Education, Extremism, and Global Leadership: A Conversation with Tony Blair and Irina Bokova

Thursday, September 22, 2016
Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Tony Blair

Former Prime Minister, Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Irina Bokova

Director-General, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

Jami Miscik

Co-Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairman, Kissinger Associates, Inc.; Member, Board of Director, Council on Foreign Relations

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair and Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova join CFR Board Member Jami Miscik to discuss issues regarding education, extremism, and U.S. global leadership, especially the role of education and civil society in preventing global extremism and raising awareness among governments.

Inaugurated in 1969, the Russell C. Leffingwell Lecture was named for Russell C. Leffingwell, a charter member of the Council who served as its president from 1944 to 1946 and as its chairman from 1946 to 1953. The lecture is given by distinguished foreign officials, who are invited to address Council members on a topic of major international significance.

MISCIK: Well, thank you all for coming this morning. We are nothing if not flexible. One of our speakers is caught in U.N.-week traffic and will be here shortly. Even being director of UNESCO clearly has no pull through the U.N. traffic.

So I’d like to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations Russell C. Leffingwell Lecture. And I’d particularly like to welcome two of our family members sitting here in the front row, Tom and Tad (sp) Leffingwell Pulling. Thank you very much for your support and for being here today.

It’s my pleasure to do this conversation with Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. And today’s topic is “Education, Extremism, and Global Leadership.”

Both of our key participants have personal leadership roles in this area. The United Nations has launched an initiative on global citizenship education. And Mr. Blair is challenging governments around the world to educate against extremism.

You’ve said that education is now a security issue. What is it about that that you think governments need to pick up on, change behaviors on? You’ve said that it is the ideology of extremism that we have to fight as much as the violence of extremism.

BLAIR: Yes. And thank you, Jami. Thank you, everyone, for having me along this morning. It’s a great pleasure to be here in the Council on Foreign Relations.

And my foundation works in this area. We have education programs in about 20 different countries, and whose purpose is to link people up with different faiths across the world and get them in dialogue with each other.

So my view is that the extremism—that is, the violent extremism—is the product of a way of thinking. And if you don’t deal with the way of thinking, then ultimately you won’t deal properly with the violence. In other words, there are a whole set of security measures that you should take in order to protect our citizens, in order to make sure that extremist groups who are engaged in violence are defeated. And we know that agenda pretty well. And we can have a debate about that, but it’s a very obvious set of security questions.

But from the studies that we do, and from what I see in the world, the problem is that this violence is the product of an ideology that is a set of beliefs about the world and about religion and its place in the world which encourages a closed-minded view of the world, a view that identifies those that do not share your particular belief about a religion and a particular way of practicing that religion, that means that if someone is not the same as you, they’re your enemy.

And if you look around the world today, there are young people, millions of them, that are being educated to this closed-minded view of the world. And if you educate millions and millions of people to this closed-minded ideology, we shouldn’t be surprised if a proportion of them then say, well, look, if these people are our enemy, we should be taking up arms and fighting them, or if the West is fundamentally hostile to Islam, then, if they are fundamentally hostile, we should be engaged in combating that hostility.

So, in other words, what I see—and I spend a lot of my time in the Middle East; I’m there right about twice a month—what I see is that the violence is at this end of the spectrum, but the spectrum reaches far further along into various groups that may not be engaged in violence. Sometimes they’re actually opposed to violence, but nonetheless the ideology that they are inculcating, particularly in the minds of young people, is an ideology that ultimately is the ground, the soil, within which terrorism breeds.

So this is the essential thesis. I mean, it’s obviously hotly—this is an area where everything is hotly contested. But I think this is incredibly important. And the global policy change my foundation works for is to say that in the same way that, for example, in the environmental field we now say to countries, look, what you do within your country is our business and not just yours.

OK, so when I first started the work when I became prime minister around the environment and issues to do with global warming, climate change, pollution, and so on, a lot of people would say—at that time governments would say it’s none of your business. This is my country. I do what I want within my country.

Now, over time the international debate around that has changed. And today people say, no, hang on, if you’re polluting within your borders, it’s affecting us and not just you, and therefore we need a sense of global responsibility. I think it’s the same with education.

MISCIK: So as I was getting ready for this, thinking about questions, I was thinking we’ve been in this fight against this current type of extremism for—and I kept lengthening the period in my mind—but let’s say it’s at least 20 years. Why haven’t we gotten this right yet?

BLAIR: That’s a really good question. I think it’s because, first of all, I don’t think we’ve understood how it’s grown over time. And here’s where I make a shocking admission. I mean, I know a lot more about this now than I did when I was prime minister. And this is slightly troubling. (Laughter.)

But the fact is, look, one of the advantages—it’s one of the great ironies of politics is that when you stop being president or prime minister, you’ve got time to see the world, study the world, and go in-depth into certain issues. And I think, at least, I have a far clearer understanding of this.

So here’s what I think, because we are talking about, in my view, sort of radical Islamism, or what I would call Islamist extremism. That is, there are extremist elements in every religion, but this is—let’s—I think it’s important just to define this clearly. This is what we’re talking about.

And here’s what I think are the origins of it. I think this goes back 50, 60 years. And I think it’s about the politicization of religion. I think you can identify certain elements along the way. One is the development of the Muslim Brotherhood and the whole ideology around that.

I think a second element would be the Iranian revolution in 1979, the reaction against that in Saudi Arabia and the storming of Mecca. I think what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a very important element in this. And then I think the fact that you have large groups of young people dispossessed in the Middle East, I think this is also a big issue.

MISCIK: Please.

BLAIR: Irina, how are you? Is it—

MISCIK: (Inaudible.) Nice to see you.

BOKOVA: You and me. (Laughs.) (Applause.) Great to see you. Oh, I’m so sorry.

BLAIR: So, Irina, I was just explaining the simple question is, why is this a problem? (Laughter.)

So I think the roots of this go very, very deep over a long period of time. But I think it’s very important also to realize, in my view, this is not the true historic tradition of Islam, right. So the question is, how do we now deal with it today? And what we need to do, in my view, is we need to tackle this at a number of different levels. But one level is rolling back the Islamization of education systems, which means that young people are taught, as I say, this closed-minded view of religion. And this has been going on for a long time.

So, for example, if you take the northern part of Nigeria, there are millions of young people educated in religious schools that are of a very particular ideological persuasion. Now, if you do that—and that’s just in one country—you’re going to end up with a problem over time, because these kids, unfortunately, they end up being unable to operate in the modern world, because the modern world is all about connectivity across the boundaries of race and faith and culture. And if you combine with that areas which are very poor, if you combine with that causes of genuine injustice, and you mix all that together, I think you have what we have.

I mean, I could talk about this for days. But, I mean, I think that is the origin of it. And the key thing, I think, today is to recognize that there are real allies within the Muslim world who can work with us in order to change these education systems. But we need to do it, because if you don’t do it, you’re going to end up with young people with, as I say, a closed-minded view of the world, who are then unable, because of that closed-minded view, to operate in the modern economy, and that the combination of those things means you have young people who have a feeling of alienation, dispossessed, and angry, and with an ideology that can prey on that anger.

MISCIK: So your initiative asks governments to commit to educating against extremism, to make sure that hatred, intolerance, have no place in the education system in these states. Are you finding governments supportive? Because I think it’s fair to say that some governments have contributed to the problem we have today.

BLAIR: Yeah, I think governments are supportive today, because they know this is their problem too. So even in the Middle East, where you might expect governments to be quite hostile to such a notion, I think we can get real support.

And so what I have described is having what I call a global commitment on education, where governments agree it’s part of their global responsibility to weed out religious prejudice and hatred, and promote religious tolerance within their education systems. Now there are a host of difficult issues that arise, by the way, including here, cause of First Amendment issues and so on. But this is an urgent requirement. And my view is that many of these countries where the problems are most acute, they would benefit from having a global accord on this issue because it would allow them to say within their own systems, come on, we’re now going to act.

And you know, I remember when we did the first climate change agreement in 1997—I mean, I think your Senate was kind of 99 votes to nothing or something—and, you know, many countries like Saudi Arabia, like China, like India said, so, we’re not having any part of this, right? Today everyone agrees it. So this is a long term issue, but we should start now. And I think, for example, if we were using some of the aid and development money to help these education systems reform, this would be dollars well-spent.

MISCIK: Ms. Bokova, now you’ve had a chance to catch your breath, right, settle in. (Laughter.) I had started by mentioning the U.N.’s initiative on the global citizenship education, which goes far beyond just countering extremism. It’s really trying to focus on rethinking education in a globalized world. So how can you change the educational system to deal with some of the downside challenges of globalization—the income inequality, the fact that you can self-select and listen only to points of view that are already consistent with your own? What types of things are you trying to achieve through these programs?

BOKOVA: Yeah. Well, first, my apologies for coming late. When I was sitting in traffic I understand better what New Yorkers think about the United Nations. (Laughter.) But if you allow me, before that, to pick up from something I just got. And I heard Tony, although with him we have discussed this issue on several occasions. And I think, number one, we are seeing failing education systems as a matter of principle. Failing education systems which do not consider education as a public good.

Tony gave the example of Nigeria. It’s not that Nigeria’s not making an effort. And I think nowadays they’re making a true effort. But in the northern type—in the northern parts of Nigeria, and I just issued yesterday a statement, in Borno State for the first time after a long period schools are reopened. And this is a great achievement. But it means that for a very long time there were no public schools there. So we have only religious schools. We have koranic schools. And in Nigeria, girls go to these schools. But in other countries, girls would not go to these schools. So it’s a double-edged problem.

I just visited—last month, in August, I was in Senegal. And at UNESCO we are supporting a chain of koranic schools, 16,000 koranic schools, at three universities, which are called. And we are helping them introduce a little bit of skills, taking a vocational training, something that these young people, when they get out of schools, they will have a job. And I visited a class of electricians. And it was just extraordinary. There were a boy and a girl. They were making small circuits. They were lighting lamps. And they were fascinated by this. And also we have them study—learn French, English, to have a more open mind to the world. And I think this is a modest contribution what we want to change in this type of schooling.

We had a long debate at UNESCO, because there are countries which consider that we should not meddle in this. We are just for government, for public. I think this is wrong. I think we have to go there. I think we have to try to enter into—give them a little bit of a different approach towards what they see about the world. So on one side the failing education systems in the first place. On the second, it is what type of education we are giving exactly, and what also Tony’s foundation is working, with religious leaders, and others.

And this is the big issue. What kind of education we should give to these young boys and girls? This is where our idea about global citizenship education, it is about the cultural skills. It is about critical thinking. It is about knowledge of human rights, civic engagement, everything—about history, heritage, diversity. All this is so much in need nowadays. And it has been largely neglected. Even, I would say, that countries like Afghanistan, Iraq—I was just—last May I was in Afghanistan. And with President Ghani we launched a fund. It is called Fund for Culture, but it is not about the culture we think. It is not about restoring monuments. It is about diversity.

And the President Ghani, who is anthropologist, we had a nice, very long chat. And he told me: Young Afghanis have forgotten that we are a diverse country, that we are Uzbeks, and Tajiks, and Pashtun. And we are not—and we have forgotten our history. There was Buddhism in this land and there were extraordinary monuments about Buddhism. So help us to reintroduce this in schools in order to have a different approach to our own history, and then to the history of the others.

MISCIK: Mmm hmm. One of your quotes I was reading was that wars begin in the minds of men, therefore the defenses of peace must also be built in the minds of men—and I take that to be men and women. (Laughter.) Men in the sense of—one of the questions I have is when it—and it goes to your point about critical thinking. Is that the most important skill that can be taught to get this kind of tolerance into societies? To get people to not have just an immediate and emotional reaction to something that they’re being told, but to have a way to think through these issues? And I give this to either of you in responding.

And especially when we now know that the people who are radicalized are not always the ones we thought they were. They’re not just the poor. They’re not just the ones without job or despair or no hope. You know, in the case of San Bernardino it was a father who—a new father, who had a job, who had become, you know, radicalized over time, but mostly over the internet and other options. So how do we take these great initiatives and make sure that the skills that need to be inculcated into younger people—when they look at things on the internet that they have a better way of understanding what they’re looking at?

BOKOVA: Well, according to what—we have made a number of meetings and talking to civil society organizations, researchers, academia, governments about youth radicalization and extremism. And in fact, last November we have convened the first-ever conference of ministers of education with the Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken. We opened—there were more than 60 ministers of education—how to fight radical extremism through education. And the other side, of course, is internet. And we have organized a meeting, of course. We are discussing this. And we move second such a big meeting we will have in Canada in the month of October, inviting the internet companies, researchers, civil society groups.

And what is interesting, there is not one path towards radicalization. And what you said, it’s not that it’s just poverty—in some cases, of course, it’s poverty exclusion. If you go to Africa—and I also was in the Sahel region just last month. I want to Chad, Niger, Mali. We worked a lot there. And when you see Boko Haram and the poverty, it’s a reproduction of extremism, poverty, degradation of the environment around Lake Chad. So it’s a bundle of problems. And as I said, there is no one path and there is no one response.

But we do believe, and I do believe, that this type of, as we call it, critical thinking, and you said, the way young people should evaluate, analyze, accept some information is, indeed, the most important, because there is plenty of information. It’s not just about getting something, some knowledge. But how do you accept this knowledge? How do you evaluate? How do you relate to the others? How you share it with the others? I think this is very important. And it is not about—how to put it—it is not about to stop the internet. That’s not the solution, by all means. It’s about changing the narrative. It’s about giving a different side, a different language.

And this is where tried by campaigns, social networks campaigns, like The Night of Heritage campaign, which is one of the most successful projects that we’ve had. And they tell us it’s the sixth-most popular social network campaign. We have millions of young people every day which are putting their own stories, which are applauding their own narrative, and thinking about it. And so many institutions and in university and groups and others are looking at that. I think this is the way also to change the narrative.

And, last but not least, we have to look at curricula. And I have brought here—this is, in fact, our just recent very small publication. It is how to address intolerance and extremism through universal values in curricula. So we are evaluating curricula. We are suggesting eliminate the hate speech, introduce a different approach of diversity, of respect; not that much tolerance. I don’t like that word very much, tolerance. It’s a little bit denigrating. But respect is a different thing.

And just an example: We will just start working in Iraq to evaluate the Iraqi education system and the curricula from that point of view. And I think this is extremely important.

MISCIK: Tony, anything to add?

BLAIR: Yeah. No, I think this is—by the way, the work that Irina is doing with UNESCO in this field, I think, is groundbreaking and really, really important. I mean, I think it’s—it’s one of the most—it’s one of the most beneficial things that the United Nations as an institution is doing.

You see, the critical thinking is really important, because in critical thinking you ask questions. That’s the first thing. I mean, I remember when I was at school. I always divide my education into two bits. There was the education I got where I just had to pass the exams. So I was quite good at just learning it by rote. And I did that, and I even got into university. I mean, it was a reasonable university; not by, obviously, American standards. (Laughter.) That’s obviously not true—(laughter)—my very distinguished alma mater.

But, you know, and I’ll tell you, it’s just a really interesting thing. It was only after I left university and I started to work, and I—for the first time someone came into my life who was actually a sort of mentor and taught me to think. I mean, up to then I’d just kind of learned things, but I never thought. And the essence of thinking is critical thinking. It’s asking questions. You know, you say that, but I’m not—what about this? OK.

So this critical thinking today is what is really, really important. And part of the problem with many of the education systems in the countries that Irina’s been talking about is that this isn’t—we’re not at this stage. So you’ve got all these other issues I was talking about, but you don’t have this concept of critical thinking, of being prepared to roam freely. And you don’t learn about other cultures.

I mean, in the education programs my foundation does, we—as I say, we often link up schools of different faiths across the world. And the conversations are really interesting, because you can see how ingrained some of the ways of thinking on both sides. So, you know, we would have—schools in America, where the first question an American would ask to a Muslim school in the Middle East is, you know, why do you want to kill us all? Or the other—the question coming from the other direction is, well, why can’t you be a Muslim in the United States?

So, you know, there are levels of ignorance and lack of knowledge. And today, especially with technology, we’ve got—you know, we should be able to deal with these issues. So this is really, really important. But it needs to be organized. And I think that the thing that I find most frustrating—except that I understand it from a political-leadership point of view—it’s very important to understand how sort of political leaders work, and particularly at a global level. And this is, I would say, more true today than ever before.

So you’re a leader of a country and you’ve got all your domestic issues to deal with. And you’re operating usually in, let’s say, quite a, certainly in my case, challenging media environment. And, you know, you’ve got social media today, which is itself a disruptive and revolutionary phenomenon. And then you’ve got a plethora of international questions you have to deal with.

So very few global leaders have the ability to come together and think this thing through, right. And one of the things that’s necessary is to understand that if you’re going to deal with this, you need a strategy that is comprehensive and you need to organize how we’re going to deal with some of these questions, because I think you can identify today, as with the education issue, it’s obvious there’s a major problem.

But if you think of the billions upon billions of dollars we spend on security as a—you know, in the traditional sense of the word, it would make so much sense today to try and organize so that we’re helping countries change their education systems, so that we’re ensuring not just that the kids get into school, but they actually get into school and up toward something that is of value.

And this to me is absolutely essential; likewise with what happens in social media. I mean, the one thing that is very clear is that, however regressive and reactionary this extremism is, it’s quite modern-minded in its use of technology. You know, we have to up our game enormously here. And yet I feel there’s a—I feel there’s just a lack of—I don’t know where this situates within global leadership. And I know that if I was talking to—well, I have talked to many of the existing leaders about this, and they’ll basically say, yeah, that’s right. But then they have to go back to their day job.

So the question is—this is why the UNESCO thing is so important. But we need to give it a lot more weight and salience and sort of profile so that people are really getting this. And that’s why I think you’ve got, in the end, to deal with this education component by countries coming together.

And, you know, when people say to me, well, you know, if you put countries together and you say you’ve got to reform your education systems, some of them may not agree to this. OK, but let’s have that out on the table. (Laughs.) And, by the way, many of the countries whose education systems need to be reformed are the recipients of many hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, of dollars’ worth of aid, defense, all of these—you know, there are a lot of levers.

But I actually think, from my conversations with the leaders of these countries today, they would, in fact, welcome some sense of global direction because it would then help them do things they know they need to do, because, as I said a moment ago, the thing to realize about this narrow-minded education is that it’s also an economic problem, because if you’ve got a young person who’s educated simply in a particular way of thinking about religion, I mean, what use are they when they’re trying to engage in the modern economy?

So this is a fundamental question, and we need to give it far bigger profile. And otherwise what you’re going to be doing, in my judgment, is you’re going to be always dealing with the symptoms of this issue and not the causes.

MISCIK: These are both such important initiatives. It raises the question in my mind about what about education for the rest of us? I mean, if you do this at a young level and you get that kind of inculcation into the system, where they are beginning to think critically, it seems to me that in a lot of our countries we have a political trend that’s going in the opposite direction—less tolerant, less inclusive, less globalized.

So one of the concerns I would imagine down the road is how does this survive inside of a system? How do you bring that system along and educate it to learn some of these same lessons?

BOKOVA: I would just say, to what Tony said, I would enlarge it precisely along these lines. On one side, of course, it’s something very profound. It’s about what we teach young boys and girls nowadays, what kind of citizens that get out of school. On the other side, we know that the world is young. It’s about youths. It’s about a different place and expectations that young people have about jobs, about inclusion, about respect.

In our days, with this connected world, they are—they know everything that is happening anywhere in the world. So you cannot say you’re not a developed a country so you stay there and you just are unemployed, some begging on the street and not doing anything.

So talking about the education system inclusive, what we are focusing also is skills, competencies, jobs, technical-vocational training. In many countries this is a big issue, because the world is full—and look at some of the countries in the Maghreb, in the Arab countries. It’s full of university graduates, unemployed university graduates which cannot find jobs. At the same time, there are not electricians and plumbers and others. So this is one side, of course, of the story.

The other is, as you said, it’s really about communities, about the different approach. Multiculturalism, in my view—and we live increasingly in these societies—it’s hard work. It’s (day work ?) for politicians and for religious, local, others. It’s a little bit like multilateralism. You have to work constantly. It’s hard work. It’s not always the most fascinating, it does not always have the best of the results immediately, but you have to do it. You have to give space to this. You have to educate people around it.

And, of course, being director-general of UNESCO, I cannot miss this opportunity to speak about culture, heritage, what we teach also through this. Now we see all this awful destruction, appalling destruction, shocking destruction and heritage and culture, and kind of people start once again to wake up and to say, hey, we are one community, we share something. This is a very powerful education for everybody—for the people, for the world.

And that is why we are putting so much emphasis to understand why culture and cultural heritage matters. This is our diversity. This is our intercultural dialogue. This is the best way to understand about other cultures.

MISCIK: Great, thank you.

Well, let’s open it up to questions. Please remember this is on the record. When you stand up, identify yourself, your affiliation, and please make it a relatively short question. Let’s start here on the aisle, there.

Q: Good morning. Thank you very much. Prime Minister Blair, I’m Daniel Arbess. We’ve met before.

Prime Minister Blair, you made a reference to a number of important things. The most important thing I think you said was we have to keep in mind causes and symptoms. And I want to ask you to consider moving up the directory one. Education is great, but I believe what we have here is a governance problem in the Muslim world. You have the Muslim world populated with governments that are authoritarian and extractive or exploitive of their people, denying the people in this part of the world real opportunities, which makes them vulnerable to radicalization.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg—the former defense minister of Germany—and I have authored an article—a paper for the CSIS in Washington that proposes a geopolitical initiative, which we call the “Geopolitical G-X” of countries to consider culturally appropriate alternative models of governance that might be suitable for the Middle Eastern Muslim country and for other authoritarian regimes to provide an alternative to the present alternatives of monarchy or even authoritarianism, like Egypt’s al-Sisi, who is a great improvement over the Brotherhood but is still troubling and not sustainable over the long term—

MISCIK: Can we get to your question, please?

Q: —or radicalization on the other hand.

I would like to know your views, moving up the directory from education, as to the prospects for beginning that conversation. It isn’t W.’s regime change leaving who knows what.

MISCIK: Thank you.

Q: It isn’t the Arab Spring. There needs to be some thought about a culturally appropriate governance.

BLAIR: Thank you. I mean, the other thing my foundation works on is actually the question of governance, and I think there is a whole dimension to this that is about building the capacity of governments to deliver effectively for their people. And what is unfortunate is if people are left with a choice between sort of authoritarian government that doesn’t really deliver for their people and then radical Islamist ideology that becomes—that takes the energy of political opposition into it, but isn’t really an answer either.

I mean, I think I would just disaggregate that, though, in this way. I think that, whatever happens, if you want—if you want countries to progress today, they’ve got to have the capacity to govern effectively, right, and build the institutions of governance. And one of the biggest—in my view, the biggest differentiators between countries that succeed and those that fail today is the issue of governance. I mean, let me run through just a few examples, countries next door to each other who have roughly the same population, roughly the same resources, different outcomes.

Colombia and Venezuela. I mean, I’m being controversial here, but you know—or probably not that controversial in that case. But Colombia and Venezuela. Rwanda and Burundi. Poland and Ukraine. Or, the biggest experiment in governance the Western world has—or the world has ever known, which is the Korean Peninsula, right? So one country succeeds, one country fails.

These questions, I completely agree, are really, really important. But I think you have to deal with both things together, because it is also possible to have countries that have a real chance of succeeding—and, indeed, are more democratic—but also then get—then get their evolution distorted by the extremism, and likewise the other way around. So I think that you need to deal with both of these issues. And the governance question is, again, another example, in my mind—I mean, Irina was talking about having been to Chad and Mali, Niger, I think you were saying.


BLAIR: Now, in my view, today, we should be putting a major effort into helping those countries build institutional resilience and capacity to govern. If we don’t, they are exploding young populations in each of these countries, and we’re going to store up a huge problem for ourselves in the future. So I agree, but I think you need to deal with both of these issues.


Q: Thank you. Good morning. Is this on? (Comes on mic.) Henry Breed from the United Nations.

You’ve both spoken very movingly about the work you’ve been doing in the field in countries that are very challenged. I was wondering how you see those efforts feeding into the larger context of the Sustainable Development Goals, and particularly SDG 4, on which Director-General Bokova has worked so hard.

BOKOVA: Well, I was—I was thinking—when Tony was speaking about governance and building institutions, I was precisely thinking about the Sustainable Development Agenda because the Goal #16. And those of you who have been involved a little bit or following the discussions know how difficult it was to formulate this goal, and it is precisely about good governance, about building institutions, about the rule of law, about respecting human rights. And I think this is where we have to be a little bit more innovative, moving the other goals, and at the same time building these institutions, because I do agree that we do not live in a perfect world, and we know that we do not live in the most democratic world. But we have to make this transformation happen.

And I think the role of the United Nations is precisely in this, to help countries and societies transform. It’s about supporting civil society groups, in some cases like what we do in the 10 countries around the Mediterranean. We have a fantastic project about working with young people, Youth NED-MED it is called. It is about empowering young people to create their own civic engagement, to know how to do—to participate in elections, to go with the local councils, to interact with each other. I think this is the type of supporting transformation of governments that is so much needed.

So it’s hard, it’s difficult, but it is needed if we want really to tackle some of these issues, including issues of extremism and exclusion.


Q: I’m Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.

Thinking critically, what role in educating the people who became extremists was made by the fact that their countries were invaded, intervened, bombed by forces led by your country, which a report in the U.K. now blames you substantially, condemns your substantially, and the Americans under Bush—what lesson do they get from that? And do you think that can be challenged by giving them some books or classes? Or should there be—is there another lesson that you learned from that?

BLAIR: OK, I think I know where you’re coming from. (Laughter.)

Look, let me be very frank with you, because there’s not just that report on Iraq, by the way; there’s a recent report on Libya which then accuses David Cameron of having promoted extremism by the action in Libya. There are people who will say that the Russian actions in Chechnya promoted extremism. For the French by the way they—it’s the cartoons that have provoked extremism, the French action in Mali. You can disagree with foreign policy decisions, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, wherever else in the world. The roots of this extremism are not to be found in foreign policy in the West, and we will make a fundamental mistake if we believe that they are.

Now, you can agree or disagree with these decisions. And you can say, well, as a result of that decision, you enlarged the space for these people to operate, right? We can have that debate, and that’s one debate. But the question we’ve got to ask ourselves is why—let me take not the one that you might expect me to be defensive on, but let me take Libya, OK? Why is it, when you remove a regime that was undoubtedly a brutal one, and you give the country a chance to get on the path to democracy, and you put a large amount of aid into it, and you try and bring everyone together—why is it that there are elements that then through terrorism try and disrupt that whole process? And that’s the question you’ve got to ask, because otherwise what we do is we effectively bolster the propaganda of those people who were attacking us.

You know, it’s like today in France you have people who say by banning the so-called burkini, right, in France, you’re going to provoke terrorism. Now, you can agree with banning the burkini or not banning the burkini, it’s one debate. You end up by saying by taking that action you are provoking terrorism, in my view, you are making a big, big mistake. The roots of this are deep. You know, they’re generational. It’s why it’s going to take a long time to deal with it. So you can make the point about being against the foreign policy decisions that I took or others have taken since then but, you know, the foreign policy we have engaged in—for example, in Syria—is the very opposite of the policy we engaged in in Iraq. Has the outcome been better?

OK, so my issue is agree/disagree with the foreign policy. But we will make a fundamental mistake if we think this extremism arises from what we’re doing. We haven’t caused it. We got caught up in it. And we’ve got to learn the lessons both of what we did over the last 15 years in both sets of foreign policies that we’ve engaged in since then. But the fundamental thing that we have got to get right is to understand the depth of this issue. And education is a necessary part, not because it’s going to cure it by—you know, you’re not going to stop terrorism by putting books into classrooms, that’s true. But you will help defeat the ideology if you educate the next generation of young people to be culturally open to those that are different. (Applause.)

MISCIK: Thank you. I’m sorry. I was trying to call on you, so.

Q: Thank you. Ted Pulling from JPMorgan.

I shudder to think what would happen if an NGO or somebody from UNESCO came to America and attempted to tell our secretary of education how to change our educational system. When you meet with the ministers of education or very senior government people in education in the north—in North Africa and the Middle East, are they receptive to this idea that extremism is partially, or may be largely, rooted in their educational systems? I mean, that would—I would expect you to get a very hot reception if that’s what you led with.

BLAIR: And this is a really interesting point, because I think that the mood is completely changing. So I think if you had that conversation 10 years ago, and certainly 20 years ago, they would have said our education systems is our business. But all of these countries today are under pressure from this extremism. And they also know that the long-term solution to their country’s problem is to educate their young people for the modern world, because they’ve also got economic issues.

So without saying which country, I was discussing this precisely with the leadership of a significantly large population country in the Middle East just a few weeks ago. And they—not only were they in favor of doing this. They said, why aren’t you guys helping us to do this, because lots of our young people we know are getting education at a local level, out in the country—not so much in the capital where, you know, the elites tend to get educated pretty well. But there are literally millions of our young people who are getting education that is really not fitting them for the modern world at all. So I think whereas a few years ago the answer would have been it’s none of your business, today I think people actually understand they want help, because this problem is also affecting and corroding their own societies.

BOKOVA: If I can just—just one small point. I think this is important. And I totally agree with Tony. They’re extremely receptive. They ask us to be there. We should not forget that part of the problem is that some of these education institutions are not part of the official education system. And this is where the problem is. One thing is to reform an official education system, to introduce textbooks. But what we do with all the other non-formal, religious or others? I was mentioning the koranic schools. And there are plenty of such kind of informal education systems where we encourage sometimes governments, or we step in, as I mentioned, in order to give them a different perspective, in order to include in them values, something different, to make them part of the society. Because otherwise, it’s a totally—living in different worlds. One is the official education system and another is, you know, this type of koranic schools, community or others.

So this is where we have to step in. We have to be more inclusive. We have to help them engage with this. I remember when in—I remember two or three years ago in Peshawar, when Taliban take the boys school of military officers. And in Paris, the ambassador, who is a former minister, was having a commemoration. And he invited me. And I was sitting with him and I said, but—Mr. Ambassador, I said, you have a problem. Tell us what to do. And he said, you know, simple: Next to ever koranic school build a public school free of charge, inclusive, where girls and boys go. So this is it. We have to see how to make this more inclusive.

MISCIK: Thank you. Yes, back here.

Q: Masuda Sultan, Insight Group.

In Afghanistan, where I’ve been working for 15 years, I asked a question about how the imams get trained. And the answer I was given several years ago was there’s no training. The government doesn’t touch it. And the West doesn’t want to touch it for sure. Taking what you mentioned was a controversial issue 10, 20 years ago, do you see any possibility for moving that conversation forward about how you train—I know the UAE government has done some training in Afghanistan. But is there something that can be done from this, and to encourage a licensing, training, minimal program before you can become an imam?

BLAIR: Yeah. I mean, my answer to that actually simply is yes. And I think the mood on that has also completely changed. I mean, you mentioned rightly the UAE’s program on this, which is remarkable and groundbreaking. But you know, you’ve always got to remember this—because the problem with this issue is that if you’re—this is a whole other topic. But, you know, I’m very much a sort of center ground politician. And I think there’s always a risk that you end up with sort of, you know, a very sort of polarized debate around issues. And one—if you don’t deal with this question, which in part is also about religious instruction, right? I mean, that’s the reality. OK, and again, people kind of go—when you say well it’s about religious instruction—they go, well, it’s sort of an embarrassing topic and so on.

But if you don’t deal with that, then you end up either in a situation where people stigmatize all Muslims, which is a terrible mistake for many, many reasons, by the way, but not least because you alienate the very allies we’re going to need in this fight. Or you end up with people saying, well, look, we can’t—we can’t get into that. It’s all too difficult. The truth is, yes, it’s—and by the way, not just in Afghanistan. I mean, in many Western countries, including France, including U.K. today, there are efforts underway, rightly, to make sure that those who are preaching have some—there is—there is some basis of understanding what they are saying and what they are doing. And also, some attempt to give instruction.

So one of the things my foundation has is a partnership with one of the leading institutions out in the Middle East, where we actually help with the training of imams about—so they at least know what other religions are about, OK, so that you can give—you can give instruction. And that is important both ways. It’s also important that Christians understand what is the true nature of Islam, that Jews understand what is the true nature of Islam. And you know, this is—this issue to do with religious instruction I think is very important now. And for the West, it’s not—you know, we’ve got to be in one sense kind of less hesitant. The world is changing. And all of these countries know that they’ve got this problem.

Now, we’re not going to go in and do this, but we can partner. You know, we can help. And we can help set up partnerships. And we can help fund some of this work. But in Afghanistan it’s absolutely vital that that form of instruction is organized, because otherwise we’re building up a huge problem. And we know there are many people how get radicalized by what they’re taught. And yet, what they’re taught is completely contrary to the proper teaching of the Koran. So this is, you know, very, very fundamental to this.

And this is why I say we’re at a point now where we need a strategy that is comprehensive, that is not just about hard power but about soft power, and where some of these issues that for too long we’ve been almost too fastidious and reluctant to engage we, we engage with head on.

And then, by the way, there’s a very simple thing which, I mean, I learned in politics. The first step in solving a problem is to have it out on the table. You know, if it’s a problem let’s have it out on the table. If some people say, well, we’re just not prepared to agree with that, let’s have that discussion. But there’s no point in pretending it doesn’t matter because it really does matter.

And absolutely, to the point that Irina has just been making, if there are people in religious schools or in mosques who are teaching things that are going to be hostile to peaceful coexistence, this is a problem for us. And, you know, it’s a problem most of all, by the way, for the local populations. I mean, never forget the vast majority of victims of terrorism are Muslim. So I think, you know, this is a very important point and we really need to get to a different level of understanding and organization on this as well.

MISCIK: Right here?

Q: Bettye Masham.

Would you care to comment on Tukey? Because it’s an ally we desperately need, but on the other hand academics are being put in jail, journalists are being put in jail, the Saudis are funding the Wahhabi schools, so what are you doing to help? (Laughter.)

BLAIR: Right. Irina? (Laughter.) No, do you want me to answer this? So this is a very different—you know, I’m in the school of politicians that having been in government you have to deal with difficult sort of issues like this.

So there are allies of ours who do things that we don’t agree with, but they also may be important allies on the issues. You have to get into a conversation in which you are able to raise the issues that are of concern and genuinely raise them and properly raise them without dislocating your ability to work on terrorism.

So, for example, if you’re a European leader right now, you may have issues and criticisms about Turkey. On the other hand, if you’re a European leader right now, the position of Turkey in respect to the refugees is of absolutely fundamental importance to the whole of Europe, so you’re going to have to manage that situation by having a conversation that is frank, but doesn’t disturb the fact that you will have genuine allies.

Now, on Saudi Arabia, I think, you know, there is an historical position and there’s an actual position today. You know, from the work that I see in the Middle East today, there is no doubt at all that the present leadership in Saudi Arabia and taking their country in a reform direction, and they are genuine allies of ours on these issues, and we don’t want to disturb that alliance.

So again, I think when you are in the situation where you’ve got an ally, where you’ve also got disagreements, my experience in politics you’ve got to find a texture of conversation that allows you to have the disagreement without disturbing the alliance. And if that sounds a little sort of realpolitik, occasionally you need a bit of realpolitik to get anything done.

MISCIK: OK, we have time for one last question. Let me make it over here.

Q: David Bard, American Securities.

In light of all the education work you’re doing and the folks who are in this room versus if this meeting were in D.C., how have you found ways or have you looked for ways to incorporate the business community into what you’re doing? And how should we think about that from our perspectives?

BOKOVA: Well, I would say that the business community becomes more and more involved, and in some cases it becomes critical, particularly with the new technologies that are coming, which are enlarging, which are changing the education models, the way we teach, the way we learn. And it is not just about access to information, but it is about the content, it is about using the new technologies, the multilingualism if you want, to reach the unreachable. It’s a tremendous opportunity. And this is where the business community brings innovation, new ideas, a commitment.

But on the other side, I think that—and I can give you many models. We’ve had first at Business Backs Education a coalition. We have another coalition now of business leaders who are supporting education in emergencies, in refugee camps. But I think there is a changing already perspective about the, I would say, the commitment of the business community towards development, equity, and inclusiveness.

I think and I hope we are seeing with optimism and looking with optimism at these changing, I would say, optics of the business community towards development. We have seen what the business is thinking increasingly about renewable energies, about the climate change, about sustainable development. And a great champion he is, by the way, a champion also of the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda, Paul Polman from Unilever, who is saying something that you saw so relevant. He says poverty is not a good business model. Business does not have any interest in continuing poverty, degradation, exclusion from societies. On the contrary, business is interested in vibrant societies, resilient societies, societies that produce, consume, they live.

So we are from the United Nations perspective because we have a lot of cooperation with Intel, with Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, a lot in the education particularly I would say. So business can contribute a lot. And I’m not saying transfer of funds, not exactly this type, but bringing commitment, innovation, engagement overall in changing the perception about what business can bring to development.

MISCIK: Final word?

BLAIR: Just on that line, I think business can do things within their own business to, you know, promote greater understanding of these issues. And, you know, also, by the way, if businesses are operating in countries where cultural respect is going to be an issue, then actually they would be well advised to understand it and to make sure it’s part of their engagement with their own staff.

But I think the other thing that businesses can do, and I find some of them are doing this, in countries where there is a real problem, they can be very clear in saying, and I’ve seen examples of this actually out in the Middle East with companies who want to come and invest from the West, and they’re saying to the governments there if you want us to succeed in your country, you know, an open-minded approach to the world is going to be an important part, both of attracting us here and making us successful.

So I think the voice of business is very important and that’s another thing that we should be developing, which is, what are the partnerships within civic society, between the business sector and government that we need to put together?

And I think my sort of concluding thought on all of this is that, you know, we’ve got this sort of stream work called sort of countering violent extremism. And I think at the moment it’s in quite a kind of narrow focus. It’s not, let’s be clear, particularly well-funded in relation to lots of other things. And we need to elevate this whole argument to another level and to realize that this is the classic example. It’s not easy because the hardest thing in politics is to take a long-term decision that won’t do you any good as a leader, but might do future generations some good. But we need to elevate this issue and get people focused on the fact that whatever measures you have to take on hard power and security and, you know, defeating ISIS and all the rest of it, there is a whole agenda around dealing with the long-term roots of this that we need to get right now and give the same importance to as we do to this obvious hard-power agenda that may hit the headlines every day.

And, you know, my concluding thought is this. I mean, the hardest thing in politics, because politicians live day by day in the sense of events and headlines and all the rest of it, and it requires real statesmanship to take a long-term view and say this is something I’m going to put in place now, which may only yield benefits later, but is important to start now because the sooner you start the sooner you will achieve your goal.

And this issue to do with how we deal with these different aspects of how this extremism comes about and how we deal with it, this is absolutely classically the example of where we need long-term thinking and real heft and weight put behind it at this moment in time so that my grandchildren are not fighting the same problems that we’re fighting today.

MISCIK: Well, I think this conversation, these initiatives are critically important to where we are as a world right now, the challenges we face. I think the fact that all of you braved New York traffic to get here this morning shows the importance you place on that. And I would just ask you to join me in thanking both of our speakers for their efforts. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.