Last Updated 14 Apr 2020

Tony Blair’s Foreign Policies

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Blair era foreign policy can be characterised as simultaneously Europeanist and Liberal-interventionist. Based on globalist, third way ideas revolving around universal culpability and cooperation. Success inEuropewas defined as increasing British influence and changing the institutions to promote security and sustainability whilst serving British interest. Success elsewhere became dependent on justifying the extraordinary interventions in terms of morals and national interest. The early success of these goals was largely evident until the issue ofIraqbrought the two policy areas into conflict and undid much of what had been done.

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Was the Labour party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair a success?


There is a great deal of scope for evaluations of foreign policy in the Blair era, the simplest method of evaluation would be to choose objective, empirically definable criteria as indicators of achievement as many have done. However, this would not provide a satisfactory answer to the question, Buller (2008) maintains that political success is defined as the achievement of one’s own goals through politics, meaning that the criteria for evaluating the party’s success must be based on the party’s own aims. However he notes that for a realistic appraisal one must take into account the structural context when evaluating performance, Kegley and Wittkopf (2001) emphasize the importance of considering both global and domestic factors when evaluating foreign policy choices. As such this evaluation will focus on the success of Blair’s pro-European policies, the Liberal Interventionist policies and the global and domestic factors affecting these two areas.


The first major aim, clarified by Blair (20 January,1998), was to increaseUKinfluence in the EU, bringing it closer to the centre of power through strategic cooperation. Utilising the country’s strong economic position,Britaincould have a constructive role inEurope, pursuing employment and economic flexibility, whilst increasing stability and security for the future (Blair,1998). At the same time Euro-scepticism in theUK and the single-currency issue had to be combated, further testing the government’s commitment toEurope.

Europe began to subscribe to Blair’s cohesive ideas and third-way view of a free market, promising at the Lisbon Summit to transformEuropeinto “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010” (European Council,2000). TheUK’s voting weight in the Council of Ministers was increased to 29 whilst we retained our vetoes on tax and social security.

It should be noted that the political environment of restructuring in the EU coincided with a strong UKeconomy, allowing Blair a constructionist role in Europe. Financial changes related to the Euro caused the context to turn against the New Labour plan. During its ascent to power New Labour had, been pro-Euro, presuming that issues like Euro-scepticism and economic impracticalities could be solved or averted. Nick Carter (2003) noted how this could never be the case: In the free market economy that Labour supported, the market itself must be a prime consideration in economic decisions, above political will. It became apparent that the UKmarket would not benefit from joining the Euro. Thus the pro-single-currency policy was a failure while euro-scepticism was still rife in the UKat the end of the Blair leadership (TNS, 2006). Much of Labour’s early European policy had been a success though: Britainhad become influential in Europe, successfully campaigning for a focus on flexibility and employment as well as increases in Europe’s coordinated defence forces (European Council, 1999). This favourable political environment couldn’t last in the face of the rift caused by Blair’s interventionist policy and the war inIraq.

The liberal interventionist ideology was perfectly clarified by Blair himself when he pointed out that “If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests” (Blair 1999). The success of the foreign policy goals derived from these ideals can be assessed in terms of the major interventions;Sierra Leone,Kosovo,AfghanistanandIraq. The efficiency of diplomatic and military power in achieving the Blair government’s political goals comes into focus here. But success is based on justification as well as action, in order to retain a moral basis and a wider international motivation for the interventions they had to be justified in terms of morals and national interests.

The interventions in which Blair was involved before 9/11 were widely supported and successful.Sierra Leoneand Kosovo were both clear cases of foreign political agents using military force to subjugate a country before ordering massive, human rights abuses. Both countries had provable links to theUKand in both cases Tony Blair took the lead in opposing the invaders. The liberalist policy behind these had a touch of economic realism to it, with consideration of the impact of refugees and benefits gained from cooperation affecting the decisions. Thanks to the successful proposition and application of this rhetoric (e.g.Blair,1999) European and US leaders supported these politically demanding campaigns. Both were unreserved military and political victories with much praise given to Blair’s socially and economically aware foreign policy.

Blair’s strong foreign policy record began to go sharply downhill after the new millennium. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 came shortly after the fairly liberalClintonadministration was replaced by the Bush conservatives. Thus the following military campaigns played out very differently. The Blair government attempted to justifyAfghanistanandIraqusing the type of moral rhetoric that worked in Kosovo. But the case was less solid here and there was little public support for the war in the UK (MORI,2002) and little chance of an all-important UN resolution supporting the war, as France and Russia threatened to veto the decision.

Blair’s foreign policy, once centred on EU cooperation, had diverged from that ofEurope. When the Labour government decided to invadeIraqit was clear that the important relations withEuropewere irreparably damaged. Plant (2008) argues that Blair misjudged the motivations of hisUScounterpart, seeing a liberal colleague where there was really an economic realist concerned with national interest. This caused an already suspicious British public to turn against Labour, whilst at the international level countries began to see the idea of ‘intervention’ as a thinly disguised invasion. Simon Bulmer(2008) notes that the Labour foreign policy seemed to turn on itself, becoming almost schizophrenic in its simultaneous promotion of cooperation in Europe and isolationism inIraq.


Blair’s early foreign policy decisions were largely sound. In Europe he made strong headway and, as a result, theUKcame to be influential in the EU. The interventionist policy that originally looked farfetched was also successful, gaining domestic and international support whilst achieving its early goals. However external factors such as the 9/11 attacks combined with errors of judgement on Blair’s part caused his once celebrated interventionist agenda to be viewed with suspicion at home and abroad. Rifts with Europe Blair’s European agenda weakened. To conclude, Blair’s foreign policy mix of social conscience and economic prudence was a huge success when the context was favourable. Unfortunately the tables turned due partly to bad judgement concerningIraqand thus the once successful Blair government became the architect of its own downfall.


Blair, A. (1998) ‘Change: A Modern Britainin a Modern Europe’ The Riderzall, The Hague, Netherlands- 20th January

Blair, A. (1999) ‘Doctrine of The International Community’ The ChicagoEconomic Club, Chicago, USA– 23rd April

Buller, J. (2008) ‘New Labour and the European Union’ in. Beech, M. And Lee, S. Ten Years of New Labour. Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan.

Bulmer, S. (2008) ‘New Labour, New European PolicyBlair, Brown and Utilitarian Supranationalism’ Parliamentary Affairs 61 (4) 597-620

Carter, N. (2003) ‘Whither (or Wither) the EuroLabour and the Single Currency’ Politics 23 (1) 1-9

CologneEuropean Council (1999) Conclusions of the PresidencyCologne: European Parliament Office of Communication

Kegley and Wittkopf (2001) World Politics: Trend and Transformation. Bellmont:Wadsworth

LisbonEuropean Council (2000) Presidency Conclusions – 23rd and 24th March 2000 Lisbon: European Parliament Office of Communication

MORI (2002) Possible War With Iraq – the Public’s View London: Ipsos, Mori

Plant, R (2008) ‘Blair’s Liberal Interventionism’ in. Beech, M. And Lee, S. Ten Years of New Labour. Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan.

TNS Opinion and Social (2006) Standard Eurobarometer 66/ Autumn 2006 Brussels: EC Directorate-General of Communication

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