SPIEGEL Interview with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair 'Ten Years Is Long Enough'

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is stepping down on June 27 after a decade in 10 Downing Street. On the eve of his departure, DER SPIEGEL spoke with him about the results of the G-8 summit, the war in Iraq, and his feelings about leaving office.

SPIEGEL: Prime Minister, last week there was talk of a new Cold War because of Russian resistance to American plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. President Putin spoke of a new arms race and talked about Russian missiles targeting European cities again. Is there a new era of détente after the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm?

Blair: No.

SPIEGEL: But everyone smiled at the end.

Blair: I think that there is a desire to overcome this difficulty but I think the issue remains. The truth is that everyone wants a good relationship with Russia and knows it’s important. There are deep concerns in Europe at the moment and the dispute over ballistic missile defence has obviously awakened tensions. The issue has not been resolved by the summit, but it gave us a chance to talk about it with him.

SPIEGEL: Actually we talked to President Putin one week ago  and his arguments against the missile shield seemed completely comprehensible to us.

Blair: The fact is, the Americans have always been very open that they wanted to develop this. There is absolutely no way that it offers protection against Russian missiles. And it is there for the reason it is there, which is that America wanted the development of the technology to have a defence against the possibility that Iran or North Korea or another rogue nuclear power might emerge with a long distance missile.

SPIEGEL: Can you understand the Russian fear that the defensive missiles could be used not against Iran but against Russia?

Blair: That’s surely something that has been obvious for a long time, since this has been under discussion for seven or eight years. So it’s not suddenly been discovered. Now, I’ve got, and have always had, a good personal relationship with President Putin, and I want us to have a good relationship with Russia. But there is obviously at the moment a fundamental misunderstanding between the West and Russia. We have to try and get to the bottom of it and resolve it, otherwise what will happen over time is that instead of maximising the business people want to do with Russia, they are going to minimize it.

SPIEGEL: What do you think of Putin's suggestion to build a joint radar station with the Americans in Azerbaijan ?

Blair: I don’t know. I’m not qualified.

SPIEGEL: What is your opinion of the G-8 agreements on climate change?

Blair: This is a huge step forward. And I think Chancellor Merkel has done a brilliant job on this. When I tried to put this on the agenda in 2005 at Gleneagles, we got it on the agenda and we started the G-8 plus 5 process and it was a real struggle. Now we have got a situation where everyone agrees there should be a global deal, everyone agrees it should include all the main emitters, America and China particularly, and everyone agrees it should have at its heart a substantial reduction in emissions, and everyone agrees that is of the order of halving emissions by 2050. This is big progress.

SPIEGEL: But you still couldn’t get very clear cut goals.

Blair: I think we did, actually. The American position is a very simple one, which is that it's not prepared to do a deal without China and India in it and they say China and India have not yet agreed. They won’t agree till they agree. It’s not that America is excluding the possibility that a target of that nature is adopted -- on the contrary. For the first time America is committing to a new agreement, saying it wants to be part of it and saying the agreement will have a substantial binding target in reduction.

SPIEGEL: Are you confident that the US will really pursue this under the auspices of the United Nations?

Blair: Yes I am. And President Bush said that himself. Because there is no way of doing this outside of the UN. At Gleneagles I began the G-8 plus 5, and I did it because there is no point in 100 countries sitting around the table whose combined emission is 20 percent of the problem.

What is fair is a matter of negotiation. What, however, is happening to the climate is a matter of science and fact. Therefore there is no point in having a situation where it may be fair, but China, India and the developing world don’t have any obligations. The climate when it’s changing doesn’t distinguish between the provenance of the emissions, if they're from China or from the US.

The fact is I began this process of G-8 plus 5 precisely because I thought, you’ve got to start with a small core group and build out. That’s what we did at Gleneagles and that’s what the Americans intend to do. And the fact that the Americans are prepared to lead this now is a big thing. The Americans can’t call these 13 countries to Washington and then say we’re calling you here and doing nothing.

SPIEGEL: In Gleneagles you were successful in getting the other seven states to commit themselves to doubling aid to Africa by 2010. So far Germany and a lot of the other states are lagging behind in delivering on their promises. Are you confident that this is going to change by 2010?

Blair: Yes. The important thing is there’s a focus on Africa every year. The Japanese will put it again on their agenda for the summit next year. And even in the last week, Germany has announced an extra €3 billion of aid, America $15 billion more on HIV/Aids. Other countries like Italy and Japan are making other announcements. You have to struggle for it every year. You have to commit and recommit every year.

'Merkel Is a Pleasure to Work With'

SPIEGEL: Why is Africa in the centre of political activities? Is it because a few musicians are taking an interest or because the Chinese are moving into Africa?

Blair: No, this predates the China issue -- though that is an issue now with Africa. It’s really because it’s a big moral cause. Take the issue of HIV/Aids, for example. We’ve probably saved a million lives already. How many other areas of politics can you do something that saves literally millions of lives?

SPIEGEL: By not starting wars, for example.

Blair: We will come to that in a moment. (laughs) But the other thing that is important is that in the world in which we live today, if we are not intervening in Africa we are going to store up massive problems for ourselves. In Sudan in Somalia, right around the Western world you are going to have these people coming in from regions of conflict.

SPIEGEL: How would you evaluate the role of Chancellor Merkel at this G8 summit?

Blair: It’s been crucial, vital. She is proving herself to be a very, very skilful negotiator. And she is a pleasure to work with.

SPIEGEL: This pleasure is almost over for you. What else are you going to miss? Large events such as Heiligendamm?

Blair: Well, you know I’ve done it for 10 years. It’s long enough!

SPIEGEL: After 10 years in office, your country is in great shape -- the economy is booming, unemployment is down, there are 3 million new jobs. So why is the public in Britain disenchanted with you? Why are most Britons happy what you will leave office on June 27?

Blair: You know something? I’ve won three elections and what happens when you’re in power for a long period of time, people get tired of the same face, the same voice. It’s just the way it is.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it because of the war in Iraq?

Blair: I know people say this is all down to Iraq and so on, but that's not true. From the moment you start in these jobs, you're taking decisions people don’t like. If you survive for 10 years, you’re doing well.

SPIEGEL: In the 90s you promoted the Third Way as the modern way forward for social democracy in Europe and the US. Has Blairism failed outside the UK?

Blair: On the contrary. I don’t call it Blairism, but the Third Way is pretty much what most governments -- both conservative and progressive -- pursue nowadays in the industrialized world. What is interesting to me is that some of the old distinctions of left and right are just not as relevant any more. I actually think one of the leading distinctions is open versus closed. I know it’s impossible in certain quarters ever to defend President Bush, but if you look at what President Bush is doing for example with immigration policy in the United States or trade policy, he’s on the progressive side of the debate -- because he’s open, he’s not isolationist.

I think that some of these Third Way policies now -- combining economic efficiency and social justice, education not regulation, public service reform being about investment but also about personalisation of services, being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime -- I think these are very common positions now right across the developed world.

SPIEGEL: Still, a lot of left-wing parties in continental Europe consider Blairism a kind of neo-liberalism.

Blair: Those are the ones in opposition, aren’t they? (laughs)

SPIEGEL: You were initially close to former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder but then the relationship deteriorated after a couple of years. Why did this happen?

Blair: Obviously Iraq played a role but there were issues too. It’s the way it happens sometimes. Look, I have a lot of respect for many of the things he did in Germany, and I remember we worked very well together over Kosovo. But of course Iraq was an important difference.

SPIEGEL: When you look back, won't Iraq be the big nightmare of your time in office?

Blair: You know, you and I are not going to agree on this.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it important, if you start a war, to at least win it?

Blair: Well, I don’t believe we’ve lost it.

SPIEGEL: Are you sure?

Blair: Yes, I’m sure that we haven’t lost it. We have to go on and win it, but it’s a different kind of conflict today. Removing Saddam was relatively easy, but then these elements have moved in to try and stop us, as has also happened in Afghanistan. We've got to be prepared for the long haul now in these conflicts, because our enemies are going to fight us.

SPIEGEL: There will be 2,500 British troops left in Iraq by the end of the year. How do you expect to resist your enemies -- let alone beat them?

Blair: In Basra the security is now being done by the Iraqis themselves. So it’s a different situation now.

SPIEGEL: But it's not very effective.

Blair: The sectarian violence in Basra is very low. It’s up in Baghdad where that is the problem. And there you've still got 140,000 American troops.

'Fun is the Wrong Word'

SPIEGEL: Did you overestimate your influence on Washington?

Blair: No, I’ve never done it as a tit-for-tat or as an exchange. I don’t barter policy, particularly on conflict.

SPIEGEL: Did you think it would be easier to win the war and the period after the war?

Blair: The one thing I would say is, the great underestimation was how deep this problem was, how many elements were going to evolve and come together to try and stop us, once we’d removed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam from Iraq and were making progress. But I believe that when they fight us harder, we’ve got to fight back. I personally think you’ve got to stand up and take them on -- everywhere.

SPIEGEL: Did your decision to tackle terrorism in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq not inadvertently help to spread terrorism?

Blair: This will become a great Western myth if we’re not careful. We didn’t create these people. And it’s not our fault that they are the way they are. They have a belief system, they have an ideology, and they have discovered the power of terrorism in an era of globalization and mass communication.

SPIEGEL: But al-Qaida wasn't in Iraq before the war started. Now it is a training camp for al-Qaida.

Blair: Be really careful about buying all that. It is correct that al-Qaida are very active in Iraq, but if they weren’t active in Iraq they would be active elsewhere. And we're after them in Iraq. A lot of them are getting killed there, too.

SPIEGEL: Isn’t the basic problem that the fight against terrorism produces ever more terrorists -- not just in Iraq, but also in Europe? And that the campaign against terror in the Middle East has brought it to Spain and the UK?

Blair: Until we start challenging these ideas, we’ve got the wrong attitude, a defeatist attitude -- this idea that by removing Saddam in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan and giving the Muslims there a democratic process, somehow we are oppressing the Muslim nation ... It’s other Muslims that are killing them. We’re trying to stop them killing each other. We should be on the side of the innocent against the terrorists.

SPIEGEL: Do you actually think that prolonging the American occupation will increase the chance of peace in Iraq?

Blair: Yes, but I don’t think it will come through American troops staying there, per se. It will come through building up the capabilities of the Iraqis. If you talk to our forces down in Basra now, they will say that the 10th division of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi special forces are good.

SPIEGEL: How long will it take until there is some kind of peace in Iraq? Do you think in terms of years or decades?

Blair: I don't think we can be sure of that. But one thing I am very sure of is that defeating this global terrorism is a generation-long affair. The roots of this are deep, they are in many different parts of the world. And they are prepared to use terrorism as a powerful weapon. And they are prepared to outlast us.

SPIEGEL: What are you going to do when you leave Number 10?

Blair: I don’t know. We will see.

SPIEGEL: Will you be signing a contract with Gasprom, like Gerhard Schröder?

Blair: Certainly not.

SPIEGEL: Lord Anthony Giddons, co-inventor of the Third Way, described you and your successor Gordon Brown as the Lennon and McCartney of British politics. Can Labour survive with only half the duo?

Blair: We have worked very closely over the years despite all the tensions and difficulties that arise at the top of politics. He has been a big part of the success of the government and I am sure he will continue to be so.

SPIEGEL: When you moved into Downing Street in 1997, there was a bottle of champagne from your predecessor John Major, with a card saying it was a great job and telling you to have fun. Did you have fun?

Blair: Fun? Fun is the wrong word, really. It’s a sense of privilege doing it. And it’s certainly exciting.

SPIEGEL: Bill Clinton said about his time in the White House that he loved every single day. Did you also enjoy every single day?

Blair: I’m sure I could think of a few days.

SPIEGEL: Prime Minister, thank you for the interview.

Interview conducted by Stefan Aust, Hans Hoyng and Thomas Hüetlin.