Blair Shares Wisdom on Global Challenges
Over 2,000 students, faculty, alumni and guests filled the Walsh Gymnasium on the snowy late afternoon for the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations' World Leaders Forum.
A resident of London's 10 Downing St. from 1997 through 2007, Blair focused domestically on transforming public education and healthcare while internationally he battled terrorism—primarily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone—while at the same time working for climate change, fighting global poverty and was a lynchpin of the Middle East peace process.
Blair marked his decade as British prime minister by assisting in the Northern Ireland peace process by helping to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement that established a power-sharing government. Today he is a special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of "the Quartet," comprised of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia.
Last year he established the Tony Blair Foundation that works to promote understanding between the major faiths and the role of faith in the world. After leaving office Blair converted to Catholicism.
The world's three primary challenges, he stressed, are the economy, the environment and security issues. The toughest of that trio, he noted, is the economy. Usually, with a complex topic such as economic policy, a world leader will "call in the experts," Blair said. However, given the unprecedented conditions as they exist today, even the experts are saying "they don't know what to do."
Noting that there have been economic crises before, what makes this one different is that "the fundamentals of the economy have been shaken" by the growing global financial meltdown. Agreeing that there has to be some kind of stimulus, Blair was equally emphatic that "this economic crisis cannot be solved locally." The impact, he went on, has been "pervasive" and must be addressed on a "global scale."
The environment, Blair is convinced, can benefit from how the economic crisis is addressed. A major economic concern, he said, is China where 60 percent of the population is subsistence farmers. Investing in clean technology, Blair admitted, is a "huge challenge" a major component of which has to be agreements with emerging nations such as China and India. There is "nothing more important," he noted, than for President Obama to establish "the right strategic relationship" with China.
On the security front, he continued, a major concern is the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, which he described as "not a conventional battle" and a place where "politics gets polarized." While the military has a role, Blair continued, "there is nothing more important than resolving the situation between Israel and the Palestinians."
Religion, he added, can be a source of "reconciliation and progress" in the Middle East. Emphasizing that "justice is the most powerful spirit of global citizenship."
A close ally of former President George W. Bush, Blair began his lecture by citing the promise of the new administration of President Barack Obama, calling it "inspiring." Recalling his own election, Blair described coming to power as "a moment of euphoria."
Saying there are "huge hopes and expectations" for the new president, Blair stressed that, for President Obama to succeed, he will need the help of "partners as well as supporters." Looking beyond Washington, Blair said "the world in which we live is a new and completely different place" with changed expectations of politics that affect policy.
The former prime minister took several questions from the audience following his lecture. Asked what role religion can play in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Blair said it "can play a role for good...(but) religion also must speak out about the bad things." Shared spiritual values can help people of faith reach "an understanding of the 'other' person."
Another questioner wondered about the role of the European Union (EU) in the 21st century. Europe, Blair answered, should leverage its power by creating a strong economy.
Blair also was asked about his decision to covert to Catholicism after he left office. Prefacing his response with the contention that religion is treated "differently" in Great Britain than in the United States, Blair called the timing of his decision "a private decision."
Asked about what he thought was his greatest legacy, Blair answered "that is for other people to judge." He did mention, however, his efforts to remove dictators around the world and his role in Northern Ireland. A "most frustrating" element of being prime minister, he added, is that advisors "can give you 1,000 reasons for not doing something and not one reason to do something." Ultimately, he noted, "things can change for the better."
Continuing a tradition started at the Whitehead School since its inception a dozen years ago, the School of Diplomacy forum brings to campus "people who have shaped the world in which we live," Msgr. Robert Sheeran, SHU president, explained.