Tony Blair and the tragedy of liberal interventionism

  • Themes: Geopolitics, War

In April 1999 Tony Blair delivered a speech in Chicago on the principles of liberal interventionism. It captured the idealism of the period, but also contributed to the invasion of Iraq and the geopolitical realignment and disorder that followed in its wake.

Tony Blair in Germany after receiving the Aachen Peace Prize, 1999.
Tony Blair in Germany after receiving the Aachen Peace Prize, 1999. Credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts’, Tony Blair declared in a speech to the Chicago Economic Club 25 years ago this month.

It is remarkable to think how much has changed since then. Talk of discretionary intervention has been replaced by pressing, state-based threats and existential challenges, such as climate change. Given the choice, the current generation of political leaders would probably trade their hand for Blair’s. Yet, although Western countries have shifted their gaze over the past quarter-century, many states would still meet his criteria for intervention. Western attention is understandably drawn towards Ukraine and Gaza, but humanitarian crises elsewhere abound.

Blair’s Chicago speech has largely faded from the public consciousness, but it remains salient and worth revisiting. Like much of his legacy, it was overshadowed by the Iraq blunder in 2003. Blair argued that instability begets instability. That is still true. The current conflict in Sudan, for example, will have implications for Europe, particularly in terms of migration. Furthermore, Blair cautioned against US retrenchment, a concern shared in many European capitals today amid the prospect of a second Trump presidency. Finally, the speech is arguably an intellectual touchstone in light of its similarities with the Labour Party’s new doctrine of ‘progressive realism’.

Critics and advocates alike portray the Chicago speech as revolutionary. In suggesting that a state’s sovereignty was not inviolate, Blair supposedly tore up the ‘Westphalian’ rule book on international affairs, which regarded non-intervention as sacrosanct. His former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, maintains that the 1648 treaties of Westphalia established ‘the principle of non-interference in other nations’ affairs’, which ‘lasted through the succeeding centuries’ until the 1990s.

In reality, this principle was more of a guideline than a rule. After the treaties of Westphalia, states interfered in their neighbours’ affairs for reasons which today might be classed as humanitarian. In the early modern period, rulers launched interventions to protect the rights of persecuted religious minorities in other countries – often at a strategic or political cost. In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell threatened the Catholic Duke of Savoy with military action if he continued to repress the Protestant community in Piedmont. Cromwell, who also organised a large aid package for the afflicted, knew that his initiatives might jeopardise relations with France, a Savoyard ally.

Usually, however, strategic interests and humanitarian concerns converged. While the British military intervention in Greece in the 1820s had a humanitarian rationale, it also checked Russian ambitions in the region. Decades later, the United States invaded Cuba to halt Spanish atrocities on the island, simultaneously ejecting another European power from the western hemisphere. Whether driven by purely humanitarian concerns or a melange of motives, such interventions were by no means unique to the post-Cold War world.

The Chicago speech was not a grand revision of international politics. It was a reflection of the international crises of the 1990s, a riposte to the prior Conservative government’s realpolitik approach, and an appeal against US ‘isolationism’. While humanitarian interventions were hardly novel, their frequency certainly increased in the late 20th century. It started well enough when a coalition of NATO members carved out a safe haven for persecuted Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991. The established no-fly zone demonstrated that repressive governments could lose partial sovereignty if they violated human rights. At the other end of the spectrum lies the muted response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and the botched prevention, by UN peacekeepers, of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Thus, the post-Cold War record on humanitarian intervention up to 1999 was chequered to say the least.

By the time Blair took to the podium in 1999, numerous governments and international organisations were also considering how to break with the convention of non-interference. Many of these efforts amalgamated into the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept several years later. Blair’s doctrine differed from R2P in that he was willing to act when international institutions succumbed to paralysis. As he explained in the wake of UK-US airstrikes against Iraq in 1998: ‘When the international community agrees certain objectives and then fails to implement them, those that can act, must.’ The two approaches would carry contrasting trade-offs in terms of decisiveness and legitimacy.

The Chicago speech also marked a considerable shift in British foreign policy. The Major government was perceived as detached: Rwanda and Bosnia burned on its watch. Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd was sceptical about ‘the concept of benevolent international interventionism’. He later explained that he ‘didn’t really feel it was our job to send British soldiers to kill and be killed in defence of a particular faction in the Balkans’. In 1999 Blair attacked that view as narrow-minded. ‘Acts of genocide’, he argued, ‘can never be a purely internal matter.’ In a globalised world, where a crisis in one country could seep into countless others, ‘values and interests merge’.

The immediate backdrop to the speech was the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kosovo and the Clinton administration’s reluctance to intervene. In 1998-99, Serbian forces crushed an uprising by the Kosovan Liberation Army, displacing hundreds of thousands. Channelling Thomas Aquinas, Blair declared that Kosovo constituted a ‘just war’ due to Slobodan Milošević’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. He believed that air strikes alone were insufficient and that ground forces would be necessary. Convincing the Americans that they were once again needed to uphold European security was, however, no easy sell. The Clinton administration was mindful of its bruising experiences in Somalia in 1993 – the last time US troops had been deployed for humanitarian purposes. Blair spoke directly to Washington when he urged his audience to ‘never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism’.

Such high-minded calls to action are why Blair’s Chicago speech is often remembered for its idealism. Titled ‘the doctrine of the international community’, the text trumpeted liberal values and is permeated with lines such as ‘we are all internationalists now’. Yet there is an often-overlooked realist undercurrent in the speech. Blair acknowledged the limits to intervention and the need to prioritise. ‘If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world’, he said, ‘then we would do little else than intervene in the affairs of other countries. We would not be able to cope.’ Blair did not propose discarding completely the norm of non-interference, which he regarded as ‘an important principle of international order’. ‘One state’, he continued, ‘should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another.’

Most notably, the speech contained five ‘considerations’ for prospective interventionists. First, are we sure of our case? Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Third, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? Finally, do we have national interests involved?

Lawrence Freedman, a professor at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, played a major role in crafting this section of the speech, providing Number 10 with a draft text in advance of Blair’s trip to the United States. Freedman later wrote that he proposed these ‘considerations’ (which he termed ‘tests’ in his original submission) to tame the ‘interventionist impulse’ that had emerged in the 1990s. Blair therefore recognised that military interventions should be the last resort and only undertaken if they could be sustained for the long haul.

The Chicago speech questioned the utility of drawing a neat line between the ‘national interest’, a notoriously nebulous notion, and humanitarian concerns. NATO’s involvement in Kosovo was a case in point. The argument for intervention could be made on humanitarian grounds alone, but Blair reasoned that ‘it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe’. It was in the UK’s national interest to prevent ethnic cleansing in its neighbourhood. In addition, Blair thought it vital that the NATO alliance – celebrating its 50th anniversary that year – retained its credibility. Foreign secretary Robin Cook retrospectively told MPs that: ‘Our confidence in our peace and security depends on the credibility of NATO… The consequences of NATO inaction would be far worse than the result of NATO action.’

The following year, Blair’s emerging doctrine was put to the test beyond the European mainland. During the 1990s, Sierra Leone was plagued by a brutal civil war between the internationally recognised government and several militia groups, notably the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In May 2000, British forces successfully repelled the RUF’s advance on the capital, Freetown. The UK then trained thousands of government troops and retained a military presence, which served as a deterrent to the militias while a democratic transition unfolded.

The interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone largely met the criteria (or tests) that Blair set out in Chicago. Crucially, the UK committed for the long term: British soldiers only left Sierra Leone in 2013 and over 600 troops remain in Kosovo to this day. The Kosovo intervention, however, was not without controversy. There were questions over its short-term efficacy, as Milošević’s campaign of repression continued after the first NATO bombs fell. As one Kosovar refugee put it: ‘The Serbs can’t fight NATO, so now they are after us.’ Moreover, Russia and China refused to endorse military action in the UN Security Council, raising awkward questions over its legitimacy beyond NATO. Such concerns would intensify over Afghanistan and Iraq in the new millennium.

The justification for the 2003 Iraq War was multifaceted. The threat posed by Saddam’s purported weapons of mass destruction constituted the core of Blair’s reasoning for intervention, but humanitarian considerations were undoubtedly baked into the rationale. In early 2002 the prime minister cited Saddam’s ‘appalling brutality and repression of his own people’ as valid reasons for regime change. Indeed, Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, regrets they did not place the humanitarian argument at the centre of the case for military action.

As I argue in my recently published bookBritish Grand Strategy in the Age of American Hegemony, Blair was no ‘vassal’ of President George W. Bush. The decision to align so closely with the United States was flawed, but it derived from a clear worldview that had gestated for years before Bush became president. Indeed, Blair’s first authorisation of military force was against Iraq in 1998. He even name-checked Saddam in the Chicago speech alongside Milošević as the cause of ‘many of our problems’. The British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, later assessed that ‘Blair was a true believer about the wickedness of Saddam Hussein and his realisation of that predates by a very long time the arrival of George Bush in the White House’. Unlike some of the neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration, the prime minister saw Iraq through a liberal interventionist lens. He told Jonathan Powell in April 2002 that the British needed ‘to re-order our story and message… about the nature of the regime. We do intervene – as per the Chicago speech… we must come to our conclusion on Saddam from our own position, not the US position’.

This is not to argue that the UK’s road to Iraq was first paved in Chicago in 1999. One of the tragedies of 2003 is that he did not apply his five tests to his own thinking on Iraq. Had he done so, it is highly unlikely that the British would have got involved to the extent they did – deploying 45,000 troops to the region and becoming an ‘occupying power’ in the south of the country.

Blair knew the intelligence surrounding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was ‘sporadic and patchy’ at best, rendering the first test (‘are we sure of our case?’) at least in doubt. Moreover, the diplomatic process was not exhausted in early 2003 (it was cut short by the US military’s timeline), falling short of the second test. Most importantly, neither the UK nor the US were prepared for the long term, failing the fourth test. Aftermath planning on both sides of the Atlantic was military-centric and shockingly short-sighted. The Department for International Development was only brought into the process in February 2003, one month before the operation.

Officials in the Ministry of Defence knew they lacked the resources to play a big role in the invasion and the aftermath, so they sought to limit their exposure to the latter. The Ministry of Defence lobbied Number 10 to commit heavily to the initial operation, partly on the grounds that ‘the more substantial our contribution to military action in the first place, the more plausibly we will be able to argue that we have done our bit’. It was one of several spurious assumptions that went largely unchallenged. In the end, the UK assumed legal responsibility as an ‘occupying power’ for several Iraqi provinces in the south. Yet, within two months of the invasion, the British contingent dropped from 46,000 to 18,000 troops. By May 2004 there were only 8,600 soldiers in the UK’s area of responsibility. This meant that the ratio of British troops to Iraqi civilians in Basra was approximately 1:370 (the equivalent ratio in Kosovo was 1:50). This small and beleaguered garrison was handed the impossible task of restoring order and playing midwife to Iraqi democracy. It is therefore unsurprising that Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city, quickly succumbed to lawlessness. ‘Having made a commitment’, Blair told his audience in Chicago, ‘we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over’. These words would ring hollow for the Iraqi people.

Blair reflected years later that ‘the aftermath [of Iraq] was more bloody, more awful, more terrifying than anyone could have imagined’. He lamented that the Chicago speech did not include two additional tests: one, ensuring the public was also invested in a long-term commitment, and two, assessing whether ‘there are going to be strong Islamist influences at play’. In truth, the risks of Al Qaida activity and Iranian interference in Iraq were flagged on multiple occasions, but the warning lights were ignored.

In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May declared in Philadelphia that ‘the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over’. Many commentators regarded her speech as the final nail in the coffin for Blair’s ideas. Yet there was nothing in Blair’s 1999 address about ‘remaking the world’, and May’s speech had its own dose of interventionist rhetoric. May qualified that the UK could not ‘afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests’. Such lines would not feel out of place in Blair’s Chicago speech. Indeed, May authorised airstrikes in Syria the following year to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Philadelphia was not a rebuke to Chicago, but rather a reproach to ambitious nation-building projects involving vast numbers of troops – such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party? Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy plans on implementing a doctrine of ‘progressive realism’ if Labour wins power. He recently told the Fabian Society that, ‘in today’s world, we can’t let ourselves be forced into a false choice between values and interests… between idealism and realism’. Lammy hailed the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which he credited to the late Robin Cook – avoiding Blair’s name, which still carries the stain of Iraq. Given the obvious crossovers between Lammy’s position and the Chicago speech, it seems possible we might see a renewed interest in humanitarian interventions under a prospective Labour government.

Still, it is unlikely that we will see interventions along the lines of Kosovo and Iraq. Two reasons – one domestic and one structural – suggest that future interventions will be smaller and subtler. First, many Western states simply lack capacity to intervene in force, and for the long haul. Consider the difficulties the UK faced in maintaining order in post-conflict Iraq when the overall headcount of its armed forces was a third larger. Following years of shrinking defence budgets and poor procurement decisions, the UK armed forces are now ‘hollowed out’. Committing for the long term requires mass, but this has been consistently traded away for the allure of better technology.

Second, the Chicago speech was a product of its time. Its blend of idealism and realism reflected a decade of optimism tinged with tragedy. The West was able to intervene in predominantly weak states in a largely permissive environment in the 1990s. At the time, Russia looked inwards, riven by internecine feuds between oligarchs, while China was busy reaping the benefits of globalisation. Such conditions no longer hold. Russia has interests across Africa and the Middle East, and is willing to use force to protect them. Similarly, China has a stake in many countries that might be deserving candidates for intervention. As such, the West no longer enjoys the freedom of manoeuvre it had in the 1990s. It is unsurprising that the foremost champions of the ‘Westphalian’ system reside in Moscow and Beijing.

Liberal or humanitarian interventions are contingent on a realist understanding of power and the art of the possible. Towards the middle of the 19th century, for example, the UK conditioned its slave trade suppression campaign at sea to the peacetime workings of great power politics. The Royal Navy frequently coerced weaker powers into changing course, but often tempered its interdictions of French and American ships, lest it trigger a war. No one today seriously contemplates humanitarian intervention in China over abuses in Hong Kong or Xinxiang. This leaves the West vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy (‘if you intervened there, why not here?’). Yet, as Lammy said, any government must deal with the world ‘as it is, not as we wish it to be’. In today’s geopolitical climate, the realist reflex will outweigh the idealist impulse.


William D. James