Rare indeed is the foreign statesman whose personality penetrates American popular culture. Rarer still are those foreigners who are both known in America, and loved as well. In their time, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have been considered fit material for American magazine covers, but few others have managed it. Winston Churchill did, but he was an ally in a long and bitter war. So did Margaret Thatcher, but only after she had been in power for many years. And now, joining that extremely elite group, is a somewhat unexpected addition: Tony Blair.
To the British, accustomed as they are to treating their politicians with a strong dose of cynicism, the sort of language being used about Mr Blair in my country, America, must sound odd, even extreme. Apparently without flippancy, the New York Times referred to the joint press conference he held this week with George Bush as a “love-fest”. Bill Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, has called Mr Blair “terrific” and solemnly counselled the American Right to rethink their prejudices about the European Left. Recently, I had a telephone call from an American friend, who may well be the most conservative person I know. He went on about Mr Blair at length: “We thought he was a phony, we thought he was a more pompous version of Clinton, we thought he was a bore. Now we think he’s a great statesman” – and so on.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, this enthusiasm was perfectly understandable. Suddenly confronted with the realisation that much of the world hates them, Americans were overjoyed to discover someone who didn’t. As time has passed, however, it’s become clear to me, at least, that the love affair between Tony Blair and the United States is founded on a rather profound misunderstanding. Americans, and the American Right in particular, are charmed by Mr Blair’s support because they think it derives from Britain’s historical links to America. That is, they believe Blair speaks of standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States out of loyalty to the hallowed Anglo-American “special relationship” – but they’re wrong.
In fact, the old special relationship actually has very little to do with Mr Blair’s attitude to the United States today. He isn’t particularly interested in vague notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority, or in the community of English-speaking nations. I don’t even think he’s supporting America because he likes America, necessarily. As he has himself said many times, what motivates Blair is something different: his semi-mystical, quasi-relious, and rather ill-defined belief in the unique possibilities of international co-operation. If we all work together we can eliminate poverty. If we all work together we can bring international peace. If we all work together we can make the world safe for democracy – or something like that. He alluded to this in an interview he gave to me for this paper last spring, when he spoke of the “moral dimension” of foreign policy, which surpasses the mere need to “look after your own national interest”.
He’s also said it since September 11. “There’s a coming together,” he said in his party conference speech. “The power of community is asserting itself. I have long believed this interdependence defines the new world we live in.” And later: “We can’t do it all. Neither can the Americans. But the power of the international community could, together, if it chose to.”
That sounds to me like a somewhat convoluted call for world government, or at least for international cooperation of a kind that I suspect might make a lot of Americans queasy and American conservatives in particular.
Of course, Mr Blair’s deep devotion to a Wilsonian international idealism doesn’t necessarily weaken the British-American alliance, formed to fight what is already being described around the world as “Blair and Bush’s war”. But it does mean that he has an agenda that the Americans don’t have, and further down the line there could be trouble.
Perhaps Mr Blair will want to create an international legal system in the wake of this war, or a permanent international police force, neither of which the Americans will like. Or perhaps he’ll decide, at some later date, that the war in Afghanistan – or maybe the subsequent war in Iraq – is not contributing as much to the growth of “interdependence” as he thought it would. Because Blair is fighting this war for his own reasons, and not for America’s reasons, he may be less than enthusiastic if it takes a direction that doesn’t suit his vision. This may not ever happen of course, but Americans should be warned: at some point we may all find out that we are not quite such good friends with Mr Blair as we thought.