Was the Labour party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair a success?
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Dec 16th, 2019

Was the Labour party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair a success?

The years of Labour Party rule under Tony Blair were characterised by an interventionist foreign policy which saw troops being deployed toKosovo,Sierra Leone,AfghanistanandIraq. An analysis of the stated aims of these interventions as well as the outcomes of them, on balance, leads one to conclude that they fail to meet a minimum standard required to be deemed successful. This essay will outline in more detail those aims and outcomes which lead the author to such a conclusion.


In order to adequately answer the above question there are a number of points which must first be addressed; firstly, what were the characteristics of Labour Party foreign policy under BlairSecondly, what were the aims of this foreign policyAnd finally, how does one define successMr Blair will have one definition, the media will have another and the citizens of the countries into which British troops have been sent will have another still. Such ambiguities are likely to lead to difficulties in carrying out an objective analysis. We will begin by identifying the foreign policy ideology of the Labour Party during the Blair years.

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Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair was noted for his concentration on domestic affairs and was largely viewed as lacking in Foreign Policy clout (Dyson, 2009: 2-3). Upon entering office however this soon changed. Blair took the leadership role in his relationship with U.S President Clinton and demonstrated, in Kosovo andSierra Leone, the interventionist ideology which was to be the corner stone of labour Party foreign policy for the next ten years. “Those that can act, must” he argued at the Labour Party conference of 2001 (Dyson, 2009: 35). The arrival in 2000 of President Bush to the White House and particularly the attacks of September 11 2001 emboldened Blair in his interventionist ideals.

So what were the aims of the various interventions?

Blair’s willingness to talk in almost biblical terms has been expressly noted by many commentators; “He conceptualises the world as a struggle between good and evil in which his particular vocation is to advance the former.” (Seldon, 2005: 700). Taken at face value this was the aim of Labour Party foreign policy. In Kosovo the ethnic cleansing being carried out by Milosevic had to be stopped; in Sierra Leone civil war was tearing apart the country (Dorman, 2009): in Afghanistan the Taliban had to be removed (first for harbouring Al Qaeda and later more generally for their human rights record) and finally, in Iraq, Saddam was oppressing his people and was also a potential threat to world peace (Omaar, 2004). How successful were these interventions?

The relative peace to be found in Kosovo and inSierra Leonetoday would seem to suggest that those particular forays were indeed successful. Stable governments are now in place and the widespread violence that was typical pre-intervention has come to an end (Dorman, 2009). In these instances the Labour Party and Tony Blair are seen to have acted successfully and in a manner consistent with their ideals.

AfghanistanandIraqare however, not nearly so clear cut. While initially enjoying widespread support for the invasion ofAfghanistanand the hut for Osama Bin Laden, Blair soon found his troops bogged down in an insurgency against formidable opponents, while the purpose of the expedition became more obscure and any measure of success more elusive. As reported by the Guardian, the Taliban were not gotten rid of and remain to this day the dominant opposition to a democratic state (“Top Commander”, 2011); nor was Osama Bin Laden found there, it has it fact become a breathing ground for young jihadists. The huge civilian casualties are the overriding images of that war (UNAMA, 2011). For these reasons the Labour Party’s foreign policy in relation toAfghanistan, their attempt to bring peace and democracy as well to win a major battle in the “war on terror”, can only be judged a failure.

ConsideringIraqand the purported aims of that invasion, i.e. removing a brutal dictator, ending the threat posed by WMDs and bringing democracy to the country, we could say that leadership of the Labour Party succeeded in the first, in the second by default and failed entirely in the last. The civilian death toll inIraq, as impossible as it is to get an exact figure, has certainly been even higher than inAfghanistan(Fischer, 2008). The failure of both the Labour Party inLondonand the Republican Party inWashingtonto advance any real post war strategy has been the fatal flaw in the Iraqi endeavour. The destruction of the infrastructure of democracy that took place during the looting and burning of government buildings inBagdad, whilst American troops looked on, is viewed by many as the most important factor which prevented a successful transition (Omaar, 2004). Therefore, the foreign policy of the Labour party under Blair must here also be judged as being unsuccessful.

It would be irresponsible not to mention another point here. What if the real aims of Labour Party’s foreign policy were not quite so altruistic and not quite so obviousWhen a million people took to the streets of London in 2003 to oppose the war in Iraq (as well as the more veiled disquiet among members of his own party such as Robin Cook and Clare Short (Casey, 2009: 242)) they contended that Tony Blair was merely doing the bidding of, firstly, the oil companies who desired access to Iraq’s rich oil reserves (Wearden, 2011) and secondly the construction companies who would rebuild the country. Whether this is true or not, it is only in these terms that the Labour Party’s foreign policy under Tony Blair could be judged an unequivocal success.

In conclusion, I do not believe on the whole that the foreign policy of the Labour Party under Tony Blair was successful. A careful apolitical analysis of the stated aims and achievements of their policies is enough demonstrate this. It is not clear cut however. There have been occasions such as in Kosovo andSierra Leone where the stated aims of intervention have been achieved and for which the Labour Party, Tony Blair and their collective foreign policy deserve some recognition; not enough to tip the balance however.


Casey. T, 2009, “The Blair legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan,UK)

Dorman. A, 2009, “Blair’s successful war: British Military intervention in Sierra Leone” (Ashgate Publishing,UK)

Dyson.S, 2009, “The Blair Identity: Leadership and Foreign Policy”, (ManchesterUniversityPress,UK)

Fischer. H, 2008, “CRS report for Congress: Iraqi Civilian Deaths Estimates”, (viewed 10am 9/09/11)

Omaar. R, 2004, “Revolution Day: The real story of the battle for Iraq” (Penguin,UK)

Seldon. A, 2005, “Blair” (Free Press, NY)

“Top commander looks ahead to talks with the Taliban”, The Guardian, 25/03/2011, (viewed 9.30am 09/09/11)

Wearden. G, “Tony Hayward in line for multimillion windfall after Iraq oil deal”, The Guardian, (7/09/11) (viewed at 12am 9/09/11)

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) & Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) 2011, “Annual Report 2010 Protection of civilians in armed conflict”, (viewed at 9.00am 09/09/11)

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