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Aspects historiques et géopolitiques

New Labour, New Imperialism? Blairite Foreign Policy since 1997

New Labour, nouvel impérialisme ? La politique étrangère blairiste depuis 1997
Keith Dixon
p. 4-13

Résumé

Cet article analyse l’évolution de la politique étrangère du New Labour de 1997 à 2005. Il considère que la présentation des relations anglo-américaines contemporaines uniquement en termes de soumission britannique aux intérêts américains est une simplification abusive. Le développement d’une politique étrangère « avec une dimension éthique », selon les termes mêmes de Robin Cook en 1997, a mis en avant  la défense de « nos valeurs » comme critère déterminant dans le développement des relations internationales. Cela explique, à son tour, le recours récurrent par Anthony Blair à la notion de la « guerre juste » pour justifier les interventions militaires illégales entreprises depuis par l’alliance anglo-américaine. Ce nouveau positionnement en politique étrangère britannique a été accompagné par des changements dans l’environnement idéologique : les notions d’impérialisme « libéral » ou « post-moderne » ont été mises en avant pour justifier les changements de régime dans le monde pré-moderne d’Irak ou d’Afghanistan. En ce sens, c’est le groupe blairiste à la tête du parti travailliste britannique qui a fourni l’essentiel de la justification intellectuelle de l’interventionnisme militaire de l’administration de George Bush, et cela  bien avant les attaques du 11 septembre.

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Texte intégral

  • 1  For a discussion of the process of accommodation with the new Thatcherite order, see Colin Hay, Th (...)
  • 2  This argument is developed further in Keith Dixon, Un Digne Héritier. Blair et le thatchérisme, Pa (...)
  • 3  Tony Blair, New Britain. My vision of a young country, London: Fourth Estate, 1996, 75-97.

1The British Labour Party has changed almost beyond recognition since the arrival of Anthony Blair as leader in July 1994. Although it can reasonably be argued that the process of accommodation with the new Thatcherite economic and social order (what in New Labour newspeak is now called “modernization”) began earlier1, during the leadership of Neil Kinnock (1983-1992), a qualitative change was nonetheless inaugurated by the Blairites2. From what had often been – or was presented as – a reluctant acceptance of policies that the party leadership argued it could no longer oppose for reasons of electoral credibility (the selling off of council houses or the dismantling of the closed shop, for example) the focus shifted after 1994 to an increasingly enthusiastic endorsement of the practices of the “new” Britain that had emerged from neo-liberal shock therapy of the 1980s. Blair himself approvingly used the expression the “British experiment”3 to designate Thatcherite practice during this period. Thus, deregulation of the labour market, complete or partial privatization (of everything from prisons to air traffic control, from health care to old-age pensions), the curtailment of trade union rights and employment protection, the abandoning of political control over the setting of interest rates and radical trade liberalization have all become articles of the New Labour faith, defended with equal vigour by all the major actors in the Party (including Gordon Brown).

  • 4  See, for example, Geoffrey Foote, The Labour Party’s Political Thought. A History, Houndmills: Mac (...)
  • 5  This was the position defended publicly by Guillaume Duval, editor of the neo-Keynesian Alternativ (...)

2All this is of course now well-documented and a vast literature exists4 charting the facts and figures of New Labour’s conversion to a vision of economic and social management which owes much more to Friedrich von Hayek than to Keir Hardie (or indeed to Tony Crosland), much more to Charles Murray than to Richard Titmuss, a vast literature that the present-day French enthusiasts for the British way would do well to read and ponder over. This might – one lives in hope – lead them to abandon, for example, the myth of New Labour Keynesianism, constructed on the flimsy basis of a recent increase in public spending and employment and presently being defended by several distinguished commentators of the French Left5, or the quaint idea that New Labour is actually much more left-wing in practice than its rhetoric might lead us to believe.

3If New Labour domestic policy is now well-documented, there has perhaps been less academic scrutiny of the changes that have been enacted in foreign policy since the arrival of Blair at 10 Downing Street in May 1997. And much of the discussion that has taken place has focused on the immediate (and crucial) question of British involvement in the second Gulf War, to the detriment of the wider considerations that I would like to discuss briefly here. A number of polemical works have appeared, but they are often informed by an analysis of British subservience to US geo-political concerns with which I would like to take issue.

4Basically what I intend to argue here can be articulated around the following three points:

  1. The New Labour leadership, the two successive Foreign Secretaries (Robin Cook and Jack Straw) and Blair himself have not played a purely subordinate role in the revamped special relationship and its present “war on terror”. The facile catch-phrase which sees Blair as “Bush’s poodle” therefore misses much of what is essential in the evolution of British foreign policy since the late nineties.

    • 6   The reference here is, in particular, to Robert Cooper, the outspoken British diplomat who has pl (...)

    New Labour and its organic intellectuals6 have developed a new doctrine of armed intervention – an on-going war for values – which has served and will continue to serve to legitimate Anglo-American interventionism. This doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” is particularly important in the process of present and future war coalition-building within Europe, where other more distinctively American arguments of legitimation – the necessity of political “regime change”, for example – have less resonance.

    • 7  See Niall Ferguson, Empire. How Britain made the modern world, London: Penguin,2004; Colossus. The (...)

     The evolution of New Labour’s thinking and practice in international relations has been accompanied by a major intellectual and political offensive, generously highlighted within the written and televisual media, in favour of “new” forms of “liberal” or “post-modern” imperialism. This re-emergence of imperialism, once again portrayed as a positive contribution to the forward march of humanity, providing the key to a series of present-day problems of the international order – “terrorism”, failed states, organized international crime, etc., but also economic and social development – provides the backcloth to a more specific attempt to revise British imperial history, and invite a more understanding attitude towards British colonial practice in the past. The rather clumsy, if preoccupying, French attempt, by a handful of right-wing parliamentarians, to re-orientate school teaching of French imperial history pales in the light of the much more sophisticated work, in both the academic and the political fields, of British historians like Niall Ferguson7, to whom I will return.

From the “ethical dimension” to the “just war”

  • 8  See, for example, John Kamfner, “Travelling Light”, in Blair’s Wars, London: The Free Press, 2004, (...)

5It has been pointed out by most observers of British foreign policy that Blair had neither experience of nor any great interest in foreign policy matters when he came to power in 19978. Indeed, during his first year in office he made only one major speech on foreign policy concerns. It could even be argued that the low priority granted to foreign policy was reflected in the appointment of Robin Cook, hardly a Blair enthusiast or a New Labour insider and generally seen as a man of the Left, as Foreign Secretary during Blair’s first mandate. There may be some truth in such an analysis, but as we shall see, Cook himself, despite his much later positioning once he had been removed from the Foreign Office, was to be an enthusiastic advocate of New Labour interventionism as presently expounded by Blair. And in any case, Blair was very rapidly to make sure that Downing Street had priority in this, as in so many other domains.

  • 9  See Mark Wickham-Jones, “Labour’s trajectory in foreign affairs: the moral crusade of a pivotal po (...)
  • 10  The Scott Report, published in February 1996, was highly critical of the role played by the Major (...)

6Only a few days after arriving at the Foreign Office in 1997, Cook announced a new era in British international relations in which what he called (and later regretted calling) the “ethical dimension” would be given much greater salience9. The United Kingdom was to break with a long tradition, formally expressed in the words of Lord Palmerston more than a century earlier, in which the defence of British vital interests was seen as the ultimate criterion for foreign policy orientation. Henceforth Britain would defend not only its interests but its values: it would therefore, for instance, turn its back on the wheeling and arms dealing that had been characteristic of the government that had immediately preceded the arrival of New Labour in power, and had done much to tarnish the image of the post-Thatcher Conservative party under the leadership of John Major10. Some, outside Britain and within the European Left, were foolhardy enough to applaud this apparent sea-change in British foreign policy. As it turned out, introducing ethical criteria into the lucrative business of selling arms to dictatorial regimes turned out to be much more complicated than Cook had self-evidently believed. But the rhetoric of ethical values had been activated – with quite unforeseen consequences for Cook and his left-wing supporters in Britain and outside.

  • 11  For the full text of this speech, see the official site of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Of (...)
  • 12  “Rather than merely appropriating American trends, Britain could be a sparking point for creative (...)

7Blair, with the active support of his Foreign Secretary, was to resort forcefully to the language of ethical concern in what must be considered as his key programmatic foreign policy speech, given to the Economic Club in Chicago on the 22nd of April 199911, on the fiftieth anniversary of NATO. This is a speech to which Blair has constantly returned when asked for justification for his positioning over Iraq, among other issues of international conflict. In his Chicago speech, entitled “The Doctrine of the International Community”, Blair seized on the Balkans crisis and the NATO decision to intervene in Kosovo (which he had actively promoted, despite some initial American reluctance) to explain the new line of thinking developed by his government. We find in this speech more than a trace of the influence of two of Blair’s closest foreign policy advisers, Professor Lawrence Freedman and professional diplomat, Robert Cooper.  The latter is the  author of The Breaking of Nations (2003) and  has no doubt played as important a role in providing intellectual and political legitimacy for New Labour foreign policy as Tony Giddens has done for domestic policy (although, of course, Giddens has also provided his own apologia for the revamped transatlantic alliance12).

8The key concept in the Chicago speech is globalization; for those who are familiar with New Labour theorizing, it will come as no surprise that the globalization process is conceptualized with the same historical determinism that once characterized Marxist theorizing about the inevitability of socialism. Over the last twenty years, the world has changed “in a more fundamental way” says Blair, “Globalisation has transformed economies and our working practices. But globalisation is not just economic, it is also a political and security phenomenon.” Isolationism, Blair tells his American audience, is no longer an option: “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not”. For the security problems raised by the globalization process, because of the new inter-connectedness it has generated, will return to haunt those who refuse to take decisive action on them. “We cannot refuse to participate in world markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other countries if we wish to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we still want to be secure.”

  • 13  For a full discussion of the flouting of international law by the American and British governments (...)

9The Kosovo crisis is therefore situated in this new international context in which “we” – a “we” that is both recurrent and undefined in Blairite discourse on international relations - simply cannot turn away. The questions raised by the NATO intervention in Kosovo were, for Blair, those of the new age of international relations, in which the defence of values that are seen as fundamental (in this case, purportedly, the human rights of the Kosovan population violated by the Serbian government) have priority over all other considerations, including international law13. In this sense the Kosovo intervention is, in Blairite thinking, already in 1999 an exemplar for the future: “a just war, not based on territorial ambitions but on values”.  

10Thus, according to Blair, the “most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in the conflicts of others”. Kosovo is therefore just a start in the forceful re-ordering of the world that is now on the Blairite international agenda. In Chicago, Blair stipulated five major preliminary considerations that should be taken into account before resorting to the gunboats: 1) To be sure of one’s case; 2) To have exhausted all other diplomatic solutions; 3) To make sure that the military option is taken “sensibly and prudently”; 4) To be prepared for the long term; 5) To be sure that the national interest is involved. It is surely of significance, as was pointed out by some timid voices at the time, that the issue of international authorization of military intervention is not alluded to by Blair in this crucial exposition of his vision of the just war.

  • 14  Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, London: Atlantic Books, 2004, 16-54.
  • 15 Ibid., 162.

11In his book, The Breaking of Nations, which sums up much of the foreign policy advice Robert Cooper had been giving to Blair since the late 1990s Cooper presents the world as divided into three categories of states: the pre-modern world of failed states and potential or real anarchy; the modern world of states who continue to rely on the balance of power and to be motivated by raison d’État (the most representative state being here the United States itself) and the post-modern world of shared sovereignty and moral consciousness applied to international affairs (for which the EEC is the model)14. For Cooper, it is the duty of the modern and post-modern world to police the pre-modern states that by their very existence threaten the rest. Such policing cannot be achieved without the threat of war: as Cooper points out quite starkly “foreign policy is about war and peace and countries that only do peace are missing half the story – perhaps the most important half”15. Britain, as we now know, now does war (again). Indeed, it has done more war over the last eight years of New Labour government than it has for some time in its long and warful history: five military interventions in all since 1997, wars that have almost all been in traditional terms illegal, but which are recurrently justified by moral necessity (in the absence of any trace of weapons of mass destruction, Blair has constantly re-iterated that the removal of Saddam Hussein, and therefore, the Anglo-American military adventure, was morally justified).

12It is perhaps labouring my point to stress that this intellectual/political framework to justify armed intervention in sovereign states which do not directly threaten the security of those who intervene was elaborated before George W. Bush arrived in the White House and a fortiori before the attacks of the 11th of September. The poodle had spoken, so to speak, in his master’s favourite idiom before the master even materialized.

Hail the new imperialism

  • 16  For the full text of this speech, see the site of The Guardian newspaper : <http://politics.guardi (...)
  • 17  The full text of the speech given to the US Congress can also been found on the Guardian site, dat (...)

13It is of course true that since his first serious foray into the field of foreign policy conceptualization in 1999, Blair has developed and refined his approach to these issues. This has perforce been the case since the 11th of September and Blair’s personal decision, no doubt taken in early 2002, to support George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein, come what might. Nonetheless, the main architecture of his argument has remained basically unchanged (as can be verified, for example, in his speech on the Iraq crisis given in his Sedgefield constituency in March 200416). Blair does however develop one aspect of his foreign policy thinking later in the period: his support for unipolarity. It was in his speech to the US Congress in July 200317, on receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, that Blair most clearly expressed his analysis of this issue. In a messianic vein that has become increasingly characteristic of his public pronouncements on international policy (“I feel a most urgent sense of mission about today’s world”), he denounces the dangers of multipolarity: “There is no more dangerous theory in international politics than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitive powers, different poles around which nations gather”. What is needed, says Blair, is partnership and not competition between the US and Europe (presumably on the Anglo-American model) and he interestingly stresses the role he believes the new member states from Eastern and Central Europe will play in re-inforcing the transatlantic link. It is however Blair’s insistence on the US as a “force for good” that leads me on to the final point I wish to discuss here: the belief, as expressed by Blair, that there “has never been a time when the power of America was so necessary and so misunderstood”.

  • 18  See Keith Dixon, Les Évangélistes du marché. Les intellectuels britanniques et le néo-libéralisme, (...)

14This apologia for a unipolar world in which (Anglo-)American power is and should be mobilized for the defence of “our” values has of course led to accusations of imperialism, essentially from those opposed to the Bush-Blair crusade. This particular discussion is however taking place at a time when the dominant representations of the notions of empire and imperialism have been changing, in particular in the United Kingdom. Just as the neo-liberal intellectuals of Britain some thirty to forty years ago worked unstintingly, and with spectacular success, to undermine the intellectual foundations of Keynesian social democracy, thus preparing the way for Thatcher’s shock troops18, so in more recent times the same strategy of intellectual subversion is being applied to anti-imperialism. The Empire is once again in the process of becoming “a good thing” and, of course, this work of revising imperial history has self-evident repercussions on the perception of present-day incursions into the “pre-modern” world of Afghanistan or Iraq.

15In Britain, the key intellectual advocate of this rehabilitation of British imperialism has been Niall Ferguson, who has combined academic work and popularization (his first major book on Empire was made into a BBC series) in his comprehensive attempt to rewrite British colonial history. There has since been a spate of books written by professional historians taking up the same or similar themes: this has particularly been the case, for example, in my native Scotland, which has good reason to wish to revisit and re-embellish its role in the construction and consolidation of Empire.

  • 19  Niall Ferguson, Empire, op. cit., xxii.

16Ferguson (himself a Scot) is no naïve Empire loyalist: on the contrary, his work shows a real willingness to explore the dark side of the British imperial adventure, from the extermination of the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land to the death rates in British concentration camps19 for Boers and Blacks during the Boer War. However, his basic thesis is that all the alternatives were worse and that despite the cruelty and barbarity of certain episodes in colonial history, Britain’s contribution to the countries it dominated was inestimable. Talking of the Empire, Ferguson claims that “no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world”.

  • 20 Ibid., 371.

17From the point of view of our discussions here, the most interesting part of Ferguson’s first book on imperial history, Empire. How Britain made the modern world, is no doubt the conclusion in which he develops parallels with the contemporary situation. Ferguson notes with satisfaction the return of the theme of imperialism in contemporary debate. Drawing on his historical analysis of British imperialism he makes the following general and contemporary conclusion: “[...] what the British Empire proved is that Empire is a form of international government that can work – and not just for the benefit of the ruling power. It sought to globalize not just an economic but a legal and ultimately a political system too”20.  He then goes on to stress the changes in public perceptions of imperial intervention  - drawing on a key speech made by Blair to the Labour Party Conference shortly after the events of September the 11th and on an article by Robert Cooper in the British press published shortly afterwards. Of Blair he has the following to say:

  • 21 Ibid., 374-375.

18 “Not since before the Suez Crisis has a British Prime Minister talked with such unreserved enthusiasm about what Britain could do for the rest of the world. Indeed, it is hard to think of a Prime Minister since Gladstone so ready to make what sounds like undiluted altruism the basis of his foreign policy. The striking thing, however, is that with only a little rewriting this could be made to sound an altogether more menacing project. Routine intervention to overthrow governments deemed ‘bad’, economic assistance in return for ‘good’ government and “proper commercial, legal and financial systems”; a mandate to “bring [...] the values of freedom and democracy to ‘people round the world’. On reflection, this bears more than a passing resemblance to the Victorians’ project to export their own ‘civilization’ to the world”21.

  • 22 Ibid., 381.

19He then goes on to quote Cooper’s call for “a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to the world of human rights and cosmopolitan values [...] an imperialism which like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organization but which rests today on the voluntary principle”. This is what Cooper himself calls “post-modern imperialism”. But Ferguson, the Tory, parts company with his New Labour friends over the issue of who is to take the initiative of the new imperialism. Neither the contemporary Britain which Blair sees as a “beacon” for the 21st century, nor the European Union, whose “post-modern” system of sovereignty sharing is praised by Cooper, have the clout to do so. “There is”, says Ferguson, “only one power capable of playing an imperial role in the modern world, and that is the United States. Indeed, to some degree it is already playing that role”. The problem is that the United States is “an empire [...] that dares not speak its name. An empire in denial”22.


*   *   *

20At Robin Cook’s funeral in August 2005 two songs were played in the austere St Giles’ Cathedral in central Edinburgh: the International and that great song of the Scottish anti-imperialist Left, Freedom come All Ye. No doubt this choice reflected his family’s desire for him to be remembered as the man who stood up against Blair in the run-up to the second Gulf War and resigned on principles he shared with the rest of the Left. It is therefore ironic that it was Cook’s espousal of the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and his claim that the war against the Serbs in Kosovo was morally justified that paved the way for the post-modern imperialism which has since become the unspoken credo of his party’s leader.

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Notes

1  For a discussion of the process of accommodation with the new Thatcherite order, see Colin Hay, The Political Economy of New Labour. Labouring under false pretences?, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

2  This argument is developed further in Keith Dixon, Un Digne Héritier. Blair et le thatchérisme, Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 2000.

3  Tony Blair, New Britain. My vision of a young country, London: Fourth Estate, 1996, 75-97.

4  See, for example, Geoffrey Foote, The Labour Party’s Political Thought. A History, Houndmills: Macmillan, 1997, 324-348; Norman Fairclough, New Labour, New Language?, London: Routledge, 2000 ; Richard Heffernan,  New Labour and Thatcherism. Political Change in Britain, Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001; Philippe Marlière, La Troisième Voie dans l’Impasse, Paris: Syllepse, 2003; Philippe Auclair, Le Royaume enchanté de Tony Blair, Paris: Fayard, 2006.

5  This was the position defended publicly by Guillaume Duval, editor of the neo-Keynesian Alternatives Economiques during the referendum campaign concerning the European Constitutional Treaty in the Spring of 2005.

6   The reference here is, in particular, to Robert Cooper, the outspoken British diplomat who has played a key rôle in theorizing New Labour’s belligerent stand on international issues.

7  See Niall Ferguson, Empire. How Britain made the modern world, London: Penguin,2004; Colossus. The rise and fall of the American empire, London: Penguin, 2005.

8  See, for example, John Kamfner, “Travelling Light”, in Blair’s Wars, London: The Free Press, 2004, 3-17.

9  See Mark Wickham-Jones, “Labour’s trajectory in foreign affairs: the moral crusade of a pivotal power?”, in R. Little and M. Wickham-Jones, New Labour’s Foreign Policy, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 3-32.

10  The Scott Report, published in February 1996, was highly critical of the role played by the Major government in the breaking of the arms embargo on Iraq by the Matrix Churchill company.

11  For the full text of this speech, see the official site of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office: <http://www.fco.gov.uk>, consulted in April 2007.

12  “Rather than merely appropriating American trends, Britain could be a sparking point for creative interaction between the US and Continental Europe.” Anthony Giddens, The Third Way. The renewal of social democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press, ix.

13  For a full discussion of the flouting of international law by the American and British governments in the recent period, see Philippe Sands, Lawless World. America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules, London: Penguin/ Allen Lane, 2005.

14  Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, London: Atlantic Books, 2004, 16-54.

15 Ibid., 162.

16  For the full text of this speech, see the site of The Guardian newspaper : <http://politics.guardian.co.uk>, consulted in April 2007.

17  The full text of the speech given to the US Congress can also been found on the Guardian site, dated the 18th of July, 2003.

18  See Keith Dixon, Les Évangélistes du marché. Les intellectuels britanniques et le néo-libéralisme, Paris : Raisons d’Agir, 1998.

19  Niall Ferguson, Empire, op. cit., xxii.

20 Ibid., 371.

21 Ibid., 374-375.

22 Ibid., 381.

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Keith Dixon, « New Labour, New Imperialism? Blairite Foreign Policy since 1997 », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V - n°3 | 2007, 4-13.

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Keith Dixon, « New Labour, New Imperialism? Blairite Foreign Policy since 1997 », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. V - n°3 | 2007, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2009, consulté le 28 septembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/1486 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.1486

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Auteur

Keith Dixon

Prof. (Lyon II, France)
Keith Dixon est Professeur de Civilisation britannique à l’Université Lumière-Lyon 2. Ses recherches portent sur la politique britannique contemporaine ainsi que sur les relations entre culture et politique en Écosse au XXe siècle. Il est l’auteur de nombreux articles et ouvrages, en français et en anglais, sur la société britannique dont Les Evangélistes du Marché (Raisons d’Agir, 1998) et Un Abécédaire du Blairisme (Éditions du Croquant, 2005).

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