What we can learn from Tony Blair
Last night, as part of the 92nd Street Y’s arts and cultural series on “The Business of Giving,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke with Matthew Bishop, NY bureau chief for The Economist.
In his introductory remarks about the future of globalization and achieving justice and equality for all on an international scale, Blair said “We are a global community. And its chief attribute is that no one nation, not even this great nation of America, can do it on its own. In any case, power is shifting East and it is shifting quickly. Countries like India and China will take their rightful place. And it’s galvanizing people, too. Look at Iran today. So that’s my theory, and if I’m right, the countries of the global community must work in alliance with each other, and with equality, and it will work only if there is a feeling of obligation beyond their borders and a real belief that they can share values. If it’s simply a battle of interests, we will fail and the failure will be ugly.
“I’m honored to be here and to describe the afterlife to 10 Downing Street. Most extraordinary was the very first day after I left office, the day I said goodbye. They gave me a mobile phone for the first time. Before then, they wouldn’t let me have one. I think your new president had the same problem. I decided to send a text message to a friend. You know, How are you? Would be great to hear from you. Being technologically ignorant about texting, I didn’t know my name wasn’t on the message. He texted back saying Sorry, who are you? And I thought, it’s only been 24 hours.”
“I’m not sure how to address you,” Bishop said to Blair. “In America, you keep your title and in Britain you don’t.”
“Well,” Blair reasoned. “If I say call me PM, they say he’s obviously not got over the fact, and if I say don’t call me PM, they say God, he’s taken it so badly he can’t even hear the words.”
Since June 2007, Blair has launched the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, The Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, Breaking the Climate Deadlock, and the Tony Blair Sports Foundation.
“At the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the first focus is religious faith. People of different religious faiths. My foundation engages in very practical programs. There is now a course at Yale in faith and globalization. In time to come, those courses will be offered at places in the Far East, the Mideast, and Europe. Secondly, Faith Foundation engages in education across the faith divide to help people understand each other. Right now, I did a program in India, Bethlehem, and in the NW of England, and hope to expand that.”
Blair explained that if four billion people on the planet consider themselves people of faith, then we need to understand faith, and not just our own. And if we want sustainable change, we need to be thinking in terms of justice.
“After I left office, I went to see a friend who’s a businessman in London, a sort of a Cockney from the East End. He always gives me good advice. And I told him I really wanted to accomplish three things. What’s that mate, he asked. And I said, one, peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And he said, oh, I wouldn’t try that one. And two, religious faith and justice. And three, I’d like to try my hand at a bit of business. Well, thank God, he said. I thought you’d gone crazy for a moment.
“On religious faith, outsiders say what’s all that about? But in politics they get it immediately. The clash today is not going to be a clash of political ideology. But there is a real danger of a clash of cultures, and religion plays a big part. Four billion people identify themselves as people of faith. In Europe, if you ask is religion an important part of your life, 40% say yes. In the US, 60% say yes. In the Muslim world, 90% say yes. It matters.”
You went in to 10 Downing Street an Anglican and came out a Catholic, Bishop said to Blair. Were you affected by your experience as Prime Minister?
“No. It was personal. When I try to articulate a view of religious faith, it’s about social compassion, loving your neighbor as yourself. A man once approached Rabbi Hillel and said I’ll convert to Judaism if you recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot. And Rabbi Hillel stood on one foot and said do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Young people need access to information and to the world of faith beyond their own. Look at their educational system. Security is just a symptom of an underlying issue. Harness it with education and make sure they’re taught sensible things about religion, not that all others are infidels.”
When asked how 9/11 affected him and if he sees the need for religious literacy as part of the solution to what it represented, Blair said “It did completely change my thinking. When I look back on it now, in terms of the evolution of policy, we didn’t understand as clearly as we do now how deep the roots are. And its many regions. It’s Iran. It’s Pakistan. Yemen. Nigeria. Somalia. Lebanon. The fact is the roots of this go very deep. It’s unique in the history of foreign policy. It’s tough. You can disagree but they believe what they believe and they’re prepared to use terrorism to de-stabilize a region. It wasn’t just an attack on New York.”
And further in, “Despite my time in office, I’m still essentially an optimist. Most people, given the chance, would prefer to live peacefully. The whole art and science of peacemaking is to bring people together. And the first step is to see their point of view.
“One of the difficulties in politics is you take a position, people have a disagreement, and then people disrespect the other point of view. And they want you to say that you don’t respect the other point of view. In the end, the right way to approach it is incredibly difficult.”
Do you find that you now have less power but more influence? Bishop asked. Are you more productive doing philanthropy than government?
“Here is the real difference. Being in government today, it’s tough. The biggest change between now and then is I more or less get to choose my own entrances. During my PM, there were four military conflicts. There was a tremendous outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England. To solve the foot and mouth disease, you had to destroy the animals. People used to come up to me and say how can you kill all those sheep! all those cows! I remember asking my former assistant, why do I still get depressed whenever I see you? Every Wednesday, three minutes to twelve, and still today, wherever I go, at three minutes to twelve, I get a chill. That’s when my assistant would come and get me to go to Parliament. He’d come and say, “PM, a grateful nation awaits.”
Bishop asked, in a question from the audience, do you see a possibility for peace in the Mideast in four years?
“Yes, of course,” Blair said. “It’s possible. Very possible.”
He compared his work in the Mideast to his highly successful work in Northern Ireland. “There are a lot of differences but a key similarity is that each side is absolutely certain of its own good faith and absolutely uncertain of the other’s. But I remember what they said to me then — you don’t understand Northern Ireland, you’re an outsider. They’ll never make peace. They sat down together. It can happen.”
In considering Israel’s difficult role, Blair said, “when Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, it’s all well and good to tell Israelis not to take it too seriously, but if you’re there, that’s not so easy…. If you go to Mount Nepo, which is where Moses looked out at the Promised Land, you can actually see the lights of Jerusalem. This is a very small strip of land. That’s absolutely critical for both sides to understand.”
Blair emphasized the need to work not only top down, as he had in his government post, but bottom up, as he is able to do now in leading philanthropically-based systems for change, particularly in Africa and the Mideast. He talked about the importance of addressing the Palestinian state now. “The Arab world today actually wants this issue resolved. That gives us an opportunity. But it won’t work unless we understand what the root of the problem is — it isn’t that they can’t find agreement but that they won’t find agreement unless they see that on-the-ground reality is really up to it. Unless each side is convinced that the other side is a safe partner, they’re not going to do this deal. And that is about what happens in people lives, on the ground.”
As I rode home on the subway, I looked up to see a selected quote by Henri Poincarre, 1854-1923, from the transit authority’s “Train of Thought” series on great thinkers: “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought.”
Thank you, Henri Poincarre. And thank you, Tony Blair.
Here’s an excerpt from the description of the June 9, 2009 launch of an educational program from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation called Face to Faith:
The programme has already been taken up by schools in India, Singapore, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Thailand, Indonesia, Lebanon, the US, UK and Canada, who have recognised the programme’s potential to improve young people’s religious literacy. Young people involved in the pilot are already reporting how their understanding of the role of faith in today’s world has increased by learning from those of differing social, cultural and religious perspectives. As a student from The Indian Heights School in New Delhi commented; ‘It’s so much more interesting and real to learn directly from people of a different religion rather than simply reading about them in a book.’