Centrism for Britain and Tolerance Across the Mid-East: An Interview with Tony Blair

by Mostafa El-Dessouki and Joseph Braude

In 1997, 43-year-old British Labour Party leader Tony Blair became the youngest Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 1812. He held the position for ten years — presiding over war, peacemaking, a transformation of his party, and the globalization of the British economy. He brought a new spirit of openness to the workings of government. He played a vital role in the brokering of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. On the world’s stage, he supported humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and proved a staunch military ally to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since retiring from government, Blair has been a leader in efforts to forge a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. He has promoted interfaith tolerance and understanding through the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. And by way of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, he has supported national development worldwide through good governance and cultural reform.

In this exclusive interview, Prime Minister Blair called for a restoration of centrism in British politics and compromise over “Brexit.” He reflected on new leadership in the Arab world, with special attention to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He assessed prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking within the framework of a regional settlement. And he called upon the West to recognize that at the heart of regional tumult and bloodshed lies a conflict of values — between the forces of extremism and champions of tolerance.

The News (Nigeria)
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

How would you rate the performance of the current British government, and Ms. May’s handling of the current cabinet infighting? How would you describe the way Ms. May has dealt with issues regarding the Grenfell tower, the recent incidents of terrorism, and the current Brexit negotiations?

The government is in a very difficult situation right now – and Mrs May in particular. I may have a profound disagreement with the PM over Brexit, but would support her in actions against terrorism. The Grenfell tower disaster was an enormous tragedy, especially for the community. I pay tribute to the emergency services, who are continuing to deal with the complex and painstaking aftermath. We must now wait for the conclusions of the investigation.

You have been critical of Corbyn for his far-left views. Given the momentum he appears to enjoy, do you think he could possibly become the next prime minister (possibly fairly soon) given the current crisis within the conservative government? And what do you fear a Corbyn government would bring?

Labour’s result in the June election was remarkable, no doubt, and yes, I did not foresee it. I absolutely pay tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s temperament in the campaign, to the way in which Labour managed to mobilise younger voters, and generate real enthusiasm. He has certainly managed to tap into something real and powerful, and it is clear that there is a genuine and widespread desire for change, and for the politics of social justice. This should help alter how we debate politics and influence the policy solutions that are on offer. My concern, however, remains as to the risks of an unchanged Corbyn programme, if he became Prime Minister and tried to implement it at the same time as Brexit. As I wrote recently, if a right wing populist punch of Brexit is followed by a left wing populist punch of unreconstructed hard left economics, I fear Britain would hit the canvas, and hard, and we would be flat on our back, out for the count. I would also point out that centre-ground politics was not really on offer in the last election – and that the result shows a very divided country. So while it may seem that the centre ground in British politics is now marginalised, the truth is the need for it is now even greater.

You recently stated in an interview with Sky News that “it is absolutely necessary that Brexit does not happen.” As you know, there are voices in Britain that would regard the abrogation of Brexit as a betrayal of the democratic process. What is your response to that view?

I have made it clear that I respect the referendum vote. If the will of the people doesn’t change, then, yes, Brexit would happen. I do think, though, that public opinion is moving as we learn the damage Brexit will do. We’ve had a year of debate over what Brexit could actually mean, seen the effects of the vote on our currency and economy, and people know more about these matters now. Leaving the EU is complex and will take years – and I don’t see how taking the possibility of a compromise off the table completely makes any sense, rather than finding a way for Britain to stay within a reformed Europe. So I maintain that the terms of the Brexit debate need to be changed, with much more of a focus on the real challenges the nation faces.

What signs of hope do you find amid the pain and tragedy in the Middle East today?

The biggest augur of hope is that through all the pain and tragedy, there’s a transition in the region taking place, and the region I believe is resolving its longstanding major challenge, which is how it is going to connect to the modern world and develop religiously tolerant societies and rule-based economies. I see this as a region in transition, where the pain is partly drawn out of the clash over how does the region deal with the modern world and globalization, and it’s got two choices. It can either go with a politicization of religion and Islamism, or it can go for societies that are open-minded, tolerant, and where well-educated populations are getting connected to the world. If it’s the second route, then I think the future of the region is bright. But it is that essential struggle. I think that the signs of hope that I see are that there are a., leaders prepared to stand up and lead today; and b., the people themselves actually want that better and more benign society.

Would you point to some specific examples of that kind of leadership?

The most obvious example is the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who’s embarking on a very ambitious but absolutely necessary program of change — which is consistent with the position of the kingdom as home to the two holy sanctuaries and the center of Islam. He is bringing about the economic and social change necessary, and you have a whole new set of dynamic and smart, capable people in key positions. Meanwhile, for all of his challenges, President Sisi of Egypt is standing up against the militant Brotherhood approach, and again trying to make changes and reforms necessary for Egypt. Mohammed bin Zayed is a leader of extraordinary stature, who has helped make the United Arab Emirates into what it is today. I think all opinion polls show young people regard it as the country they’d like to emulate. King Abdullah of Jordan, and the leadership of Bahrain are two other examples. And hopefully if the issues around Qatar can be resolved, there is young leadership there too. So, when I look at the region, I see a lot of new leadership, smart and capable leadership that knows what has to happen. Even though the flashpoints are very obvious in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and so on, I think on the other hand, the route to the future of all those places is the same. It is to push back hard against the influence of the Iranian theocracy — not because it comes from Iran, but because it’s another manifestation of the misguided approach of politicizing religion.

In light of your continuing efforts to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where in your mind is the cutting edge of the struggle for a solution?

First, it’s still generally accepted that the only solution lies in two states for two peoples. Second, in my view, the problem is not that you can’t negotiate the terms. The challenge is to change the context in which the negotiation is taking place. What I work on is really how we can get the right dialogue within the region as a whole in order to change that context. That means major improvements in the lives of Palestinians through a negotiation that’s able to succeed.

There’s considerable discussion about a so-called “regional approach.” Is this a meaningful departure from prior efforts?

I think the “regional approach” has the most transformative potential, because if the region is strongly involved, then the Palestinians get the strength of regional support to make peace, and the Israelis get the comfort that the peace they make is not simply with the Palestinians but with the region as a whole. The Arab Peace Initiative is in my view the best framework through which to advance things, and I think that since it is an initiative that came out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it was adopted by the region. The shift I’d like to see is the region actively involving itself in helping to see that peace come about. In the end the peace has to be made between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is in my view enormously helpful that over these past couple of years in particular, that the region has started to play a much more active part.

What are some examples of actions regional players can take?

We have an example now of what’s happening in Gaza. It’s in everyone’s interest for the living conditions in Gaza to improve. The region can help in putting pressure on all the parties to allow substantial improvement — electricity, water, sanitation, private sector, housing — and I’ve worked a lot on those issues. And the region can encourage and support the leadership of the Palestinian people when they come to the compromises necessary to make peace. And what their involvement does is, for the Israeli public, they’ve lost faith, as I think the Palestinian people have in a traditional, conventional, approach to this issue, but if the broader region are involved, and this is seen, as part of a whole movement towards a more open and tolerant region, then I think it can be very positive.

Israelis also have to take substantial steps in the direction of peace, but I think it’s a lot easier for them to do so if they feel the region is behind it. I think the potential is if we can achieve a just solution for the Palestinian issue, the potential for regional cooperation is immense — in the economic, social, cultural, and geopolitical spheres. Imagine the power and strength of Arab nations and Israel together presenting their positions to the Western world. It would be huge. We know the Palestinian issue is the key and door to that cooperation, but I find today a more active desire to have that cooperation succeed, than you would have done a few years back.

What are the benefits of a settlement as you see them?

There are very practical economic benefits around water, agriculture, and technology, for example. In Israel 20 years ago, water would have been one of the biggest political issues, but it’s not really a political issue at all now. The Israeli tech sector is one of the most remarkable in the world right now, and yet you’ve got an immense number of really smart people in the Arab world who also share an interest in the tech sector. And then, geopolitically, if you believe as I believe that the problem of Iranian policy is that they’re exporting destabilization and instability around the region, geopolitically it’s much more powerful if Arab nations and Israel are making the same case for the same reason.

One of the things I believe very passionately is it’s a complete mistake to see the region, as many Western commentators do, as either a power struggle between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran or as a Shi’ite-Sunni conflict. It really isn’t, in my view. It’s about values, not interests. And not about sectarianism — but whether you’re on the side of the fight against extremism and terrorism and for tolerance.

You’re referring in part to the role of culture in a country’s development.

The role of culture is fundamental. In the end, the real lesson of modern living is that the route to economic prosperity and social cohesion is through connectivity and people working together across boundaries of faith, culture, race, nations, and ethnicity. Why is London a great city today? Because it’s an open and tolerant city with many different cultures living together with shared cohesion and values. So, there’s no modern or progressive economy based on a regressive and reactionary view of society. This is why in the end, for example, equality of women is fundamental for future economic success – without that, countries can’t succeed. So prejudice of any sort — cultural or other — it’s not simply wrong in itself, it’s an inhibition to the necessary attitude for getting on in the world that we live in today. This is why the role of culture is fundamental, as are issues like the rule of law. The key to understanding the region at the moment is understanding — if you take, for example, Iraq or Syria, you’re never going to have stability there unless there’s an acceptance that you’ve got to be respectful of difference, so otherwise there is no future for those countries. Much of this is about intra-Muslim issues, not simply relations between Muslims and Jews and Christians and other faiths.

Tony Blair speech on the launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

What are some of the tools one uses to foster a culture of tolerance?

Education is crucial. We need to educate our young people, to be open-minded and tolerant, and the best education systems today teach young people to be creative. It’s not about teaching young people to learn things by rote — the kind of education I had when I was young. Today, education has to be about teaching young people to be creative and innovative. You’re not going to be teaching them to be creative and innovative if you’re teaching them to be prejudiced. The role of religion is very important. We need to be giving voice to those clerics and religious scholars who are giving a message of tolerance. And there are many of them — many doing great work in this field, whom we need to give them profile and support.

Is there a role for outsiders to play in supporting such a process?

There are practical ways to provide support in terms of help with education systems, but what’s important right now for the West is to realize what’s at stake and define the nature of this struggle in the region accurately. The problem is that a lot of the Western discourse regards this as a struggle about power and interests, and it really isn’t. It’s a struggle of fundamental values. So one big way that outsiders can support is to get on the side of those people who believe in that. The reason why I was opposed, for example, to Western policy at the time over Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, was because it was so obvious to me that if we ended up supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, we’d end up supporting a regime that was going to be profoundly intolerant, and quite apart from taking Egypt backwards, would end up as a significant security threat to us, never mind to Egypt or the region. To me it’s very important to see this Islamist ideology for what it is — essentially regressive. It’s the same if you do it to any religion – the Christian religion, Jewish religion, Hindu religion and indeed there are people who do it within each of those religions. You end up politicizing religion in that way, you end up doing damage to the future. And you end up excluding people. It’s essentially a totalitarian way of looking at the world. If you say, this is my view of my religion, and if you don’t support it you’re my enemy. The 20th century had these political ideologies, and the 21st century has these religious ideologies – whether religious or political they’re both totalitarian in nature. Therefore they are essentially regressive and reactionary.

There is a sense that a part of the intolerance we’re seeing in the world today is coming not from Arab countries or the developing world but some quarters of the West.

What we have done — and the UK is a good example of this, as I know from battles I had as Prime Minister — is that our societies are very tolerant, and very open, but unfortunately sometimes what’s happened is we’ve allowed these groups to come in and abuse that hospitality. And so you actually have pockets of extremism in the West now which can play themselves back into the region. The answer is the same: be intolerant of intolerance. We will have to take steps in the West to confront this in time. But first we have to identify what the problem is. So you often hear people in the West say, work with so-called “more moderate” Islamists to deal with violent extremists. That is a very common argument. My response is, one begets the other in the end. You have to confront the ideology of extremism, and not just the violence. You have to do it differently. People who are using violence, you’ve got to use the full force against them, but those who are preaching the ideology of intolerance you’ve got to confront as well. There is still in the U.S., Britain, and Europe a reluctance to do this.

Can you share some reflections on the conflict in Syria?

The Syrian conflict is indeed a terrible tragedy. Just to give you some of my own background on this: Partly because of my experience with Iraq in 2003, when the Arab spring began in 2011, I understood its motivation completely. But I also knew from experience that overthrowing a regime is one thing but then stabilizing the country afterwards is completely different and a different order of challenge, because by their nature what’s happening with some of these regimes is that they kept a lid on deep tensions, and once that lid Is taken off, the tensions boil over. That’s why in 2011 I said that if you can find a way peacefully to have a transition, that’s the best thing to do. Then when people in the West said, Assad has to go, I said fine, then get him out. But when you leave him there with no way out. you’re going to get a huge problem. What happened at the time was obviously he brought in support to shore his position up, and you know the brutal suppression of his country, and the shocking and awful manifestation of the conflict. So we’re now in a situation where it’s hard to see good solutions and impossible to see easy ones, but Western policy has to do two things: Be prepared to put a real commitment on the table, and we’ve got to make sure that in any new constitution that’s adopted, the principles of religious tolerance are guaranteed and enforced. So, I think it’s now very difficult but for sure there’s no way we get resolution unless we are prepared to commit our own resources. In that respect, the Trump administration’s reaction on chemical weapons was very important. It sent a very clear signal. I think in Syria, the only way we’re going to get a solution is if the regime knows that it’s not going to be allowed to continue in power indefinitely and the opposition is prepared to come together coherently behind principles that the nation can support as a whole. It’s easy to say but incredibly hard to do.

Obviously I’m very worried about Syria. I think in Iraq there’s a genuine chance, if people want to take it — of the country coming together — but then it’s going to require the leadership inside the country to put aside sectarian differences. There again, the region — Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world — can play an important role.

What are your thoughts about Western perceptions of the war in Yemen?

I think the most important thing from the West’s point of view is that they understand that the conflict in Yemen has come about principally because, again, as I say, the Iranian desire is to support the Houthis and establish an Iranian proxy next door to Saudi Arabia. And given the experience we had with Lebanon, it’s not surprising that the Saudis see this as their fundamental strategic interest. Again, I think the solutions are the same, which is an understanding that all that will ever work is the introduction of proper systems of governance and tolerance. I think, again, the West has to understand there that if that’s to happen, the extremism of Al-Qaeda, which is a very grave threat on that peninsula, and the threat of an Iranian hegemony being extended to Yemen — those twin challenges have got to be overcome, and there is no way unless they are overcome.

What are some of the present activities of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change?

The institute that I run has four elements to it. But all of them are around the same theme, which is, how do you make globalization work for people. My view is that the change driven by globalization — by technology, travel, migration, and trade — this change is accelerating and to some degree is inevitable. And if you shut the world down, you turn away from that open view of the world to a closed view — around protectionism, anti-immigration sentiments, extremism, and cultural prejudice — then the world becomes less safe and less prosperous. So my view is, what is necessary to create the circumstances for people to prosper in the twenty-first century, is, one, the poorest continent in world, Africa, we must be helped to develop. And there we work on governance: It’s less about aid than about how you help those countries develop their institutions and systems of government. If you look around the world today, the countries succeed or fail depending on the quality of their governance. I can give you examples of countries next door to each other — roughly the same population and resources — where one succeeds and one fails. The difference is governance. Colombia and Venezuela, for example. Poland and Ukraine. Rwanda and Burundi. Or actually the greatest experiment in human governance the world has ever known – which is the Korean peninsula, North and South Korea, In all of those examples, the difference is the quality of governance. So that’s the first thing, which we do mostly related to Africa. We work with African presidents, embed ourselves right inside the system and I and my team work to try and help them build institutional capability and deliver programs of change.

Tony Blair appearance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

The second thing that holds the world back is religious intolerance. We have a whole education program where we link up people of different faiths across the world. We have had 250,000 students go through our programs. We provide teaching materials for schools, teaching people attitudes of cultural tolerance, and we also do well-regarded research on extremism, how it comes about, and so on.

Then the third element is specifically in the Middle East: In my view, if we’re able to resolve the problems of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that’s a big boost to the open view of the world, the tolerant view, and it’s a big defeat of the closed view. So that’s again part of making the world work better.

And then finally, we also need the politics of the West to be in a strong and open-minded position. So the last bit of work that I’ve just begun recently is how does the West deal with its own political problems because our own internal problems are going to affect the rest of the world. You’re now seeing this populism of the left and right, with people not really giving solutions but they’re just riding the anger. So instead of riding the anger, we want to provide answers. So I’ve set up a team of people to work on what are the policy solutions to the stresses of change, because all of this globalization and change disrupts communities and changes people’s lives, people get left behind, communities get left behind. So how do we deal with those problems.

So those are the four key things that I think make globalization work.

The themes you describe tend to be the ones that animate Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030.” What’s your view of the initiative?

The Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia is in my view the first really coherent, worked-out plan for the country to get fully connected to the modern world and be as successful a nation as it could be. I think it is the real deal. Obviously the challenges are in the implementation, because that’s always the hard thing. But I think there is determination to make the change happen, and I think it’s very important the outside world gets behind it. In the program for economic diversification, for reform, and moving away from an oil-dependent economy, this is obviously the right thing to do. So the “Vision” is clearly is the right path to go, though there are many obstacles along the way, but the path is the right one and the destination is a good one.

What advice about the future would you share with young people in the Arab world?

My advice to young people in the region is partly what I’d give to my own children if they’d listen to me: Go out and explore the world and realize, it’s a place of very exciting opportunity precisely because it’s becoming more and more connected. So that’s one thing, and I think the other thing I’d say is that, we need young people to come forward and take up positions of leadership — not just in the private sector but also in government and public service. It’s very easy to criticize government; it’s a lot harder to be in government and make the system work. The more talent we bring in to the service of national development, the better we’ll do. The final thing I’d say is, the most important things is to have a passion for what you do. If it’s just a job, it will never really motivate you, and therefore you’ll never really do your best, and never truly realize your potential.


Speak Your Mind