New Delhi: Under Tony Blair, the Labour Party in the UK stayed in power for three consecutive terms. However, midway through the third stint, under pressure from within the party, he had to step down as prime minister in June last year. The 55-year-old has, among other things, since served as the West Asia envoy for the United Nations and has been a key votary for a global agreement on climate change. Blair who was in India last week to attend the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit took some time out for a private conversation with Mint. Edited excerpts:
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What are your thoughts on the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the US?
I think it is a moment of great possibility, great opportunity, but it is also a moment of huge expectation; which is going to be difficult for him to meet because some of these expectations are so vast and they don’t always run in consistent directions. I think the most important thing for us is that he will reach out a hand of partnership to the world. But it is important that the world reaches a hand back and doesn’t take what he offers and puts it in the pocket. I think it will involve some tough choices on our part as well. If you take the issue of climate change where he has committed himself to reaching a deal; well, he can try to reach a deal, but he will want China, India and other countries doing things as well.
You don’t think he will force a big shift in the US stand on climate change?
I think he will. It will be a big push forward for sure. But I think some hard policy choices will still remain; what will be the commitment of America in terms of its target and how will it deliver that and so on and so forth. And, then what will it expect crucially from China and India in return—this will be the issue I think. No, I think he is determined to make change, but all I am saying is that it is sometime tougher than what it seems. There was a famous American politician, Mario Cuomo, who said, and something I have often used, this phrase exemplifying what politics is like: You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.
What about the impact on the US foreign policy and overall on global polity?
My view is that there is an agenda internationally, that is capable of unifying the world. But it does require some hard choices all around. So, for example, I think you could get coordinated measures to the economic global downturn, but it will involve a new trade deal. You could get a deal on climate change, but it will involve the emerging economies. You can settle the Middle East peace process, if you really, really focus on it, but it will also involve countries supporting America where they are having to fight militarily as in Afghanistan. In other words, there is an agenda that is capable of bringing the world together, of unifying it, but once you translate that agenda into hard policy choices well they are indeed hard. They are not easy. And, therefore, I think there has been a somewhat lazy assumption on the part of the outside world that President Bush goes and suddenly everything is hunky dory and easy. Well, people will find out pretty soon that even though the language is different—and, language makes a difference—nonetheless policy issues don’t actually alter.
If you were still the Prime Minister of Britain, what would you have done to tackle the ongoing economic meltdown? And, do you think what has been done so far is good enough?
I think my own successor in the British government has been good and rightly saw very early the need to try and stand behind the financial institutions. And, the G-20 meetings in Washington went well. It gave the right broad principles of the approach. I think there will have to be fiscal measures taken, but personally I think there is a fundamental question here, which is really, really tough to answer. How do you restore confidence on the part of the consumer in the financial system? And what’s happening in the Western economies at the moment is that businesses are pulling back from investing, banks are not lending—they may be capitalized—and consumers are not spending. My view is that you can talk all about regulation; but regulation, I am afraid, is for the future problem and not for the problem we just had. We are going to have the means of restoring that confidence to the consumer. I think that will only happen when businesses, consumers and indeed the banks themselves feel the trust and confidence is back; and, at the moment they are hesitating.
Do you have a timeline as to when this confidence would be restored?
The trouble with this is that it is really very urgent. Decisions are being taken that will have a self-fulfilling effect on the economy.
The Obama presidency comes about when the economic meltdown is yet to peak. Don’t you think it will diminish the US economy and thereby reduce the country’s global influence?
My basic thesis is that the power is shifting East and that in time to come, China and India will be the major powers. However, even though that is my basic thesis you can’t write America off so soon. In this downturn, the Americans may emerge faster and quicker out of this than anyone else. They are still easily the largest economy in the world. So, I think they got a lot of creativity, innovation and enterprise in that system to see it through. But I think, on the other hand, it is just the way the world is today that the G-20 met and not the G-8. And, I think that is basically the way the world is today.
Similarly, Richard Haas (who heads the Council on Foreign Relations), in the latest issue of ‘Foreign Affairs’, talks about a shift to a non-polar world as opposed to a unipolar and a multipolar world. Your thoughts?
I think we live in a world where values and the ability to persuade on the basis of the justice of your case matter ever than before. I think the problem with America in these past years is that the world in which America says this is what should happen and the world says OK, those days are over and gone. We won’t get any of these international agreements; not on trade, climate, economic downturn, fight against terrorism, unless there is coming together based on shared purpose and values. It won’t be about power and interest. So in that sense I think the concept of a non-polar world is right. However, when you get to practical politics, what is not the case that America simply has its own way. What is the case, however, is that the major countries, and treat Europe as one country for this purpose, will today have to find ways of cohabiting and working things out between each other.
The central argument is that there is an increasing role for non-state actors, whether it be NGOs and extremists. In that context, it may be more difficult to manage global consensus on contentious issues, despite the presence of a strong America.
I agree with that point. But that is exactly why you need that strong cooperation between the major powers. They also have these non-state actors who are creating waves, driving movements and so on and so forth. And we live in a very, broader sense of the word, a democratic world. Take for example environment. It is important that the “green movement” does not determine your environment policy even though I agree with them on raising the issue. These people are not policy people. It is important for serious policy making to be done by people who actually have responsibility to take the decisions.
Since you left office, there has been a dramatic shift in the state of affairs in South Asia. Afghanistan is on the boil, Pakistan is facing a meltdown and at the same time India is on the ascendancy. What do you make of this?
I think what is happening in this region is a choice between the forces of modernity, which are very clearly exhibited in India—the way it has developed recently and emerged as the power that it is—and those that oppose it. Likewise, modern forces in Pakistan and certainly those people who want a future in Afghanistan that is not run by some reactionary theocracy. I think there is a choice between that vision and the vision based on religious fanaticism: I am of my culture and faith, I am different and therefore we are opposed to each other. Though I think those two choices are very, very clear. And, in that regard, the position of India is of completely central importance. India’s leadership, in trying to make sure those forces of modernity win through, not just in India, but throughout the region, is vital. It sounds easy enough for that to happen, but until you realize there are still three-quarters of the population of India that live on $2 or less. So you got to represent that modernity and at the same time meet the extraordinary challenge of bringing your people up to the level you want to see. So I think it is difficult. But there is no doubt that one of things that have given people heart in most of the rest of the world has been the sense that India in the last few years has emerged as not just capable but willing and able to take on its role of leadership.