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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Lion in Winter

Later this summer, Tony Blair will resign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and his beleaguered Labor Party will be inherited by Gordon Brown, a current financial chancellor in the Blair government and in all likelihood, Blair’s successor as Prime Minister as well. The end of Blair’s decade in office seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the lasting significance of the man who brought Labor in from the wilderness and proved to be perhaps the most enduring champion of the trans-Atlantic alliance since Dwight Eisenhower.

Tony Blair entered office in 1997 with a sweeping public mandate to reform the British welfare state and restore Britain’s faltering economy. Blair’s vision was to transform Labor (and consequently Britain itself) from a demoralized socialist wreck into a genuinely pro-American party which stood for justice abroad and economic freedom at home. Blair’s domestic agenda was a resounding success. “New Labor,” as Blair calls his party, is here to stay and the days of former party leader Ramsey McDonald advocating the socialization of the means of production are gone for good. Blair’s legacy, however, will ultimately be judged on the success or failure of his support for nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Heart-wrenchingly, the British public has turned against its former champion. With his nation discontented with slow progress in Iraq, the Prime Minister has become the object of vitriolic scorn and animosity on a scale not even paralleled in the United States with the current administration. As Blair’s approval ratings have plummeted, so have Labor’s, and the opposition Conservatives stand poised to assume control after the next election cycle. The only chance for Labor seems to be an early exit for Blair followed by frantic action from presumably Gordon Brown to win back over former Labor supporters who left the party because of Mr. Blair.

The resurgence of David Cameron’s Conservatives is disenchanting from an American perspective principally because Cameron’s party is not conservative in any sense of the word. Cameron is a slick politician who has forsaken the traditional Tory policy of pro-Americanism and moved towards a generic anything-but-Labor platform. Cameron has gone as far as to indicate that he would move the U.K. away from the United States politically and his support for American action in the Middle East is unreliable to say the least.

The best chance for the trans-Atlantic alliance to be preserved is probably for Gordon Brown and Labor to retain power. While Brown is certainly not as vocal about his American sympathies as Mr. Blair, Mr. Brown is a reliable ally and is a moderate supporter of a continued British presence in Iraq. Unfortunately, this muted position is the best America can help for out of its long-time strongest and most important ally.

What Blair’s exit demonstrates more clearly than anything is that Britain is no longer the rock of Europe. After three and a half centuries of leading the Western world, Great Britain has finally settled into a long slumber. While after the Victorians Great Britain had seemingly found a balance between projecting power and shunning colonialism, the Second World War caused Great Britain to fully retreat from its imperial past and settle into its role as a second rate world power. The status quo of the Thatcher-Blair era was a waning Britain struggling to exercise what influence it had left as it sought to support Washington in strategic areas across the globe. However, even this minimized approach seems likely to meet its own end as the trans-Atlantic alliance’s last great champion makes his exit.

With Britain now seemingly in perpetual retreat, it is more important than ever for American policy makers to look elsewhere to forge lasting and meaningful alliances. While Europe has always dominated global politics, the strategic scene has, for the past quarter century, been shifting towards the Orient and in particular the Pacific Rim. Japan is the most likely candidate to replace Great Britain as our foremost ally, and so long as we finally liberate Japan from the burdensome post-WWII restrictions placed upon its military, the Japanese will be able to project power deep into Asia and safeguard a liberal order on the high seas just as Great Britain did throughout its history. Coupled with a strong bi-lateral alliance with Japan, a strategic partnership with India would not only balance a growing China, but provide a reliable trading partner without the double-edged sword of doing business with the Devil. In short, a new Pacific entente is in order, fully integrating growing Japanese self-confidence, India’s immense population and economic potential, and of course the hard power of an American Carrier Battle Group.

As American policymakers look towards the brave new world of the future, they would do well to keep in mind the strategic implications of the Blair administration’s fall from power. With Great Britain on the defensive, new strategic partnerships will have to be forged and while Great Britain will always remain a sentimental and ideological ally of the United States, hard power has shifted decisively to the Pacific Rim. The future of the world rests with the burgeoning powers of Japan and India, and perhaps if we are less fortunate, with China as well. While the twilight of British power is surely lamentable, if history teaches us anything, it is that self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly. We as a people cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century with the strategic partnerships of the 20th.