for two peoples based on ’67 borders and land swaps, with proper protections for all faiths and religions in respect to Jerusalem, and with security for the Israelis, and with the viability of a state for the Palestinians. It’s not—the thing that’s really frustrating is that it’s obvious that, if you want a solution, that has got to be it. And the alternative, by the way—which is a binational state in which, effectively, the Israeli government would try and run the whole of the—Israel and the Palestinian territories—I mean, I think one thing that is actually very clear for Israeli opinion is that they realize that that would be a disastrous state of affairs.

So, you know, it doesn’t matter when it is—or it does matter when it is; I mean, we want it soon—but at whatever point you’re going to come back to something that is two states for two peoples. And believe me, I mean, I’ve—those 150 visits have taught me something, but—well, they’ve taught me a lot about the frustrations of politics. But they’ve also taught me there isn’t, in fact, an alternative to that.

And by the way, if you got that you would liberate an extraordinary amount across the region because, of course, the thing that is absurd today is that the Israelis and the Arabs actually have a huge convergence of interests. You know, if you—if you go and have a conversation with the Israeli prime minister and then go and have a conversation with the leadership in the region and you ask them what are they really worried about—you know, what’s keeping them up at night—the topics aren’t very different. And believe it or not, even the solutions aren’t very different.

So one of the reasons why I think the Israeli-Palestinian issue is so important is that I think it’s a key that unlocks that door. And if you did have that door unlocked, you would have the—I think it would send also an enormous, powerful symbol of peaceful coexistence, which would have a wide reverberation.

KNELL: So by parallel, going back to Northern Ireland, where I spent a little bit of time, what was the key to unlock Northern Ireland? Was it local leadership that finally stood up and said, enough?

BLAIR: We had good local leadership, which was very important, in the Unionists, in Sinn Fein, in the SDLP. The Irish prime minister at the time, Bertie Ahern, was very forward-thinking, imaginative guy. You had President Clinton here and George Mitchell and others who were really, really important because they gave support to the whole process. Yeah, we were lucky in the—in the people we had.

But we also—you know, one of the things about a peace process is that you—the hardest thing is, for the people who are making peace, they have to turn round to their own people and say things they don’t want to hear. Now, I always say to people about politics, the time you should trust a politician most is what they’re telling you what you want to hear least. That’s the time you trust them, because either they’re an idiot or they know what you want to hear. So if they’re telling you what you don’t want to hear, it’s probably because they’re actually genuinely trying to do the right thing.

So we were very lucky in that situation in that there were people who were prepared to help it and work on it and—you know, as I say, President Clinton was very helpful here. I mean, I used to phone him—literally, because I wasn’t so traveled in those days; I never really had any concept of the time zone, and fortunately neither did he. So—(laughs, laughter)—but I mean, I would literally phone him at any hour of the day and night. And one of the great things about him was that he—his ability to sensitize himself to the politics of the situation was almost instant, and that was also enormously helpful because I could get him to phone somebody and get—you know, somebody’s being really difficult, when you get the president of the United States to call them, it makes a difference, usually. (Chuckles.) Because, oh, it’s the president of the United States, all right. OK. (Laughs.) So all of that fitted together very well.

But the other thing I learned about it is you just never give up, and that’s what I say to people on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. If it’s important, don’t give up on it. And it is important.

KNELL: So from a perspective outside the U.S., how is, in your mind, America being perceived today? Is it pulling back? Is it playing about the right cadence? Where are we?

BLAIR: On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I think John Kerry has shown incredible commitment and perseverance on it, and I think he’s still really committed to it. But obviously, the circumstances have got to be right. And sometimes, you know, people say to me in the region, you know, has the—has the president lost interest in this? And I say, of course he’s not lost interest; you know, he’s got to have somebody to work with. So, no, I think, you know, that America is still, I mean, A, crucial, and B, committed. But we need to create the circumstances in which there’s—that there’s a role they can usefully play.

KNELL: Two political questions. U.K. Labour Party, a little different from the one when you were leading it. Thoughts?

BLAIR: You’ve obviously been studying the art of British understatement. (Laughter.)

KNELL: I’m a Newcastle fan as well. (Laughter, laughs.)

BLAIR: (Laughs.) Right. Yes, it is a little different. (Laughter.)

But you know, look, it’s a—it’s a debate within progressive politics worldwide. And I’m—you see, I was—my view is that progressive politics encapsulates certain values, but in a changing world you’ve got to apply those values anew. And as I say, what I discovered when I was growing up in politics is that the left could also be conservative. And so when we were doing things like school reform in the U.K.—and by the way, the closest I ever came to losing a vote, and therefore having to resign as prime minister, was actually not over foreign policy as you might think, but was over school and education reform—you know, the results today are quite pleasing and dramatic in some ways. I mean, the London school system is probably one of the best examples of educational reform and producing different results than anyplace in the world. But it only happened because we were changing the way we did things, you know, and not allowing the vested interests—even those associated with ourselves—to get in the way of change.

You know, but that sort of progressive politics is often seen by people as a betrayal of principles. And you know, this is probably different in your situation here, but I mean, there are people in my party who I think regard the achievement of government and winning elections as, indeed, prima facie evidence of betrayal. (Laughter.) So you know—which you cannot rebut if you go and win again. (Laughter.) That is the final proof of iniquity and treachery.

And you know, we—when I came to power, we had never actually won two consecutive full terms in the hundred years of our history, never. The most time we’d ever governed was six years, which is one-and-a-half terms. And I was determined to turn us into a governing party because if you’re not in government, you can’t do anything. That’s another thing, by the way, I learned through the years of Mrs. Thatcher. I mean, I was sitting there in opposition and, you know, I found the politics of the left of the time very frustrating because people were enthusiastic about going and passing another resolution. And I said, that’s fine, I mean, now we passed another resolution—but, by the way, they’re still in government, and they’re still doing the thing we didn’t want them to do, so what’s the purpose of it all?

And, you know, that’s—there always are those two strains of progressive politics. And, you know, I think it’s always unfortunate that it’s positive, as if it’s a struggle between principle and power, because it really isn’t. What I do think it is, is a—is about the changing world. And I think what’s really important is for progressive politicians not to be another form of conservative, but to be understanding the modern world and then thinking, well, what does social justice mean in that world. So this is why education reform’s so important.

And I think, in today’s world—you know, so I keep saying to my own party—not with any great success, but—you know, for example, if I was in power today, how you apply technology to the changing world and public services and government would be a vast area of endeavor for me, right, because I think this next generation of technology is going to transform the world of work. It’s going to—it should transform the way governments operate—your health service, your education service, the way government operates.

Actually, one of the really interesting things that the president has done here—President Obama has done here is bring people in from the technology sector and encourage—I mean, I keep saying to my folk, go and study that because it’s really interesting. You know, but that’s—you know, that’s more—to me, more exciting than debating whether we should re-nationalize the railways.

KNELL: Having worked in the media for 30-plus years, this is the most challenging time ever. And many people think it’s had a profound impact on the political debates here because people are speaking to their own echo chambers and you don’t have a common set of facts—that people are turning opinions into fact. I mean, that’s been a big change even in the last decade, I think, that we’re facing. How do you see that? How do we—how do we get news out to people?

BLAIR: Yeah, it’s a great question because I think what’s happening here—and, you know, we always from the outside study your presidential campaigns with a certain amount of interest, let’s say. (Laughter.) Occasionally anxiety. (Laughs, laughter.) But I think that’s a great question, because exactly the same phenomenon is happening over our way, in Europe.

So actually the new leader of the Labour Party is a product, in a way, of that. You know, what’s happened in Greece, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. I mean, I don’t quite know what the answer is, but what I—I know what I want to see, which is I want to see a more kind of muscular center that is able to articulate with passion why practical and forward-looking and -thinking solutions are actually the right way to go for our types of society. Because otherwise, I think what you do—and this is—this is the curious thing I find, certainly in our politics, is the political parties have become more partisan at the same time as, actually, I think a larger part of the public is more open to, you know, new ideas and new thinking that isn’t so anchored in that partisanship. But maybe I’m wrong and maybe what people love is a bit of, you know, partisanship. Maybe they do, I don’t know. But I find it—you know, I find it very frustrating.

So, I mean, in the U.K. now, we’re about to engage in a debate that will be very, very difficult and very fraught, over whether we stay in the European Union or not. Now, I believe that we will, OK? But there’s going to be a referendum on whether we do or not, and therefore it’s possible we don’t. But for me, this—for Britain to be having this debate in the 21st century is just—I mean, we should be spending our time in Europe working for the changes that are necessary in Europe, building up the strength of capability that Europe has with all its challenges, instead of which, really I think driven by a strong minority opinion that echoes some of the sort of tea party stuff here, you know, we’re about now to put our future in the European Union on the table.

Now, as I say, I think the prime minister’s instinct is to stay in, and I think we will stay in. But it’s the diversion of energy into that type of politics when there’s so much energy that you could be expending that is necessary on dealing with what are going to be big challenges that we have for the future.

KNELL: Well, there’s so many touchpoints I’m sure our audience would like to touch upon here. Let’s take a few questions. Please stand, and state your name and affiliation, when you ask the prime minister a question.


Q: Spencer Boyer with the U.S. National Intelligence Council. Thanks so much for your—for your comments.

I just wanted to actually follow up on your last point about the role of the EU—the role of the U.K. within the EU, the place of Britain in the Brexit—the Brexit debate. I just wanted to hear what your thoughts are in terms of the proper role for the United States within this debate. Clearly there are those who believe that the United States should be more vocal, perhaps in support of the U.K. staying within the EU, and others who believe that that would be counterproductive, or perhaps that it’s none of our business. So would love to know what you think about that. Thanks.

BLAIR: Sure. I mean, I’ll just tell you, what I think—a lot of people may disagree with me—I’d like to see you vocal. Also, frankly, this president has got credibility in our country and in Europe, and I think your voice is quite important if that’s what you guys believe. If you think it’s important that Britain is a key player in Europe, don’t be too—we don’t want the Americans to start showing all this British reserve, OK? (Laughter.) Occasionally it’s important for Americans to speak up, and I think it’s important for our country—because it’s an important part of the debate—to hear from people like President Obama. Actually, President Xi Jinping, when he was in Britain a short time ago, in, you know, quite sort of uncoded language for China made that pretty clear, and it’s important people know that. You know, this is a big foreign policy issue.

There’s a risk we end up having a debate in Britain over the European Union that’s essentially about immigration or, you know, short-term issues to do with, you know, the big refugee crisis and all the problems that will come with that, or the short-term problems of the single currency. I mean, going on quite a long time, but, you know, nonetheless. We need also to give the country a sense of what’s Britain’s place in the world. And for our key ally to be expressing an opinion—you know, obviously do it—do it sensibly and with delicacy, I’m sure it will be done—but I think it’s important. People in the country need to know we are going to diminish ourselves if we do this.

KNELL: Yes, sir.

Q: I’m Jim Mann, author, Johns Hopkins SAIS.

I wondered—I want to ask you about something called the war in Iraq, but a specific part of that. Now that you don’t have the out of saying you don’t want to comment on American politics, there were—there were quite a few differences within the Bush administration that you were dealing with about the war, and some of them involved things you cared a lot about, like going to the United Nations. I wondered how you now look back on that divided administration, and how much of a difference it made to your own policies and to the war.

BLAIR: I mean, I think it’s difficult to—it’s difficult to work out exactly what—I mean, obviously I was aware there were different opinions within the U.S. administration. It’s difficult to work out exactly what difference that made to our position, because there was one overwhelming question, which is were you going to back America or not. And you know, I took the view—I mean, leave aside the rights and wrongs of it for a moment—but I took the view, quite apart from everything else, that it was important that Britain stood with America post-9/11 and through what happened afterwards. And I also do think, you know, these relationships and partnerships are forged at times of difficulty.

This is a very hard thing to say to people in a political conversation. But if you—if you think there are certain relationships that your country has—and America is one, Europe to me is another—that are fundamental to our position in the world and our ability to influence things, that doesn’t mean to say you blindly follow—because I wouldn’t, and didn’t—whatever your allies want to do, but it does mean that when they are in a situation in which they feel they are deeply threatened, the people that stand with them at that moment are the people that they remember as allies. And that’s important across a whole range of different considerations and issues.

So I was aware of the fact that there were divisions, and obviously I was keen on trying to pull the thing in the way that I wanted it to go. But I was also very conscious of the fact that we weren’t going to have any form of leverage at all unless it was clear that we were basically with America in this—in this fight. So, you know, that’s what happened.

And I think, you know, one of the things that’s really important now as we look back on all the period, back to 9/11 and forward—because, as I say, I went through Afghanistan and then Iraq, and we learned some very painful and difficult lessons out of that—but I think it’s important we continue the process of learning so that we learn, as it were, from 9/11 to today. Because I think what comes out of this is really a different understanding from the understanding we had at that time, where we thought, post-9/11, this is a terrible terrorist attack, it’s happened from these people who are based in Afghanistan, we need a completely different approach to the issue of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction were part of that. And we thought at that time, well, if you remove the dictatorship and you put in a U.N. electoral process, you give unlimited amount of money to support the country, the people get the chance to choose their government, you know, we were very rationalist about it one sense. I mean, leave aside right or wrong, we were very rationalist about this. Surely then things would work out.

And of course, what I think we underestimated then, but I think we’re in danger of underestimating still, is these deep-rooted forces that were never going to allow that to happen and were always going to be trying to destabilize what we were trying in our rational way to stabilize and to present as a forward vision for the country. And so I think more important than whatever divisions there were between the administration, or how difficult it was for me to navigate that, I think the question that was posed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and is still posed today is what is it exactly that we are dealing with here? I mean, what is the nature of this threat? And how do we counter it? Because I don’t think we’ve, through either part of foreign policymaking, yet got the right answer.

KNELL: Yes, ma’am.

Q: It’s a pleasure to hear you speak. I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.

It’s my understanding that Jonathan Powell played a big part in your problems with Ireland. How do we bring him over here to show us how to do that? (Laughter.) You better explain what Jonathan did.

BLAIR: Well, he was my chief of staff, and was my key person on the—on the Northern Ireland peace process, and did it with remarkable skill and patience, actually. But what particular part of your—(laughs)—what do you think he could do here? (Laughter.) I’m sure he comes here a lot, but I don’t know. I think, you know, you mean in your political exchanges? I’m afraid I think you guys are going to have to figure that out for yourselves. (Laughter.) But it’s—but you probably will, you know, in the end.

I mean, I—look, I’m one of these people that—I think two things about America. First of all, that you have enormous resilience and depth as a—as a country. And secondly, that the world is more on your side than you probably think it is a lot of the time. I mean, people always—I get a lot of people saying to me in America, well, you know, America’s disliked here, or hated there, or whatever. And I always tell people, it’s a lot more complicated than that because, you know, as I was saying to some people last night, it’s a great test of a country, you know, are people trying to get into the country or out of it? (Laughter.) And my sense here is that your problem is immigration. (Laughter.)

KNELL: Let’s take a question in the back.

Q: Hello. My name’s Reggie Love. I work for a company called Transatlantic.

I love the topic about immigration. I think the U.K. and Europe will see some interesting things happen with, as you say, all the unsettled things happening in the Middle East. So what do you think happens for the U.K. in how they address their immigration problem? And that being said, you had the—if you had to live someplace that wasn’t the U.S. or the U.K., where would that be and why? (Laughter.)

BLAIR: You know, Reggie, I’m going to dodge that last question because otherwise I’ll make one group of friends and many enemies. (Laughter.) Or maybe I don’t—(chuckles)—but it would definitely be somewhere warm. (Laughter.) Somewhere warm, that is for sure, yeah—because I will say about Britain, it’s a great country, but it does have a problem with its weather—(laughter)—which, by the way, I used to get blamed for when I was prime minister, for that. (Laughter.) Talking Newcastle United as well, it’s the reason why I could never go to a football match. If you’re a prime minister—I don’t know if it’s true of the president here—if you’re prime minister and you turn up at a football match and the team loses everyone’s sort of looking at you like, uh-huh. (Laughter.)

So I think immigration—you see, immigration, to me, you’ve got to distinguish between two different issues. Immigration is in my view a great thing for a country, right? It brings energy. It brings vitality. And you know, countries that are anti-immigrant are not successful countries. And countries who, you know, don’t welcome immigrants in, they, I think, deprive themselves of potentially a great asset. And I think you can take a country, for example, like Japan, and say, you know, Japan, for all its strengths, would be a stronger country if it had more immigration, right?

So I think you’ve got to distinguish, however, between the principle of immigration and the energy and vitality it can bring, which I’m totally in favor of, and cross cultural—and I think the fact that today’s world brings the breaking down of barriers between race, and faith, and culture, and nation, and ethnicity—I love all that. I’m total and completely in favor of it. I think the second question, though, is this, that immigration also can pose problems. And I think it’s very important, again, for progressives, not to just kind of dismiss those problems, because they can be real. And what can those problems be? Well, those problems can be either because people feel, yeah, we like immigration in principles but there doesn’t seem to be any control or rules around this, you know, so people just coming in. And that makes them anxious about the effects and the impact.

So my mantra when I was prime minister, and I had to fight my last election campaign very much on the issue of immigration, is, you know, we want rules, but not prejudices. And I think most people will buy into that no prejudice part, but they do want rules. And so when we in Britain had a problem with kind of large numbers of people claiming asylum when they weren’t really asylum seekers, and coming into the country as a result, and then, you know, that was a big problem and we had to deal with it. And I always used to say to my own people who would say, no, you’re being anti-immigrant if you’re putting in place these roles, I’d say, no, we’re not being anti-immigrant, right? You’ve got to have some order in this.

The other problem which is—now, in Europe, is a very contemporary and challenging problem arising out of the Syria crisis, is when you’re bringing people in from a completely different culture. Now, in those circumstances, I think it’s very important, again, that we are clear-headed about what is necessary. I’d like to live in a society where different cultures feel free to worship in their own way and to have their own customs and traditions. And I love the fact that in a country—in a place like London you’ve got this melting pot of different cultures. And it’s vibrant. I like it.

But there’s also got to be a common space where people integrate and where people agree that in this common space there are values we all share—rule of law, equal treatment between men and women, abiding by basic democratic principles. I don’t accept that anyone says, no, no, I’m from a culture that says I can’t do those things. No, sorry, you come in and you got to be clear. You’ve got the space for diversity, but you’ve got the space that is in common. And I think Europe will face this in a very critical way because of this refugee crisis we have. Of course, we should have our door open to those people who’ve suffered so much. It would be inhumane to refuse entry. But this is going to be a big, big challenge. And we need to prepare the host communities and we need to prepare those people coming in for what is going to be, you know, that will significantly effect change within our own communities.

So I think it’s very important, again, on the progressive side of politics that we are able to distinguish between anti-immigrant feeling that’s essentially, in the end, a form of racism, and anxiety about immigration that may be perfectly understandable and you have to try to take account of that, otherwise you’re—funnily enough, otherwise what you do is you roll the second group of people into the first group. And that’s when you’ve got a big problem. And that is actually the danger in Europe today on this whole immigration question, that people become anti-immigrant because they don’t think the people at the top in politics get the problem.

And you know, I’ve learned over time one thing is really important, is that those at the top are saying to kind of what I would call normal people, look, you just shouldn’t think like that. That’s dangerous. Now, you say to people who are on the far right and racist and so on, don’t think like that. That’s fine. That’s a battle I’m perfectly happy to have. But you have to be careful you’re not confusing those two groups of people, otherwise you end up with a real problem. And actually, you end up in a situation where immigrants feel the backlash.

KNELL: Can you speak a little bit about the challenges of Africa, obviously migration issues, we expect another billion Africans, I believe, in the next 35 years. So same 700 million Europeans or so, another billion Africans to add to the billion today, migration crisis coming from there. How are you viewing the developments in Africa today?

BLAIR: Well, I’m kind of positive about Africa as a whole, because I think there’s a new generation of leaders there, and I think—in politics, in business, in civic society. And I think, you know, the middle class is set to double in the next few years in Africa. Live expectancy’s going up. And, you know, 25 years ago there were only a few functioning democracies. Today, most of Africa has functioning democracies, government changing hands, as they’ve done in Nigeria just recently. It’s very important.

I think we need a new approach to development. I mean, the two things I work on since leaving office are really extremism—the extremism issue, and I kind of put the Israeli-Palestinian thing, in a way, along—I’ve got it somewhere located in that—and then governance, because I think the biggest thing that holds Africa back now is the quality and capacity it’s got to govern effectively. One of the interesting initiatives of this administration that I’ve been partially involved in is something called Power Africa, which is to do with helping Africa get access to proper electricity and power infrastructure.

I think we could do a lot—you know, one of the things I’ve learned is politics, unfortunately—political leaders tend to get driven by crisis. And it’s really quite rare that political leadership can take a step back and say: What’s the problem I am going to deal with today? The benefit of dealing with it might only arise way beyond my own election cycle. So it’s not often it happens. I think today, at this moment, in Africa, if we really put structured help from the U.S. and Europe alongside those African countries as they’re emerging and developing, I think we would make an enormous difference for our own future security because, by the way, the single biggest problem I think certainly the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa will face today is this danger of extremism. I mean, it’s the single biggest problem in Nigeria, Kenya, Mali, everywhere.

KNELL: Paula.

Q: Thank you very much. Paula Dobriansky, Harvard University, and a former special presidential envoy to Northern Ireland.

I’m very tempted to ask you about the current state of play in Northern Ireland, but I’m not. I want to ask you about Russia. Russia, with its invasion of Ukraine, has challenged the international rules, and even the international liberal order as we know it. What do you think is the best policy approach vis-à-vis Russia, and Putin in particular, today?

BLAIR: You know, you can run through virtually all the different foreign policy issues, and I feel a reasonable confidence—maybe totally displaced—in what I’m saying. When it comes to Russia, you know, sometimes I just want to say, I’m not sure—(laughter)—which you can’t really say, as a political leader. Well, you can once you leave office, but you never do that. (Laughter.) You can’t do it as prime minister. You can’t say, I don’t know. (Laughter.)

I don’t know. Sometimes with Russia I’m never sure whether I’m worried or very worried. I mean, I’m definitely worried. I think that following the collapse of the Soviet Union we didn’t really do enough to understand that along with the sense that people had of liberation, particularly from the countries out—you know, that formed part of the Soviet Union—we were in a sense focused on their sense of liberation. I don’t think we focused sufficiently on how Russia felt about itself, how it felt that it had lost its place in the world, and therefore how President Putin definitely speaks to something very deep within the Russian people.

And I always say to people when they ask me about President Putin that he’s not complex. He’s very simple. He’s a Russian nationalist. And the language that he understands is strength, and that’s it. You know, once you understand those two things, then you understand what you’re dealing with. And I personally believe it would have been great if Russia had decided that it was going to down a path of reform. But I think they all found that too difficult, so they’ve gone down now a path of nationalism. And I think we have to deal with Russia at two different levels because I don’t think you can ignore them, and I also think it’s very dangerous completely to alienate them from our sphere of thinking.

On the other hand, we have to be clear about Ukraine. On the doorstep of Europe 7,000 people have died. Territory has been annexed in breach of all the rules of international obligation. And Ukraine stays in a situation where 4 ½ billion people are living in a strange sort of political zone, if you like, and the country obviously finds it very hard to make progress or to exercise its choices as to its own future. So I think we have got to deal with it in two ways. I think we have got to be extremely clear and powerful ourselves as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. And we cannot allow, you know, in the interests of a broader relationship, us to let down people are really looking to us for leadership in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine.

And secondly, when it comes to things upon which we can cooperate and have to cooperate, and Syria is one and extremism is another, I think we can and should cooperate, but there should never be a trade. So I don’t think we can say, OK, well, maybe we should forget about Ukraine, because now we need help in Syria. No, that would be, in my view, a mistake. So I think it’s very, very difficult—very difficult, indeed. But I think the other thing we need to do is those counties of the former Soviet Union, they need our support and help too, because I think they feel under more pressure than we sometime think, because they don’t articulate their anxieties a lot of the time. They don’t articulate them, but they’ve got them.

And so I think we just need to pursue a policy that is mindful and agile, at the same time as not yielding any points of principle. That’s where I think I would get to. So I’m perfectly in favor of—I think it’s sensible for people to meet, to talk. But we need just to watch this situation with immense care, and work out at each point whether we are worried, or very worried. But it’s—you know, this is—I find it the most complex question in international politics at the moment.

KNELL: Yes, in the back.

Q: Thank you. Mohammed Khaishgi from The Resource Group.

I had a question about ISIS, and what would you advocate that the rest of the world does about it? And the question that I have in particular was your thoughts on the roots of ISIS, particularly in light of all the work that you’ve been doing on extremism and its causes. Thank you.

BLAIR: Thank you. So I think the immediate task is to defeat ISIS. And we’ve got to do what it takes to do that and to mobilize the right international coalition to do it. I think it’s very dangerous to allow a group like that to operate in large swaths of territory where they are able to prepare—not just—not just brutalize the local population, but prepare for terrorist attacks outside of the territory they hold. And I’ve no doubt at all in Europe today, I think there is a clear view, that this is—for us, is our biggest immediate security problem.

But I think you pose a very interesting and important question, which is: What are the roots of it? And look, there are two views of this. And again, I may be wrong but this is my view. I think the problem is not just the groups like ISIS, and the violence. I think there is a broader ideological problem that comes out of a politicization of religion. And I think that that ideology, unfortunately, has a far wider reach in parts of the Muslim world than we really acknowledge. And so I agree, the number of violent fanatics is relatively small. But I think those that share a worldview that is inimical to the West and inimical to peaceful coexistence is, unfortunately, much larger.

And one of the things my foundation does is it tracks not just extremism across the world, so you can see day-by-day what is happening on our website, but you can also—we have a research group that really researches attitudes and this broader ideological question. And I think it’s very dangerous, because I think it does go deeper. And one of the things—I was in Congress yesterday talking with people about an idea I have, which is that, you know, we—on the environment today, we say what happens—what happens within a nation’s borders is not just their business, it’s our business, right, because if you’re polluting within your own borders you’re actually causing a problem for everyone. And you can’t just say, well, that’s my business. I do what I want in my own country.

Whatever comes out of the Paris talks and so on and so forth, we’ve actually breeched that barrier. We’ve decided it is a global responsibility. I think it was a global responsibility to ensure your education system is promoting cultural tolerance and not cultural prejudice or hate. And I think that there is a huge problem in the school systems, formal and informal, within many countries where children are taught a narrow view of the world, a narrow view of religion, and a view that’s hostile to those who don’t share that view. And I think that if we allow those millions of children to go on being educated in this way, we shouldn’t be surprised if a number of them then go to fanaticism, because if, for example—I mean, if you believe that your faith matters deeply to you and you are being humiliated by someone else in respect of your faith, it’s not surprising that a certain group of people would say, well, I’m not prepared to be humiliated, I’m going out and fighting them.

Now, what I think we have to do in this extremism is take away the narrative, because the narrative’s false. You know, the work I do in my foundation—for example, we had a school in the Middle East link up with a school in New York. The first question the school in the Middle East asked is: Can you be a Muslim in America? You know, people are taught a whole series of things about the rest of the world that are, in the end, I think very dangerous. So my view is that the roots—I think this is, you know, a very difficult thing to say because people don’t really want to hear it, but I think if you get rid of ISIS, but you’ll have another ISIS. And I think once we start to understand that whatever we do in security terms—ok, we’re going to have to do it—but you’ve got to reach down and root out that ideology.

And we’ve got to be supporting the people—and this is—I always say to people, the good news today is that, from what I’m seeing, from my vantage point, there are lots of people today that are prepared to speak out. And there are theologians and clerics within Islam who are advocating a view of Islam that I think is far more true to the spirit of the Quran than the crazy stuff that these people put out. But we have to acknowledge this for what it is. It’s more than a few fanatics and it is, in part, about religion. And I don’t think you can escape from that. And I think it’s dangerous to try to do so. And I think it’s probably the biggest inhibition we have at the moment in dealing with this issue.

KNELL: So we have time for one more question. It’s funny that my notes here say: Remind everyone that this meeting has been on the record. Why we’re telling them now, I don’t know? (Laughter.)

BLAIR: Yeah.

KNELL: But let’s do one final question. Thank you.

Q: My name is John Gannett (sp), Georgetown University. Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for the time you’ve given us today.

You told us, I think and quite persuasively, that it is easier to remove a brutal dictator in the Middle East than it is to deal with the—with the ethnic and religious forces that you unleash in the—in the process. And so it’s not difficult to see how, when we look back for lessons learned in Iraq, that that certainly applies. It certainly applies in Libya to some degree. But what about Syria, where the dictator has been harder to remove to begin with, but then the consequences raise the question of what should be the priority now. Should we stop the war or should we be concerned about regime change there?

BLAIR: Yeah. Well, it’s obviously a very pertinent question. You know, a very common thing, certainly in my country, I don’t know whether here, is people kind of will say to me—it’s what I call the better the dictators you know argument. (Laughter.) You know, OK, they may be very bad, but at least they keep a lid on everything. I think we, again, haven’t really internalized within our debate, partly because it’s—we’re looking back a lot of the time—the impact of the Arab Spring, or what used to be called the Arab Spring. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter whether we think it’s better to deal with the dictators, because they’ve decided it isn’t for them.

And when you’ve got young—you see, you’ve got a combination of three things. You’ve got a politics in the region that’s been deformed, let’s just be clear about this, over a long period of time. Right, these are not—weren’t properly functioning systems. You know, if you’ve got that type of repressive dictatorship there’s not any long-term future, right? So you’ve got a deformation of the politics. You’ve then got this, partly because of that you’ve got this very politicized sense of religion. And then, in addition, which is the third element that I think people miss, you’ve got young populations who are, you know, coming through these societies with deformed politics and abuse of religion, and no real opportunity.

Now, what then happened in the Arab Spring is that really two—you had an old guard, you had Islamists, and you had liberals, right? The liberals and the Islamists combined together to get rid of the old guard. On that, they were both agreed. We want rid of—we want rid of the system. But then, of course, there’s a fundamental disagreement about what comes next. And that’s what happened in Egypt, what happened all over the region. Now, I think the reality is it’s not going—whether we like it or we don’t like it, it’s not going to be acceptable for those countries if you say, well, look, I know Assad represents effectively 20 percent of the population—that’s saying—it would now be different because of all the displacement of people. But in the Syria as it was before. And but we just want to carry on dealing with him, because then it’s a calmer situation and so on.

No. I’m afraid the majority Sunni population of the country say, no, we’re not having that. So we’re left in a situation now where I—you know, at the time, by the way, when Syria first started, and I did the same with Libya, I was the person who said at the time, actually, let’s cut a deal for a peaceful transition. You know, I don’t think Gadhafi should say, I don’t think that Assad should stay, but I’m telling you, having gone through Iraq, what the problem is you’re going to find. You’re going to find that is the easy part, getting rid of the dictator. The hard part comes afterwards.

So if you can manage a stable evolution—you know, sometimes you can’t; maybe you can’t—but if you can, that is a preferable outcome, which is why I say today with the regimes still in power all over that region, work with them on a process of evolution. But don’t, when the first group of people come out on the streets, say, yeah, let’s go with you guys, because you’ll find that it’s not as simple as that. So I think now where we are, because of everything that’s happened, you’ll have to get an agreement in which the faction that Assad represents and the interests behind him—Russia, Iran—yes, they’re going to have to be part of this process. There’s no other way out of that.

But I think at the same time—which is why I’m so keen that we have the leverage at the negotiating table to get the right outcome—and outcome that says, well, now we’ve decided that it’s—look, we’ve had four years of nightmare, now let’s decide Assad stays. It’s never going to work. They’re just not going to allow that. And so what I think—what in conclusion I’d say is this: I think we are just in a long, harsh, troubled transition in the Middle East region because of this deformation of the politics, the abuse of religion, the growing young populations.

And the only question for us in the West is, is this an interest of ours, to secure a sensible outcome? And my answer to that is, it is. It’s going to be hard, and difficult, and there are going to be ups and downs, and decisions taken that are very, very tough all throughout this. But I’m afraid we’re just going to have to hang on in there for the long haul and see it through. That’s my—I’ve come to the conclusion in the end, it’s hard to go in it, but it’s probably worse to think you can stay out of it. And you know, whatever the mistakes of the past, and we can debate those for a long time, what’s important is now for the future to realize that ultimately there are a group of people in the Middle East who want a tolerant society, a religiously tolerant societies and rule-based economies.

They are there. They’re probably a majority. They’re badly organized. But they’re the future, because nothing else works in the modern world. So somehow we’ve got to find a new foreign policy synthesis that, you know, learns all the lessons from 9/11 to today and gets alongside those people and helps in that transition.

KNELL: Well, Prime Minister, I know I speak on behalf of everyone at the Council on Foreign Relations to thank you for today, and more importantly to thank you for your continued engagement on these critical, critical issues. Let’s hear it for Tony Blair. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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