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The American Blair

Tony Blair was both Britain’s Obama, transforming its politics, and Britain’s Bush, prosecuting a deeply unpopular war. But at Yale last semester, as he moved into his afterlife, he seemed oddly unencumbered by his past.

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Most world leaders, like movie stars, have a certain intensity when they walk into a room. Not Tony Blair. He’s mild, light on his feet; he disarms not with seduction but with extreme agreeableness. The first time we meet, in a formal room of the president’s house at Yale University, he pulls open the door and walks in before his aide does. There’s no warning, no fanfare, no nothing. Just … boom, there he is.

“I’m so sorry to be dressed like this.” Which is to say, by Blair standards, informally: gray T-shirt, blazer, acid-washed jeans.

As it happens, today is November 5, the day after Barack Obama’s victory, and Blair seems as elated as the rest of the world. He says he spent the evening in the Caribbean flipping between the BBC and CNN (he declines to give details, but his friend Cliff Richard owns a house in Barbados). “I’ve never known an election to create so much interest and transform people’s view of America again in a positive way,” he says. “Young people out in the middle of nowhere in Palestine have said to me, ‘They wouldn’t really elect a black man to the presidency,’ and I’ve said, ‘Well, I think they would.’ But they’ve been taught for so long that America is … what it actually isn’t. And that’s why this is an enormous moment. It thrills America’s friends and sort of confuses its enemies.”

Blair is familiar with this particular sensation of political euphoria, of course. Like Obama, he was a highly pedigreed lawyer who ran as a post-partisan change candidate. Like Obama, he broke years of what seemed, to progressives, like interminable conservative rule. Like Obama, he was nonconfrontational in style, charismatic without heat (reedy frame, wide-caliber smile), and idealistic without being ideological. His speeches also inspired and rang with logic. International leaders also embraced him and saw his victory as the dawn of a new era. The weight of the world and his own country’s expectations rode heavily, too, on his shoulders. So how, I ask Blair, can Obama make the most of this moment?

“What he can do—and I believe that he will—is find an agenda that is capable of unifying the world,” he says. “An agenda that is about America leading and America listening simultaneously. That’s the key.”

All of which sounds about right. The peculiar irony of this position is that Blair’s own tenure, no matter how distinct his accomplishments—reviving and redefining the Labor Party in the manner of the Clintonian Third Way, putting money back into the ailing health and education systems, negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, helping to halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the bloodshed in Sierra Leone—will be forever marked by his willingness to join hands with America at a time when it was not leading and listening simultaneously but boring implacably forward on its own. By the summer of 2007, when Blair finally stepped down from office, his approval ratings were hovering in the high twenties. Four ministers had resigned over Iraq; when he traveled, he found protesters carrying placards reading BLIAR. And before the war even started, his critics—in Parliament, in the press, on the street—began referring to him by a horribly trivializing moniker, one that clings to him to this day: “Bush’s poodle.

Yale, the following day. There are those in Britain who say that Blair’s presence here in New Haven—he’s teaching a course on faith and globalization, the subjects that most preoccupy him in his political afterlife—is a form of exile. But if that’s the case, he hardly seems to be experiencing it as such. As he settles into another small room at the president’s house to chat with a group of Irish journalists about the Good Friday Agreement (also the subject of today’s class), there’s no sense of dislocation or bitterness. He seems relaxed, reveling in his gifts as a communicator, untroubled by his controversial legacy. “I remember flying into Belfast for a meeting,” Blair tells them. “And Sinn Féin had just invited the Palestinians to town.”

The journalists are looking on, smiling. They’re waiting. Blair’s pretty great with an anecdote. “And they’d put up the Palestinian flag,” he continues.

He takes a sip of tea. Tea is ubiquitous in this place when he’s around. “And going back to the airport the next morning—how they got hold of these things I don’t know—but the Unionists had gotten … Israeli flags.” The journalists double up in laughter. He continues merrily along, channeling the reasoning of the Unionists: “Right! Now we know where they stand, the state of Israel is our adopted state…”

For Blair, perhaps the hardest impression for him to erase in the aftermath of the Iraq War is that he is, to use the language of Bush, a divider, rather than a consensus-seeking diplomat. But his negotiating prowess, and his powers of persuasion, were precisely what he was known for before March 2003. He sees conflict in clear, rational terms; when looking at global problems, he’s nimble at isolating common themes. One of his favorites, a leitmotif in many of his discussions—especially about the Middle East, where he’s currently the special envoy for the so-called Quartet (Russia, the U.S., the U.N., and the E.U.)—is that having an agreed-on method for solving a problem is more important than having a shared vision of the solution. In his view, it’s this crucial distinction that explains why there’s peace in Northern Ireland today but not between Israel and the Palestinians, even though both parties in the latter conflict have a shared vision of two states. “I have this conversation with Al Gore, actually,” Blair later tells me, as we ride to the heart of the Yale campus. “He believes that where there’s a will there’s a way on climate change. I believe that’s true, but where there’s a way there’s also a will.”


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