European Affairs

This is primarily a book on Tony Blair's prime ministership, as seen through the broader lens of the Special Relationship that has existed between the United States and Britain since the 1940s. And if the book is a little too British-centric, and assumes a little too much knowledge of UK politics for non-British readers, it can be forgiven for its fascinating portrait of Blair.

From his first over-awed dealings with Bill Clinton through the tough, unflinching decisions on Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, we see Blair and the British team in minute detail. The meetings at Chequers and Camp David, tutorials with Bill Clinton, a constant stream of personal notes from Blair to Bush the Younger, the plotting and planning at Number 10 Downing Street, the European strategy, reactions and interactions with Washington - we hear it all. The accounts have an undeniable ring of truth, as if we are observers at the table, thanks to Riddell's close access to key players on both sides of the Atlantic.

Through it all, Riddell makes the point that Blair is his own man, for better or worse. We learn that Blair was worried about Iraq, Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction almost from day one after becoming Prime Minister in 1997. Blair is quoted as telling the author that it was reading his first intelligence reports that alerted him to the dangers of what he later described as "some pretty scary stuff."

So, rather than the Bush "poodle" he has been portrayed to be, Blair had been arguing for a tough line against Saddam's regime, including the threat of military intervention for six years before the start of the war in Iraq. These early intelligence reports informed his foreign policy from the first. This is the background to the Prime Minister's speech to the Labour Party in February 2003, when he said: "People say that you must be doing this because the Americans are telling you to do it. I keep telling them it's worse than that. I believe in it."

From the early days of his premiership, Blair also followed a long line of his predecessors in adopting a "hug them close" approach to his counterparts in Washington. Since the end of World War II, a succession of British prime ministers have sought to influence the debate in Washington and remain major world players by maintaining a special place at the side of the United States, with varying degrees of success.

After reading this book, we can only conclude that Blair has paid too high a price, in both political and historical terms, for his dogged support of the U.S. Administration. The payback from the United States has been less than one would expect, and his much vaunted aim of taking a leading role in Europe, while acting as a "bridge" between a unilateralist-leaning United States and an increasingly anti-American Europe, has all but collapsed.

In the early days, however, all seemed possible. Even before taking office, Blair and his close colleague and arch rival Gordon Brown, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, were dazzled by Bill Clinton's stunning success in the November 1992 presidential elections. Clinton's New Democrat themes resonated with Blair and Brown, who were searching for new approaches after Labour's fourth successive defeat in April 1992. A critical visit to Washington in 1993 by the Blair-Brown team, as the Clinton Administration was just taking office, laid the groundwork for "New" Labour, the new middle ground style and strategy that propelled Blair into office. From the beginning, Blair and Clinton had a mutual admiration society, with Clinton adopting the role of elder brother and mentor to the younger Blair.

Part of the book's value is in chronicling the evolution of Blair as a leader, including his coming of age over Kosovo in 1999. This marked a turning point in the Clinton-Blair relationship, with Blair seeing the flaws and warts of the elder brother and becoming no longer so willing to defer. The portrait of Blair that emerges is of an instinctive politician, not a policy wonk like Clinton or Brown, who likes to deal personally, one-on-one with world leaders and has a strong moral compass, with firm views of right and wrong.

This we see in one of the most interesting scenes in the book, as Clinton is making his farewell tour as president and paying his last official visit to his old friend Blair at Chequers, the Prime Minister's formal country residence. Still playing mentor and ever one to give advice, Clinton tells Blair, among other things, to get as close as possible to George W. Bush and not to underestimate him. Although agreeing, Blair had apparently already decided to do just that.

The first face-to-face meeting between Bush and Blair at Camp David in February 2001 was orchestrated as carefully as a royal wedding. With all his prior attachment to Clinton and the new Democrats, Blair did not want to be seen as anti-Bush. Preparations were so intense that the British team even managed to turn up an old school chum of Blair's, who also happened to be a friend of the Bush family, and was persuaded to put in a good word. The upshot was a close bonding of the two leaders. Blair, in privately describing Bush, said: "He is strong, straightforward, with an underlying seriousness. I like him."

The progression of the relationship, through the 9/11 tragedies, through the axis of evil speech, Iraq, UN resolutions, infighting and missteps within the U.S. Administration, diplomatic mistakes by Britain and others, has been played out publicly and in many ways detrimentally to Blair.

At one point, in the eight weeks after 9/11, Blair became Bush's ambassador at large, holding 54 meetings with other world leaders, or almost one a day. He was still convinced that he could be the Transatlantic bridge, uniting Europe and the United States. But by early 2003, after the acrimonious "Old Europe/New Europe" debate and monumental diplomatic blunders by all concerned, Blair was forced to choose sides. He chose the United States.

He did not and does not believe that it was in the best interest of the world for the United States to act alone. But as Riddell notes, the tragedy of Blair's high-minded and strong beliefs may be that he is taken for granted by the United States and ignored by Europe.

It is only in recent months that Blair's "bridge" strategy may finally have started to bear fruit, as he has sought to limit the damage to NATO of Franco-German plans for closer European defense cooperation. In this field, at least, German and French desires for British participation give Blair a strong base for bridge building. But despite Blair's efforts, Britain is likely to continue to find it easier to build bridges across the Atlantic than the English Channel.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number I in the Winter of 2004.