Tony Blair on New World: ‘the pieces are in flux’

By Chris McCarthy

There is no compromise possible with such people, no meeting of minds, no point of understanding with such terror. Just a choice: Defeat it or be defeated by it. And defeat it we must.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, 2 October 2001

At the Northern Ireland peace talks in Belfast on 7 April 1998, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was roundly mocked for the glaring irony in his extemporaneous comments to the gathered press on the significance of the negotiations: “A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this.” Three years later at the 2001 Labour Party conference, that hand would feel many times heavier and the playful derision was supplanted by a mood of sobriety and shock.

Three weeks before Blair addressed party delegates in Brighton, two hijacked planes pierced the Manhattan skyline and plunged into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Images of the attack and video of the towers collapsing monopolised coverage on television, radio and in print, and even without the comfort of hindsight, it was evident the events of 9/11 would shake the world for years, that they “marked a turning point in history.” In his closing remarks Blair memorably described this new, if still opaque, reality:

The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.

Operation Enduring Freedom was launched five days later and preparations would have been well advanced by the time Blair took to the podium. He opened his speech by justifying the case for military intervention in Afghanistan and presenting the Taliban with a stark ultimatum: “Surrender the terrorists or surrender power.”

But this was just the set-up to a far broader sermon on the changing shape of the new world:  a world where the pace of globalisation, in commerce, technology, finance, and culture, could leave us feeling powerless, but when harnessed could be used to meet the world’s new challenges that now so often cross national boundaries:

The issue is not how to stop globalisation. The issue is how we use the power of community to combine it with justice. If globalisation works only for the benefit of the few, then it will fail…but if we follow the principles that have served us so well at home – that power, wealth, and opportunity must be in the hands of the many, not the few – if we make that our guiding light for the global economy, then it will be a force for good.

It was also an opportunity for the prime minister to advance the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” Galvanised by the NATO Kosovo campaign begun in 1999, Blair was unapologetic about the “moral duty to act” if another Rwanda happened today. To some detractors this speech encapsulates Blair’s messianic qualities that spurred him to stride purposefully across the world stage, ever more cocooned or disinterested with growing dissent at home. To his supporters it illustrates his strength as a visionary and his compassion towards all suffering, regardless of geography:

The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.

In terms of rhetorical technique Blair favoured short, assertive sentences. He would quickly summarise opposing arguments [to intervention in Afghanistan specifically] to enable him to provide his forceful replies: “Don’t kill innocent people. We are not the ones who waged war on the innocent. We seek the guilty…State an ultimatum and get their response. We stated the ultimatum; they haven’t responded.”

Another technique used effectively throughout his political career, and again evident here, is the creation of a fictional exchange between Blair and a non-specific audience: “People say…people ask me…my answer is…” It allows him to personalise what is effectively a list and helps to rhetorically involve the audience, making them feel part of the conversation.

As he builds to his climax and brings the speech full circle to again affirm Britain’s “profound solidarity with the American people”, Blair uses a device made famous by President Franklin Roosevelt in his ‘I see an America where’ speech, by beginning six consecutive sentences with “I think”:

I think of its Constitution, with its inalienable rights granted to every citizen, still a model for the world…

I think of the Statue of Liberty and how many refugees, migrants, and the impoverished passed its light and felt that it not for them, for their children, a new world could indeed be theirs…

I think of all of this and I reflect: Yes, America has its faults, but it is a free country, a democracy, it is our ally…

The speech was disparaged for its pious rhetoric, notably by Times journalist Matthew Parris: “Tony Blair left the runway on a limited to strike to remove one individual from a hillside in Afghanistan – and veered off on a neo-imperial mission to save the entire planet.” But it was a powerful, eloquent and impassioned effort to understand the modern world, to explain its ills, to champion its opportunities, to lobby for Britain’s position in an ever-more interdependent global dynamic, and to help shape a new world where all could enjoy the same values of democracy, justice and personal liberty.

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