Tony Blair’s Foreign Policy: Assessing the Successes and the Mistakes

| February 12, 2012 | 0 Comments


Tony Blair’s years in office (1997-2007) have been characterized by a controversial foreign policy agenda. No other British prime minister has involved the country in as many wars abroad. Also, there are few who have been so committed to supporting the U.S. in their decision to fight a war considered illegitimate by many. However, we have also witnessed an increase in the importance of humanitarian values in policy-making under Tony Blair. Many people in Kosovo, Africa, and the U.S are highly supportive of his approach to politics, while in the UK he is often vilified for his involvement in the Iraq invasion. No matter what point of view we look at, it is certain that opinions are highly polarized and the Labour’s legacy under Tony Blair will be a mixed one. This paper stresses the importance of a balanced assessment of Labour’s foreign policy under Tony Blair.

Tony Blair and the Labour Party were at the helm of British politics and foreign policy decisions from 1997 until 2007. During his early years in office, the prime minister contributed to the Northern Ireland Peace Process through negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and called for a NATO air campaign against Serbia, to the aid of the people in Kosovo. In Sierra Leone, he also helped establish peace by deploying British military aid. Nonetheless, his second term was dominated by the ‘war on terror,’ characterized by a close following of George Bush’s much-criticized foreign policies.

There are hardly other issues that polarize public opinion on Tony Blair more than his approach to foreign policy. Oftentimes, his whole legacy is defined by the unfortunate choice to obstinately pursue military action in Iraq. Whether or not the Labour Party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair was successful or not is a very complex question to tackle. Even the word ‘success’ may cause considerable debate, since it is not always clear what constitutes ‘successful’ in matters of foreign policy. For the purpose of this paper, I will consider a successful foreign policy to be a policy that is approved by the majority of the public and/or that can claim to have served a humanitarian cause efficiently. I will argue that the Labour Party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair has been relatively successful abroad, but unsuccessful domestically. This is true especially taking into consideration that, within the UK, Blair is overwhelmingly remembered for his involvement in Iraq. In the eyes of the British public, his support of George Bush’s misguided ‘war on terror’ overshadows what he achieved in Sierra Leone or Kosovo. On the other hand, it is important to assess his legacy as a whole and not just the years when Iraq was at the forefront of news making headlines.

I am in agreement with Held and Mepham (2007, p 8), who argue that the Labour’s foreign policy legacy is mixed, but that there are certain aspects of it that can be considered progressive. Most importantly, Blair’s government has strived to combat poverty and promote development, especially in Africa (Held and Mepham 2007, p 8). Despite some its shortcomings, it is evident that the Labour’s foreign policy was motivated, at least in part, by moral ideas and values (Heins 2007, Dunne 2005). National self-interest was often sacrificed for the aim of liberating, supporting, and rescuing others. The line between domestic and international was considerably blurred (Heins 2007). Under Tony Blair, we have witnessed a major shift in policy making in the UK: nation states became morally responsible for international humanitarian crises. We can criticize some of the outcomes, but such an attitude is certainly progressive and in my opinion, successful because it promotes human rights and development. And, indeed, Tony Blair has high approval rates abroad, especially in those states which have benefitted from some of his early foreign policies. This definitely shows that he has been successful at least in some parts of the international community. Kargbo (2006, p 267) also notes that Tony Blair’s foreign policy in Sierra Leone was “founded on values which have guided progressive politics for more than a century – democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation, and internationalism.” Many in Sierra Leone, the rest of Africa, and Kosovo consider Tony Blair a hero and a great leader (BBC 2007). In addition, he has also received the US Medal of Freedom – a country where he also has high approval rates. This is clear evidence that the Labour party’s foreign policy has been generally successful internationally.

I have tried to outline the positive side of Blair’s policies, which, I think, are often forgotten in light of the Iraq war blunder. That being said, it must also be noted that in the UK, the Labour’s foreign policy has been equated with the war in Iraq and as such, it has become a disaster for Blair’s image at home, eventually leading to his resignation. As Robbins (2007) puts it, “Blair’s fateful decision to invade [Iraq] will overshadow everything else when history judges his conduct of foreign policy.” Even though I believe this to be unfortunate, there is no doubt that the support for Bush’s war in Iraq was a mistake. Even if the international community is more willing to look past some of Blair’s shortcomings, domestically, the Labour’s policy has definitely been unsuccessful. Since Britain has decided to invade Iraq, Tony Blair’s approval rates have decreased dramatically (BBC 2005). Many were angered at his faithful support of Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ To make matters even worse, the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be an imminent threat were never discovered. Even the legality of the war has been questioned. The overwhelming consensus is that the war in Iraq was a huge mistake, although the prime minister has never publicly admitted to it being so.

I believe that when assessing the success of the Labour party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair, it is important to look not only at the Iraq war, but also at the rest of the humanitarian interventions and general approach to international relations. In spite of some unfavourable outcomes, I think that Tony Blair and his party’s foreign policies were always motivated by solid moral values. Even with the tarnished image that Blair has to live with in the UK, I believe that his foreign policy was an overall success with most other countries. He should probably get more appreciation for his humanitarian approach and courage to intervene, when others might not have shown such a strong sense of moral responsibility. It should also not be forgotten that he played an important role in the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and development in Africa. However, because the people in the UK often remember him most for the Iraq mistakes, the Labour party has failed to be successful domestically, in the eyes of its own constituents.



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Deighton, A. 2005. The foreign policy of British prime minister Tony Blair: radical or retrograde? Oxford: Centre for British Studies Working Paper Series.

Dunne, T. 2005. Fighting for values: Atlanticism, Internationalism and the Blair Doctrine. In: ISA Conference Papers.  Hawaii: United States March 1-5, 2005.

Held, D. and Mepham, D. 2007. Introduction. In: D. Held and D. Mepham, ed. 2007. Progressive foreign policy: new directions for the UK. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.1-17.

Heins, V. 2007. Crusaders and snobs. In: D. Chandler and V. Heins, ed. 2007.  Rethinking ethical foreign policy: pitfalls, possibilities, and paradoxes. New York: Routledge.

Kargbo, M. S. 2006. British foreign policy and the conflict in Sierra Leone 1999-2001. Bern: International Academic Publishers.

Robbins, J. 2007. Assessing Blair’s foreign policy. BBC News, [online] (Last updated 8.46 on 10 May 2007) Available at: [Accessed 16 January 2012]

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