Geopolitics / Global
Emerging from the pandemic, we face a new set of challenges to add to the world’s many persistent issues. But this also presents an opportunity to reassess. We meet five leaders and thinkers who will influence how the world turns from here.
Finding reasons to be positive after a tumultuous few years, the head of the United Nations tells us how to deal with ‘spoilers’ and why his organisation needs reform.
UN secretary-general António Guterres isn’t someone who minces his words. At the beginning of 2020 he warned of a “wind of madness” as disagreements among geopolitical powers, particularly the US and China, reached their height. Last September he said that the world was sitting on a knife-edge between multilateralism and a nationalistic descent into “chaos”. And earlier this year he chastised industrial nations for not doing enough to provide vaccines for developing countries. Given that background it was heartening to hear Guterres offer a more optimistic tone in his interview with monocle, as he currently sees the world in “a moment of hope”.
There’s been a flurry of virtual diplomacy meetings this year, from the Munich Security Conference to the G7. How productive have you found them?
We miss the value of in-person diplomacy, of course. But I still believe that we are in a moment of hope. Last year we had what I called the annus horribilis. It was an extremely negative year. So 2021 is the year to put things back on track. I believe that things are happening in that direction.
Which particular areas are feeding your optimism?
There is a growing recognition among developed countries that they need to look seriously into a global vaccination approach and not only vaccinate their own people. On climate change we are now seeing a renewed dynamic approach to building a global net-zero coalition for emissions by 2050. At the end of last year we already had a number of positive evolutions from China to Korea to Japan. But now, with the Biden administration, the US is on board and I believe that all the conditions will be met to ensure that we’ll come to [November’s] cop26 climate summit in Glasgow with strong commitments for the reduction of emissions over the next decades. All of this is adding up to make us optimistic, for the first time, that it is possible to defeat climate change.
We are also seeing progress in relation to some of the complex security issues in the world: we are making progress in the fight against racism, while there is a growing concern about misinformation, the risks of technology and a need to find new ways to make the digital world a force for good. So there are reasons to be, if not entirely optimistic, then at least fully determined to make 2021 a year in which we start to heal.
What is it that makes 2021 such a critical year for action?
First of all, the change in the US administration is an important precondition for a strong re-engagement in relation to multilateralism and international co-operation. Additionally, 2021 is the year when some key decisions will be taken in relation to the climate – it is still possible to guarantee that we don’t have an increase in temperature above 1.5C by the end of the century but we are coming close to the point when this becomes irreversibly impossible.
There is also a growing consensus that social cohesion in our societies, and trust between the public and institutions, needs to be re-established in order to address inequalities. I remember a time when inequalities were considered to be a basic precondition for development; now there is a growing consensus that inequality has become an obstacle to development. There is a shift in the mindset taking place that should help to create the political engagement that’s necessary for change in how we deal with the pandemic, with the climate, with the cohesion of our societies and inequalities around the world.
Multilateralism also needs to be more inclusive. Governments no longer have a monopoly on political power or representation. If we want to have true multilateral capacity to deal with global challenges then we need to involve cities, the business community, civil society and the youth. Their voices need to be heard and they should participate in decision-making processes at the national and global level, including at the UN.
In September you said that the jury was out on whether a more nationalist or a more multilateral approach to international diplomacy would win the day. What makes you think that the balance has shifted now?
When it comes to nationalism, populism and the other aspects related to them – xenophobia, racism, intolerance – it is clear that, progressively, this trend is starting to lose ground. One example is that populist leaders around the world were the most ineffective in dealing with coronavirus, and people are becoming conscious of that. If you look at what has happened in elections worldwide, one year ago the key issue was migration, which was used as a tool to create fear and hatred. In recent times the key elements in elections have been the virus and the climate. We have seen climate-friendly parties and political leaders gaining ground in many parts of the world.
Of course, we cannot simply believe that everything is moving in the right direction and that we don’t need to care. But I do hope that, slowly, democracy, rationality, tolerance and international co-operation based on solidarity are coming back. This is a continued struggle but there are reasons to be more optimistic today than one year ago.
You’ve called for the Security Council to be reformed. Is that a realistic prospect?
I have no authority to launch this process of reform – it’s entirely in the competence of member states. It ismy belief that reform of the Security Council is an essential element of the reform of the UN. There is some recognition that the developing world is not represented enough – that Africa is not represented enough – and I hope that this will lead to some changes. But this is an area where we still have enormous resistance.
Meanwhile, in a world where the global powers are divided, space is being opened up for spoilers because in many conflict situations we are dealing more and more with mid-sized countries getting involved – sometimes having even more influence than the biggest powers – and becoming an obstacle to both conflict prevention and conflict resolution.
The US is looking to rejoin the Human Rights Council this year. Yet it has included members such as China and Russia, two countries that don’t have a strong record on human rights. Critics would say that this undermines the value of having a Human Rights Council at all.
Ideally we should have a council in which all members are exemplary. But the council is like any other UN institution; it is the result of elections that represent all the different continents of the world. So there are countries with different patterns of behaviour, including some where we know there are meaningful human rights violations. This is an obstacle but it’s also an opportunity to confront those countries in a frank way, to make them think.
In any case, the worst thing countries can do is to say that because some members are spoilers, those that behave will leave – that would be the wrong strategy. In politics, whenever someone leaves a space, others inevitably occupy that space. So in the Human Rights Council, those countries that are human-rights minded should occupy as much space as possible.
What have the past few years taught you about the limits of what the UN can achieve?
If one looks at the UN as a whole, we were able to carry out important reforms to make several aspects of the organisation more productive, cost-effective and nimble. We have improved our capacity for peacekeeping and, from a humanitarian point of view, UN agencies today are a remarkable example of efficiency. The most difficult aspects are related to guaranteeing peace and security, where the questions depend a lot on power relations and the divisions that exist today in the international community.
“When it comes to nationalism, populism and the other aspects related to them – xenophobia, racism, intolerance – it’s clear that this trend is starting to lose ground”
But the UN does need to be reformed and this involves recognising that everything is interconnected. Traditionally we work in silos: we have the peace and security in one; development questions in another; human rights questions in another. But everything now is interlinked: the work of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is essential to address the root causes of economic difficulties and preserve stability – and stability is essential for peace.
So we need to create more institutional mechanisms to make them work more effectively together. We also need to link the work of the UN more strongly with regional organisations. We have a fantastic partnership now with the African Union and European Union but there are other areas of the world that are less well organised. And the truth is that it’s much easier to solve problems from within the region than to solve problems from very far away.
Much of the political will for reform will really come down to the US and China. What’s your message to the leaders of those two countries?
In areas where they are in opposing fields – human rights is the most obvious – I have no hope that they will come to any mutual understanding in the near future. But they have areas where I see a clear convergence of interests and even of movement. The US and China were completely at odds on climate change just a few months ago; I believe that they can now be allies.
And then there is the area where it is necessary to have a serious negotiation: trade and technology, the internet, cyberspace, artificial intelligence. There are opposing views on some of the aspects here but there are other areas where co-operation is vital. It’s very important for these two countries, together with others – Europe and Japan have key roles to play on these – to put these problems on the table, to discuss them seriously and make all of the necessary compromises. Of course, the respect of human dignity must always be paramount.
The Baltic nation’s first female head of state is championing her country when it comes to setting a benchmark in vaccine-passport systems thanks to its digital prowess.
“If you look at my CV, it’s kind of a long line of accidents,” she says, modestly, from behind a desk in the presidential palace in Tallinn. Dressed in a smart chartreuse dress and sporting her signature pixie cut, she talks with her hands, punctuating points with emphatic gestures. Accidentally or not, she’s become one of her nation’s biggest champions. In an age of polarised politics, too few leaders are willing to be pragmatic. Yet Kersti Kaljulaid, president of Estonia, is nothing if not practical. Although she is frank and outspoken, she’s also a sensible, progressive force. Perhaps this is because until she became president she wasn’t a politician. After stints working for investment banks and as head of a power plant, she then represented Estonia in the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg. It wasn’t until the 2016 presidential election resulted in a deadlock that she was tapped as a consensus candidate and became the first woman to hold the title in the country.
It’s been a busy few months for Estonia. The small Baltic country, with a population of roughly 1.3 million, has partnered with the World Health Organization to help develop digital, globally recognised coronavirus- vaccine passports that, crucially, will protect users’ privacy. “It is a simple system in which the national vaccination data is connected,” says Kaljulaid. “If, for example, I go to the border and present the vaccination certificate, then the system checks the validity of my certificate. None of my personal data is transferred. It’s cheap; it guarantees your privacy.”
Estonia already has a similar system in place but Kaljulaid is eager to share the country’s knowledge beyond its borders. “For me, being a supporter of multilateral co-operation, it is important that we work on this for the World Health Organization.” The partnership will also result in Estonia working with the who on other digital health projects, including a global framework for sharing health data and creating guidelines for digitalising national health systems.
Although there are several pilot programmes attempting to create vaccine- passport systems, Estonia’s involvement has caught the world’s attention. Kaljulaid puts this down to her country’s track record. “It’s because we have demonstrated that our digital approach is efficient and effective.”
When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the nation was eager to create a new system. It was a pragmatic decision. The country “didn’t have the luxury and the resources to be inefficient,” says Kaljulaid. “When we regained independence, we didn’t have legacy systems. We didn’t have technology support with offices where people could go to pay taxes; we needed to teach our people to pay taxes.” Estonia embraced technology with such zeal that its system is now recognised as the benchmark for digital governance.
And it’s not just about paying taxes. The number of things that Estonians can do online, linked up through one system, is astonishing. All voting is done online, so too is banking, paying parking fines, applying for loans and accessing medical records.
Estonia’s digital progress has helped it to weather recent turmoil. Its infrastructure allowed most people to work or school from home, mostly painlessly, from the outset of the pandemic. “During the first wave, it was relatively easy to switch people to teleworking and home-working, because we have digital identities,” says the president. “The tools were there.”
“Technology is just a tiny element of digital transformation. You need to be ready to change”
When asked how other nations can replicate Estonia’s digitalisation, Kaljulaid is as practical as ever. “It’s not that Estonians are especially tech-savvy,” she says. “Technology is just a tiny element of digital transformation. You need to be ready to change. But for change, you need to have flexibility in the system.” This means having social policies in place that provide a safety net for those changing jobs or moving locations. Such nimbleness needs to be the starting point, not the result, of digitalisation.
Estonia’s partnership with the who isn’t the only time that the country has made headlines as a global leader. In January, Kaljulaid swore in Kaja Kallas as the new prime minister, and Estonia became the only nation in the world to have a woman both as an elected head of state and a head of government. Does Kaljulaid believe this is a significant achievement?
“I don’t believe for one second that female politicians do different politics than male politicians,” she says. But, she adds, the fact should “give courage to children – to girls. There won’t be any Estonian schoolchild who will wonder whether a woman could be president or prime minister.”
Kaljulaid’s term ends this year. She hasn’t yet declared whether she will seek re-election but, notably, her recent bid to be the next head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (oecd) came to a dignified close when she pulled out of the race in January. “It was obvious that I wasn’t going to gain enough support,” she says. “I’ve always said that there is value in campaign. My campaign was centred on creating an understanding that digital transformation is going to change not only trade markets but services markets too. I believe that this message will remain in oecd thinking.”
Will Kaljulaid’s passion for multilateral co-operation prompt her to pursue other roles on the world stage in future? “I can’t make any promises,” she says good-naturedly and, of course, pragmatically.
Founder, Forward Alliance
The outspoken Taiwanese politician and policymaker believes that the island must expect to be invaded by China and overhaul its defence spending and strategies accordingly.
Enoch Wu is on a mission to transform Taiwan’s armed forces, one recruit at a time. For the past year, the politician has been travelling around Taiwanese universities talking to students about national security and conscription. Wu wants to mobilise the island’s entire population of 23 million to deter mainland China from launching an attack. A rising star of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (dpp), Wu, along with his ngo Forward Alliance, is urging the government to spend more on bolstering the army reserves and less on military hardware.
“Our armed forces number fewer than 180,000 and we face a threat of invasion from a military that’s two-million strong. Cutting our active forces defies logic”
“I didn’t grow up wanting to play soldier,” says Wu, who was born in the US into a Taiwanese political family. The 40-year-old returned to Taiwan in 2013 and did his military service after spending a decade working in finance in Hong Kong. The threat from across the Taiwan Strait drew him into the world of defence and away from business. “Xi Jinping feels a sense of urgency to hand in a report card that says, ‘I solved the Taiwan problem’,” says Wu. “China is no longer biding its time. It has decided, in every area of foreign affairs, to be more assertive.” Here, Wu talks to monocle about how Taiwan can best defend itself.
When you visit the nation’s universities are students interested in what you’re saying?
The younger generation is taking this seriously. They are interested in learning more about what can be done better with our defence and what every individual can do on a personal level.
I tell the students that our entire armed services number fewer than 180,000 and we’re facing a threat of invasion from a military that’s two-million strong. Continuing to cut our reserves and active forces just seems to defy logic. The talks are also about civic education. We spend close to a quarter of the budget on defence.
So how should Taiwan be spending its defence budget?
China’s game plan is to force a quick resolution to military conflict and so they’ve invested in a sizeable amount of precision weaponry that can target our critical infrastructure and further constrain the command. Our entire organisation is very top-down and centralised, so the ability to strike at critical nodes is their strength. But their reliance on that tactic is also a weakness. As far as we know, they haven’t figured out how to fight a protracted conflict. So one of the cheapest and more asymmetric capabilities we could be investing in is our reserves.
Are you in favour of conscription?
I am. My model would start at the current four months and show that we value your service. At that point we say, “Hey, we’d love to train you up for two more months so that you could be a leader in your community and take a leadership role when there’s a contingency.” We need to show that conscription could be different.
President Tsai Ing-wen is trying to reform the reserves.
On the one hand, the administration needs to demonstrate that the country is secure under our watch. On the other, the threat is rising and we need citizens to step up and contribute. These two messages are tough to reconcile and this is where politics gets in the way. For decades, the surest way to win was by telling folks that they don’t have to serve. Saying that we need them to step up and sacrifice creates an opening for the opposition party to say, “Hey, look, under our watch, you didn’t have to sacrifice.” But the truth is that the country wouldn’t be safer under a different administration.
Have you built your own bunker?
There’s a choice we have to make. Do you try to shoot down every incoming missile? Or would it be cheaper to harden our important facilities and distribute our networks, so that we don’t have critical nodes to strike? Bunkers and shelters are one area in which we’ve under-invested because the Chinese capability is recent. If we’re taking this invasion threat seriously, these are the areas that require investment, even though they are not as glamorous as tanks or submarines.
What’s China’s military thinking?
To defeat the Taiwanese army before the US gets involved. China is reliant on a quick resolution, which is why our resilience is such a vital concept.
You’ve said that preparedness is more of a deterrent than any alliance or assurances.
We can’t respectfully call ourselves independent if our solution to every problem is someone else coming to our assistance. No self-respecting nation would say that. The only thing that we can control is how prepared we are. Of course, friends and allies are important. It would be great if the entire world stood with us. I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t need allies but we have to be prepared to stand alone. Only then can we command respect from our friends.
Do you tell the students that war is imminent?
I say that the more prepared we are and the better we invest in our own defence, the less likely there will be war. Conflict only breaks out if the other side thinks that it has a chance. Your enemies need to believe that there’s no end in sight if they go down this path. Now, they might still be irrational but what’s the worst case in that scenario? If they’re irrational and they act against a prepared Taiwan? Then we defend our home.
Film-maker and activist
Her award-winning documentary focused the world’s attention on the horrors in Syria – and now the exiled journalist is devoted to keeping the pressure on al-Assad and his allies.
Some nights, Waad al-Kateab dreams of returning to Syria. “We sleep and we wake on that hope that this could happen,” says the award-winning film-maker and activist, sitting at her kitchen table in London, where she now lives with her family after they were forced to leave Aleppo in December 2016.
Presidential elections are scheduled for later this year and al-Kateab says that she hears, from contacts back in Syria, murmurs of hope about a new face coming to power. “Which is unbelievable,” she says, flatly, before quickly dismissing the idea. Indeed, election watchdogs are already advocating that the result of the vote, which is expected to be undemocratic and yield a victory for Bashar al-Assad, be ignored by the international community. But even though al-Kateab insists that she’s not optimistic, she is waiting for the day that al-Assad is gone.
“We would love to go back if any kind of change happened,” she says. “If there’s any chance that al-Assad will be out of Syria, this will be the moment when we have to go back because there is a lot of work to do.” That work would include rebuilding Aleppo, repairing infrastructure destroyed by a decade of war and working to create a democratic political system from the ground up.
To say it’s a massive undertaking is an understatement but al-Kateab is not one to be daunted in the face of the impossible. Her 2019 documentary, For Sama, chronicles al-Kateab’s participation in the uprising in Syria in 2011 through to daily life at the east Aleppo hospital in which she and her doctor husband lived, along with their baby girl Sama, where civilian casualties were treated as the siege intensified. The hospital itself became a target. Interwoven into this story of the war are personal moments of joy: al-Kateab’s wedding and the birth of her daughter. The meaning is clear: her life is tied to her fight for Syria.
The film’s release was met with global acclaim: it won the Prix L’oeil d’or at Cannes, a Bafta for best documentary and was nominated for an Academy Award. But after the awards ceremonies ended, al-Kateab was confronted with a new challenge: how to ensure that the world continues to care about Syria, and to work to stop al-Assad and his allies, from afar? “I understand that people are becoming numb to it,” she says, of the world’s waning focus. She sometimes feels a similar sense of fatigue. “But if you were angry for Syria a couple of years ago, the situation is still happening.”
She points out that much of what she lived through in Aleppo is now taking place in Idlib: hospitals are being targeted, civilians – including children – are killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. And Syria, like everywhere else, is facing the ravages of the pandemic.
So far, al-Kateab has chosen a two-pronged approach. The first is legal: her focus for 2021 is to hold Syrian and Russian military and leadership accountable for human rights violations in Aleppo and across the country. “We are building a case against Russia about attacking hospitals,” she says. This involves working with lawyers from Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, which pursues criminal cases in international and human-rights law. Thanks to her work as a journalist, al-Kateab has been able to supply hundreds of hours of footage as evidence. “We have so many witnesses; we have footage from inside and from outside [hospitals]; we have the ngos and organisation statements after the attack happened.”
“Always when we talk about Syria, we bring up Obama – about how he didn’t do anything”
However, al-Kateab knows how difficult and protracted the process of holding the Syrian regime to account will be. She had some hope that al-Assad and his allies would face repercussions last year, when the UN Board of Inquiry announced that it was investigating the targeting of hospitals by Syrian and Russian forces. Instead, she was horrified when the inquiry found that it was “highly probable” the Syrian government and its allies carried out attacks on just three healthcare facilities. “Literally, if they didn’t do anything, that would have been much better,” she says, her voice rising in anger. “Doing nothing would have been better than adding to the misinformation and giving the regime some relief.” She also shares scorn for the UN over the inclusion of Russia on the Human Rights Council.
There is another target for her anger and she came up against him at the 2020 Academy Awards. She was dismayed when For Sama didn’t win in the Best Documentary category, mainly because of the film it lost to: American Factory, which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. “Always when we talk about Syria, we bring up Obama – about how he didn’t do anything, how he didn’t allow the world to react [forcefully enough]. He was able to change everything but he didn’t.”
So al-Kateab’s other tactic has been to capitalise and build on her own work. She has formed Action for Sama, which campaigns to end attacks on hospitals in Syria and elsewhere. Through Action for Sama she helps to raise funds for refugee charities and is collaborating with on-the-ground organisations that are active in Syria today. She has worked with UK politicians, including Labour MP Alison McGovern, who is the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria, to further her campaign in parliament. “Our role as activists, as people who survived all of this, is to keep making noise to the whole world to let them know that this is still happening,” she says.
Former prime minister
Now running a global government advisory institute, Britain’s erstwhile leader has shifted his organisation’s focus to helping the world get moving again after the pandemic.
Tony Blair is casually dressed in a navy-blue zip-up top and appears relaxed in his office. Behind his desk is a painting by Ken Howard of a Northern Irish mural featuring the slogan “No Surrender” above a Union Jack flag. The same painting forms the backdrop to one of the more unusual portraits of the former UK prime minister, painted by Alastair Adams, whose depictions of Blair hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Standing and occasionally pacing behind his desk, mug in hand as he speaks to monocle, Blair knows that he has had it easier than most people who’ve been working from home in lockdown but is clearly eager to get moving. “I want to get back into the office,” he says. “Some of the work we do really requires you to have face-to-face meetings.”
His organisation – the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change – has also been eager to get people moving again. Advising governments and offering an outspoken voice on the pandemic for much of the past year, Blair’s institute has recently thrown its weight behind the idea of vaccine passports or certificates as a means of kick-starting international travel. “I literally don’t understand the arguments against them,” says Blair. “The idea that to go abroad somewhere you’re going to quarantine first in a government hotel; it’s absurd. International travel won’t happen on that basis. We have the technology that’s capable of doing this in a sensible way, which protects people’s privacy, so just get it done.”
A supporter of free trade and globalisation, Blair’s institute has recently been working to co-ordinate a passport scheme to help restart travel between African nations. He’s calling on all developed nations to do the same. “I think this is inevitable. And if it is inevitable then put in place a proper system. Don’t let a patchwork of different systems and different processes of validation grow up topsy-turvy because you’ll just create a lot of complexity and confusion. And you will also probably facilitate fraud.”
More generally it’s the lack of global co-ordination that is perhaps the biggest source of frustration for Blair – and he says that this should be a critical lesson for dealing with future pandemics. He believes that better global co-operation on vaccines, testing and drugs could have cut the length of the outbreak by three months. And he says that the UK-US relationship should have been at the centre of those efforts. “Even with President Trump in office I would have been trying everything that I possibly could to have made sure that Britain and America had a strong relationship, so that we were able to impact the coronavirus crisis,” he says. “The absence of global co-operation has massively harmed the collective effort to deal with this disease. And at the root of that co-ordination is – not always but often – the relationship between Britain and America.”
It is Blair’s unwavering belief in that special UK-US relationship that has led him into trouble in the past, and it’s why he tends to pick his battles these days when it comes to speaking out. Despite his record as the longest-serving Labour Party prime minister in UK history, he has readily acknowledged over the years that some of the more unpopular decisions from his time in office, namely the UK’s involvement in the US-led Iraq War in 2003 mean that his contributions to today’s public debates can be counterproductive. (In 2016 he expressed “sorrow, regret and apology” about the war’s aftermath.) It explains why he stayed (mostly) quiet in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, for example, despite being ardently pro-Remain. This, together with the unwritten rule that former leaders don’t inject themselves too heavily into the politics of their successors means that Blair limits his outspokenness to where he’s most passionate – and where he believes that he can still have an impact.
Until the pandemic, this had mostly involved taking a view on what post-Brexit Britain should look like. Blair has consistently lobbied for a softer Brexit and the maintenance of close relations with the EU, not only for the purposes of trade but to prevent trouble in Northern Ireland. Blair highlights the “huge problems and friction for many people trying to do business in Europe now”, since the Brexit deal came into effect at the start of this year – and you can sense that he feels a certain amount of vindication.
However, he also feels a particular pain over the serious challenges facing Belfast, an issue that remains close to his heart due to his role in brokering the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998. After the UK chose a so-called “hard Brexit”, exiting the EU’s customs union, Blair says that the problems posed for Northern Ireland were foreseeable. There was little choice but to create a customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland in order to keep the one open between Ireland and the north. And that hasn’t been easy. “The Northern Ireland problem derives from the inherent strangeness of the situation we now find ourselves in,” he says, warning that the Northern Ireland protocol which has emerged from that situation remains “fragile”.
Blair finds little comfort in the fact that the UK’s vaccine rollout this year has gone more smoothly than that of the EU, where initially botched negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and doubts sown about the efficacy of certain vaccines have left many EU nations lagging well behind the UK in their vaccine distribution. Blair says that it was a mistake for the European Commission to take the lead in negotiations with pharmaceutical firms rather than letting a smaller collection of top EU nations lead the way. This mistake, however, shouldn’t detract from the EU as a whole.
“The ardent Brexiteers have rejoiced in the problems that Europe has had but, as I tell people, the UK could have taken all the decisions that it took in respect to vaccines while within the EU,” he says. “This was Britain at its best and Europe at its worst but there have been times before and there will be times after when it’s the other way around. These issues will get resolved in time and as Europe’s vaccination production increases by the middle of this year, these will be old arguments.”
For the past year Blair and his institute have been acting as formal and informal advisers to governments, influencing policy on the pandemic. It marks a temporary departure from the initial mission brief for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which was founded in 2016. Since then it has grown to some 250 employees and has a presence in more than 20 countries around the world, including 13 in Africa. “The policy side of the institute was originally going to focus on how you rebuild a solid centre in politics, not just in the UK but globally, because I think that the big problem in Western politics and Western democracy has been the partisanship and polarisation of the political debate,” says Blair. “But then, when coronavirus hit, we thought, ‘Well, we’ve got this intellectual talent base, let’s repurpose it.’”
Although this shift is a reshuffle of the institute’s remit, Blair still views his recent role in the pandemic as a continuation of the same mission: a push for pragmatic and common-sense policies to get nations moving again. And although the health challenge of the pandemic might be the purview of scientists, the response – balancing economic and health concerns, and managing the dissemination of testing and vaccines – goes to the very heart of good governance. And this is where his institute has sought to play a key role. In December it did intervene in the issue, by calling on governments to delay the time between the first and second doses of the vaccines, so that more people could get inoculated at least once. The organisation has also been at the forefront of calls to introduce mass testing to help reopen society. And in Africa it has been aiding governments in the management of vaccination programmes and finding ways to keep their more informal economies afloat.
“I would have been trying everything I could to ensure that the UK and the US had a strong relationship, so that we were able to impact the coronavirus crisis”
“I think that there is a role for people on the outside of government but who have experience of governing, although not in a hyper-critical way,” says Blair. “I’ve been very sympathetic to the scale of this challenge. It is the toughest logistical challenge that governments around the world have ever faced, certainly in modern history.”
Nor is it any easier being in opposition these days. Blair suggests that he doesn’t envy the challenge facing Keir Starmer, the current leader of the UK Labour Party. “He’s got an incredibly difficult job and he’s doing it well,” says Blair, noting that Starmer must balance the need to hold the government accountable without getting too out of step in a time of crisis. “He’ll be fine. It’s a completely unreal situation at the moment in politics. At a certain point we’ll return to something more like normal.”
Tony Blair on…
Northern Ireland and Brexit
“The Northern Ireland protocol, which is part of the Brexit agreement, is fragile. But we need to be very clear: if you abandon it then I don’t know how you retain that open border between north and south. The Northern Ireland problem derives from the inherent strangeness of the situation we now find ourselves in, which is that Northern Ireland is in a different trading relationship to the single market of Europe than the rest of the UK. But you’ve got to try to protect this arrangement. We’re playing with very, very difficult politics when we mess around with this protocol on either side – Europe or the UK.”
“The UK’s relationship with the US is a fundamental part of our security, our values and our interests. Post 9/11, I took the decision that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with America – and obviously a lot of people disagreed with that – but I say to them, ‘Distance yourself from America and you will find that it’s a long way back.’ Partnerships and alliances are like friendships: you test the friendship not when the going is easy but when it’s tough. There is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship again now – it’s going to be easier with President Biden – and that’s important for both the US and the UK. The UK is the smaller country, and in that sense a junior partner, but because of our history and reach we can add a lot of value.”
“One of my first acts as prime minister was to participate in the handover ceremony and that was right to do. But the promise was: ‘One country, two systems.’ During my time in office, those promises were kept. But over the past few years that’s been threatened. I think it’s very important for China to understand that the value of Hong Kong was based on one country, two systems. You jeopardise that, you jeopardise the status of Hong Kong.”
Photographer: Stefan Ruiz, Mattias Tammet, Sean Marc Lee, Gabby Laurent. Image: Alexandre Isard / Contour by Getty