The former prime minister's doctrine of liberal interventionism shaped two decades of conflict. Now, as the west's power is waning, he says it needs updatingby Steve Bloomfield / July 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
One afternoon in late spring I met Tony Blair in his central London office to talk about when it is right for a nation to go to war. It was 20 years almost to the day since he had made a speech in Chicago outlining the rules by which western nations could establish when—and how—they would intervene militarily in other countries in order to prevent ethnic cleansing, mass atrocities and genocide.
The context was Kosovo, and Blair’s argument was that “acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter,” and we now lived “in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist.” He conceded that if the west “sought to right every wrong” it “would not be able to cope,” and so set out five tests for so-called “liberal intervention.”
These criteria would play at least a notional role in every decision by the UK to go to war—and to not go to war—over the next two decades. The five tests encapsulated a dominant view across the west in those heady post Cold-War days that a handful of powerful democracies should stand ready to prosecute what Blair described as “just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but values,” of human rights and democracy.
Few speeches by a British prime minister have been as influential, so the tests are worth recapping: “First, are we sure of our case? […] Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? […] Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? […] And finally, do we have national interests involved?”
Calling a question a test, however, doesn’t make the answer to it any less subjective—or contentious. While there was relatively little opposition to Britain’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and in Sierra Leone a year later, the same could not be said for Iraq. Blair still won’t admit that Iraq missed his tests, although many others certainly do. But in talking, he did admit for the first time that “there were elements that were missing” from his original doctrine. He now wanted “very strongly” to add two more tests, narrowing the circumstances in which…