When Tony Blair, having procrastinated about his departure almost to the point of unreason, finally gives up the British premiership this month, it will be to the general relief not only of the British public as a whole, but also of the overwhelming majority of his own party. After three terms in office, it could hardly be otherwise. Despite the cliché, power does corrupt, and the late Blair era, like that of Margaret Thatcher before it, has been a squalid spectacle.
The paradox is that, for a man who wielded so much power for so long, it is unclear what domestic legacy, if any, Blair will leave. Blairism was a mood, a style, but, in substantive terms, it represented no radical break with the Thatcherite legacy that New Labour repackaged so cleverly, and, in fairness, administered more humanely than the Iron Lady ever did.
Foreign policy is another story. Whatever one thinks of him, in international affairs Blair was a leader of consequence. Indeed, he can be plausibly described as being chiefly responsible for formulating and successfully propagating the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” That idea captured the imagination of much of the elite of the developed world over the course of the 1990’s, and provided the moral rationale for the principal Western military interventions of the post-Cold War period, from Bosnia to Iraq.
Given how catastrophic the invasion of Iraq has turned out to be, it is hard even to remember when interventions on moral grounds – whether to thwart a dictator, as in the case of the Balkan wars, or to put an end to anarchic cruelty, as in the case of British intervention in Sierra Leone – seemed like a great advance in international affairs. No longer would the powerful sit by idly while butchers like Slobodan Milosevic or Foday Sankoh slaughtered their own people.