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Remarks by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Boston 2009-02-03

The annual "Issam Fares Lecture" series was resumed at Tufts University with a lecture given by former British Premier and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair.


Tony Blair's Speech

Thank you, thank you, thank you very much indeed Mr. President, Mr. Fares, and Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It’s wonderful to be here, at Tufts University. Indeed, after the day I’ve had, it’s wonderful to be anywhere. First of all, I want to make an abject apology for keeping you late this evening, but I should tell you that at midnight your time and 5:00 o’clock this morning, as I got up to come here, my little boy, who is eight years old, woke me and said, “It’s snowing,” which proved to be a classic British understatement. I went outside and I’d never seen London like this: everything was shut down… don’t ask me how I got here; we got here by some process of magic or another. If anything was slightly depressing, actually, it was to land here in Boston and find that your snow looks worse, and yet you seem to be functioning perfectly normally. Makes me wonder who’s been in charge all those years. Anyway, I’m here I’m going to talk to you tonight about the Middle East and my perspective on it. What I think can be done and should be done. It’s a serious subject, but even in that serious subject, you can catch little glimpses of humor. I spend a lot of time out in the region with which you’re very familiar, Sir. One of the most amazing things is to go, as I did a few months ago, stand on Mount Nebo, which is just on the Jordan side of the Jordan valley. When you go up to the top of Mount Nebo, which is where Moses is supposed to have looked out on the promised land, you look across and you can see the Jordan valley in the distance. As it gets toward dusk, you can see the lights of Jerusalem, and on a very clear evening you can even see further, right into the heart of Israel. Here is this extraordinary, small strip of land – you could fit it within one of your smallest states here in the United States of America – and yet out of this has come such history, such possibility, such conflict, and such challenge for the world. When I was on the other side of the Jordan valley just a short time afterwards, I visited the Mount of Temptation just by Jericho, “Mount of Temptation” being very appropriate for a politician.
A Palestinian guy and I were talking about the region and the conflict, and then he stopped for a moment and asked, “Moses, Jesus, Mohammed… why did they all have to come here?” Therefore, you sense in this area the extraordinary and rich tradition, and yet we live with every single particle of that history today. And out there in the region, I believe the future is being forged. The future not just of that part of the land, but of the region, and in many senses of the wider world. My case to you – my argument to you – this evening, is very simple: that we face, out of that region, a challenge: a challenge to Islam, and how it develops and a challenge to us in the West. And whether both of us, Islam and the West, can learn to live in peaceful coexistence, whether we understand that it is our destiny to succeed or fail together, whether that peaceful coexistence could come about, or whether instead we descend into the abyss of acrimony, bitterness and despair. In a sense, all of it is about the challenge of globalization and how we respond. Do we respond to it together or do we respond apart? Can Islam have its reformation and let its culture, civilization and talent flourish in peaceful coexistence with the world of the 21st century? And can we in the West understand that the 21st century must be based on justice, in order for that century to be peaceful? Can we understand that the days of western supremacy are over and that this world will succeed by partnership and by mutual respect and solidarity, or it will fail. I believe our destiny is shared but I also believe it’s in peril. So, together can we find our common purpose. Let me start with the region in which I spent so much of my time. Sometimes people would say to me, when we were debating foreign policy, “You know, it’s not Iraq you should be worried about, it’s Afghanistan.” And then, someone will say to me, “Actually, it’s neither of those two, in fact it’s Pakistan.” Someone else will say, “Actually, it’s Iran,” and to that could be added Somalia or Sudan or the Yemen or Algeria, which just over these last weeks got the same publicity: there has been violence, terrorism, the injuring of the innocent, and despair.

In my view, is this one struggle that is taking place in many different arenas. There isn’t one cause of it, but causes matter. Palestine matters and so does Kashmir, and Chechnya. But I remember when we engaged in the military defense of Kosovo, which was to save Albanian Kosovars from persecution by Christian Serbs - there is an ideology that is loosely defined, but nonetheless coherent, and what it expresses in all of these different arenas of conflict and challenge is Islam in transition. On the one side we have the many Muslims who are modern in outlook and moderate in politics, who believe that the answer to the challenges to the faith within the culture and civilization of Islam is to join the 21st century, be part of it, and rejoice in it, and help shape it. But then, against them are a range of people who in many ways are in reaction against the modern world, who believe that Islam lost its way because it turned away from the true path and that the answer is to go back, to go back almost to an ideology not merely based on the Quran but an ideology based on the 7th century context of the Quran. These people find their expression in extremism and a perversion of the true faith of Islam, which is a peaceful and just faith, and in a perversion of the concept of jihad, which in fact is a struggle to engage with the world that has been turned into a struggle against the world.

Terrorism is used by such extremists and is used as a powerful weapon. It’s used to destabilize and provoke, and it expresses itself in fanaticism and people who – they’re extraordinary to our way of thinking – actually believe at the moment that they detonate a suicide bomb and kill innocent people, that somehow they have a greater chance of being reconciled to God. Although we may find it extraordinary, we should also ask ourselves about why this narrative about Islam could be attractive to people. It’s because it plays into a feeling that Islam and the west are indeed fated to be divided and against each other, that the west is to blame for forcing its culture on those who follow Islam, and that there is indeed, as the late Professor Huntington said, a clash of civilizations: there is no way out of it and the leadership that is moderate and modern in that region is then taken as being complicit in some conspiracy against the proper faith and in favor of apostasies. This is a challenge of fundamental importance, and how we combat it will determine the future of this region and the future of the world. In order to combat it, first we must recognize, I believe, that it is indeed one linked struggle, that there are indeed two competing narratives, one is about modernization and coexistence, and the other about reaction and division. Notice – it’s a battle or a struggle that could be won simply by military means. This is not a conventional battle and this isn’t conventional politics, it doesn’t fit into some neat category of left or right, as we are familiar with in America or in Europe. We must recognize too, that it is not only a challenge within the religion of Islam, it is also a challenge to us. It’s a challenge to us, not simply in the sense that it could threaten us.

It’s a challenge to us also because if we are to defeat it, then we have to be prepared to adopt a far better, clearer, most strategic vision of the future, one in which we recognize that that the future is indeed shared, and that we cannot simply impose our view of the world on other people. You know, sometimes for us in the west, it is hard to understand why people of different parts of the word can dislike us so much. I remember when I was leader of the parliamentary Labor Party, it’s not always the easiest group of people to be a leader of, but there was a colleague of mine who was rather unpleasant, I’m afraid. One day, he was in the tea room, where the members of Parliament use to congregate. He said to one of his colleagues, “Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?” Back came the reply: “Because it saves time.” We sometimes feel that there is an instinctive impulse on the part of people in certain parts of the world to be against us, to be against what we stand for, and our culture. Actually, it isn’t really like that. It is that, in the world that has been created, where this globalization is pushing people together all the time, the question is: “Do we reach out and start to understand each other or do we end up being pulled apart?” This struggle over the region of the Middle East, and beyond the Middle East, is indeed part of the same question, so a purely military response sometimes is necessary: yes, to be prepared to stand up and to fight. But the purely military response will never succeed in this challenge being met or this struggle being overcome. Instead, what we require is a combination of hard and soft power. We don’t just need military might, because military might alone will not defeat this. We need, also, the language, and the instincts, and the policies of effective diplomacy. We have to reach in to the region in a deeper and more articulate way than we’ve done before. Now, what should that mean? It should mean at least three things.

The first is this: the conflict between Israel and Palestine is not the reason this problem exists. This problem would exist even if this conflict were not there. But I tell you this from the bottom of my heart, and everything I have learned to the last fifteen months as the Quartet’s envoy in that region has underlined and emphasized this: resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is the single most important thing we can do to create peace in that region, and stability, in the security challenge we face. Nothing is more important, nothing is more urgent and nothing should stand in the way of our achieving it. Why is that true? Not just because of the importance to the community, the Jewish community, for example, in America, or the Islamic community around the world. It’s important for this deeper reason: if we were able in that conflict to provide the basis for peace, if in that small strip of land, people actually learned to live with each other after all the bitterness and conflict that has gone before, it would produce the single most powerful expression of coexistence there could possibly be.

Thus, the impact of conflict or peace between Israel and Palestine is an impact obviously felt most by the people most directly engaged in it. But actually, this impact is felt far beyond that – even in streets of cities in Britain it is an issue that motivates, stirs and concerns people. I will work closely with Senator Mitchell, who has been appointed the American envoy. He and I did work closely together in Northern Ireland, where after all the difficulties we were able to bring peace. I can tell you, it’s one of the most heartening and also one of the most surprising things when you see two groups of people who use to be absolute sworn enemies sitting down in the same room together and being prepared to work together. What should Senator Mitchell and I need to do? First, it needs reinvigorated political negotiation. In Northern Ireland we faced one huge problem: there was no eventual agreement on the eventual outcome.

We had to agree to differ: one group of people wanted the United Kingdom and the other group of people wanted a United Ireland, but we found a way for people to manage that disagreement. Actually, in the case of Israel and Palestine, we do know what we want: we want two states, living side by side in peace. And there are people who’ll say: “Well, they’ve been trying to get that peace agreement for years – isn’t it impossible? The answer is, it’s not. If you take any reasonably intelligent educated group of Palestinians and Israelis, who basically believe in peace, and put them in two separate rooms, and ask them to come up with their own peace agreement, I promise you, put the two together and they wouldn’t be that far apart. Yes, there are enormous difficulties, and there always will be, but if we are determined, and with the new president here, President Obama, who has signaled that he’s determined from the very word go to take this issue seriously and drive it, not to let it simply run away from us but actually to guide it, then I believe that peace is possible. But that’s the first thing we need: the reinvigorated political process. The second thing we need is on the West Bank, where the majority of Palestinians live, and where the Palestinians could, if they were allowed to, start to build a state, from the bottom up. We need action to ensure that the Palestinians can build their own security capability, and we need on the other hand, as this security capability of the Palestinians appears, their ability to govern themselves rises, we need Israel to lift the weight of its occupation.

In this last year, I was working together with General Jones, the new National Security Advisor for President Obama, to try and bring about a better situation in which we could do this. In fact, even after the terrible events of the last few weeks in the West Bank, there is a relative calm. In 2008, the economy actually started to grow again and the number of tourists trebled; there were the beginning of hope and prosperity. All of this, of course, is put into question by what has happened recently. But the fact is, it’s not impossible. The reason why it’s important is because at the same time as we have a peace process and negotiation, if you like, “constructing the theory of the state,” a Palestinian state, you’re resolving borders and Jerusalem and right of return, and these issues of difficult political negotiations – at the same time as that theory of the state, which is built from on top, so we have to build from the bottom up: the way a state can function, its institutions, its capacity to gather, its public services and of course, critically here, this interaction between security and the occupation, that has done so much damage to the aspirations of the Palestinians over the years. The final thing we need is a different and better approach to Gaza.

It should be our aim to harm the extremists and help the people in Gaza, and I fear up to now it may have been the other way around. We have to offer the people of Gaza a way out of this misery. We have to offer them the opportunity to rejoin their Palestinian brothers and sisters on the West Bank. We have to offer them the genuine prospect of unity, but on the right terms, on the terms that promote a genuine, peaceful two-state solution. It can be done, but it has to be done. All through this region in the past few weeks, when I’ve been there, probably more times than I’ve been out of the region, I felt the tension rising. I felt the fault lines in the politics of that region go deep; we cannot afford to let another year pass without substantial progress on this issue. So I say it very simply: in this wider struggle, this issue - Israel and Palestine - is critical. Let us acknowledge it, and let us start to make 2009 the year we bring peace to the Middle East. If we did so, if we began a process that genuinely seems to be driving forward the peace process between Israel and Palestine, then I believe that the process between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon will not be far behind. And think of the possibility of creating an entirely new politics in that region, think of the change that would be possible, not just to that part of the region but in the broader region and the broader world. Added to that, we must focus on our own policy, on how we help, for example, in areas like education. Why are we surprised when there are young people taught in Pakistan, in religious madrasas, from the early hours of the morning to the evening, religious instruction and nothing but religious instruction.

Why are we surprised that a generation grows up with severe problems and difficulties, some of whom even drift into extremism? Then, we need – as I try to do in my new life with the foundation I have created, which is about religious interfaith – to try and ensure that those people of different faith and different culture find the means to understand each other better, know each other better and respect each other better, not mainly to tolerate each other but to understand that common destiny and shared purpose. In this reckoning, which is taking place now out in that region, within Islam and between Islam and the west, there is a bigger and deeper lesson for us. The one defining characteristic of today’s world is its independence. The term “global community” is a cliché today, but it is true, and the idea that nations will pursue their own narrow interest any more as the means of their foreign policy is not simply morally constraining, it’s wrong. It doesn’t answer the nature of today’s world, so whether you take the conflict out in the Middle East, or you take climate change, or you take the current economic crisis, or you take any of the challenges that we face today in our world, if you look at the entrée of the new president of the United States across any of the issues, what is it that stands out? Each of these challenges is global, each of them requires a global response, and in no case is a country, even a country as powerful as America, able to handle them on their own.

This is part of our challenge to us, because we have to realize that if indeed we are in an inter-dependent and inter-connected world, and if indeed it’s the case that no one country is able to deal with these challenges on its own, then the implication is very clear: to deal with those challenges, global in nature, we need global alliances. We need to recognize that the days of western supremacy, when the West dictates the terms and the rest of the world must adjust to them, are over. When I was meeting the Chinese Premier yesterday in London, and the whole of the British political establishment turned out for him, as they will over Europe, and when we were sitting there discussing the issues, I suddenly saw the difference in discussing it with him when I first came to Downing Street in 1997. Back then, we all made speeches about the rising power of China; but it was kind of speech that we made. When I was sitting there yesterday, I suddenly realized that whether it’s the economic crisis or climate change, the new global deal, or actually what is happening in places like the Middle East, for the role of China today it’s not incidental, it is fundamental. It’s central, and that’s the world we’re living in today. And so the global alliances that we have are absolutely critical to determining the nature of the world in which we will live. Now, I personally believe that for us in Europe and you here in America, our transatlantic alliance will stay strong. I believe in it. It’s not always easy. I think it was Winston Churchill or maybe Oscar Wilde, but anyway there’s a difference between the two, who said that we were two nations divided by a common language?

If you think it’s bad for America and the UK, try working in Europe. With all due respect to your Excellencies the Consuls General here, here’s something you may know: I do speak French, but not quite as fluently as I thought I did, and I made a great mistake when I was first in Downing Street as Prime Minister, when I decided to give a press conference live in French with the then- French Prime Minister. I was asked whether there were any policies of the French Prime Minister that I desired to emulate. I meant to say that there were many policies of the Prime Minister that I desired to emulate. Instead, I said that I desired the French Prime Minister in many different positions, which is actually quite hard to recover from in a press conference, I can tell you. But you will be pleased to know he blushed. Hard though it is, the fact is it’s necessary for us. It’s the only way we are going to make progress now. Whatever our differences, we have to set them aside in favor of achieving the greater purpose.

These alliances – whether US-China, Europe-China, or EU-US – are vastly important, but so of course are the alliances we now forge out in the Middle East, because we need to partner those people who are seeking a moderate and a modern future of peaceful coexistence in that region. We need to support them and help them, and help them on their journey to modernization, not sit there and say, “Well, we have oil interests, or we have an interest in supporting this regime against that regime,” but actually understanding, that in a globally inter-dependent world, that global alliances matter, and what those global alliances need, is of course global institutions. And something else, which is global values, which is why the narrow view of foreign policy, conducted according simply to the immediate national self- interest, no longer works effectively. If it’s true that we need the global alliances, those alliances between countries of different stages of development with different cultures and different civilizations, those alliances cannot come about on the basis of imposing one worldview on another. They can only come about with shared purpose, and shared purpose only arises and originates with shared beliefs, with shared values. People sometimes ask me why I’m so passionate on the subject of Africa, and the answer is very simple: 
I feel it’s a moral absurdity that millions of people can die every year needlessly from famine, conflict or disease. When you think of malaria alone, which we have eliminated in Europe and in most parts of the western world, and even eliminated as major killer in parts of India, or China – when you think that a million people die every year needlessly from it in Africa, I think that’s a call for more reaction. I find it hard to set that aside. But even if I do n’t look at it as a moral issue, what is happening today in Africa is that those countries that are not being helped to make progress, those countries who are going backward, are not mainly only harming their own people, but if you look at Sudan or Somalia or any of these areas of conflict, that conflict is starting to spread out, they’re starting to export the extremism that has originated in their country but does not stay in their country.

So, to me the reason for dealing with Africa is not just a moral cause, it’s an act of enlightened self-interest. If we look ahead to leave almost a billion people without the same chances of opportunity and prosperity as we take for granted, is not really wrong, is not sensible, it’s not a policy that would work in a globally independent world. So I think the challenge that we face in the Middle East is a challenge most particular to the people that live there. But the reason why you debate it here, the reason why people are interested in the streets of Britain, is because people understand that it’s important to reach far beyond the confines of that narrow strip of land that I saw standing on Mount Nebo or even that broader strip of land abroad the continent that is the region of the Middle East. In this challenge, we find the very nature of modern politics. One of the things I found most difficult and most frustrating over my time in politics, one of the things that I see very clearly in a way what you and your president are doing here, is the world in which we live in today, the world in which my children are growing up, is a world that is so fast-moving. It breaks free continually of the constraints that we try to put on it, whether it’s in technology or the economy or in the impact of conflict on people’s psychology and mentality. Today, we don’t really have a conflict being waged in a certain part of the world. But if there’s sufficient interest, we see it nightly on our television screens.

It comes right into our own community, into our own front room. So, that world, that is so rapidly-changing, and breaking free of those constraints that were traditional to the way politics was conducted, they need new politics to be articulated along with it. When I look at the opportunities around, in the era of globalization, they are enormous. But as we can see with our economy, the challenges come thick and fast too. They’re all linked to the same thing: which is that the world is opening up, the frontiers are coming down, the boundaries are being blurred, and there is a coming-together. The question is: do we make that coming-together work or do we make that coming- together a sort of friction and division and difficulty, that then lead to a coming apart? That is really the battle, in its essence, that is being fought out of the Middle East at the moment. The point about it is this: ultimately, the only way you come together in an era of global interdependence is on the basis of justice, is on the basis of fairness, is on the basis that you are as important as me, and if we want to resolve that challenge in the Middle East, that is also what we need to do. What concerns people out there is this: they look at our policy and ask: are we even- handed? Do we care as much for the suffering of the Palestinians as we do for the security of Israel? In my view, we should care for both, but we should care for both equally, and that is the issue, and that is my point: we can only make the 21st century work on the basis of partnership, equity, justice, a coming-together of equals, not a dictatorship of policy.

Let me just finish with a story out of Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland it was indeed an intractable conflict, but the Irish are wonderful people. They’re creative and ingenious, and I had course, during the course of the Northern Ireland negotiations, to learn something about their ingenuity. What used to happen to them was, we used to go away and spend days on end trying to negotiate particular bits of the Northern Ireland peace deals, but life got really, really tough. We went away one time, and my wife was expecting our son Liam, the little boy I was telling you about earlier. So, we went to this meeting and a member of the Irish delegation came up to me and he said to me: “Mr. Blair, that’s a wonderful thing that your wife is expecting a child, every blessing upon her,” and I said, “Thank you very much, indeed.” He said, “I’m just wondering: what are you thinking of calling the child now?” So, I said to him: “Well, I don’t know, but if it’s a boy I think I’ll call him after my father.” I thought nothing more about it, and went away. My wife gave birth a couple of months later, and we went on to another one of these negotiations.

The same guy was in the room, and he had a sun tan. Has anyone ever been to Northern Ireland? It’s a great place, but not for a sun tan, it’s not why you go to Northern Ireland. So I said to him, “OK, it’s an amazing, incredible sun tan,” and he said to me: “Well, did you know that you’re responsible for it, Mr. Blair?” I said, “Well, how is that?” He said, “Well, do you remember that little conversation we had about your wife and expecting the baby?” When I said yes, he continued: “Well, I went down next day and put 1,000 pounds on the name of the child at the bookmakers.”
See, you must be optimistic in the end, that’s what I have to say.

Thank you, thank you very much indeed.