Liberal Interventionism in UK’s Foreign Policy

Journal Article Analysis

Liberal Intervention in the Foreign Policy Thinking of Tony Blair and David Cameron’, with Pauline Schnapper, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26, 2 (2013), pp.330-349.

*(Originally submitted to the University of Leicester, Politics and International Relations Dept. on 10th October 2018)


The article by Daddow and Schnapper explores the role that liberal interventionism plays in British foreign policy, specifically the influence that a ‘bounded liberal tradition’ has had on such policy since 1945 (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.330). A central argument raised in the article is that ‘policy substance, policy style and party political dilemmas’ urged Blair and Cameron ‘to reconnect British foreign policy with its ethical roots, instilling a ‘bounded liberal posture in British foreign policy.’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.330). This essay presents a critique of the article’s reference to the ‘ethical’ foreign policy underpinning Blair’s liberal interventionist policy in Kosovo, by arguing that such a policy is more reflective of a pragmatic, realist approach than a liberal stance upholding the morality of human rights of victims of atrocities. Additionally, it is argued that Blair’s conception of ‘national interest’ in the context of an interdependent world is one that subordinates other concerns including the morality of ensuring justice for such victims.  

Blair’s ethical foreign policy 

The article describes Blair as having ‘charted what he liked to speak of as a ‘new’ foreign policy with ethical concerns at its core’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.345), stating that: ‘policy substance, policy style and party political dilemmas prompted the two leaders to reconnect British foreign policy with its ethical roots’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.330). This essay argues that although the inclusion of the term ‘ethical‘ by the article connotes the idea of a new, moral and perhaps ‘innovative’ approach to foreign policy, the use of the term itself is vague and conceals the substantive values underpinning it. Wheeler and Dunne, for instance, explain that ‘it is commonplace for this ‘ethical dimension’ to be cited as the principal innovation in New Labour’s approach to foreign policy’, distinguishing it from earlier administrations (Wheeler and Dunne 1998, pp. 851–852). Was Blair’s liberal interventionist policy in Kosovo motivated more by self- interest with ethical concerns acting as a justification? (Honeyman 2017, p.42); or was it underpinned by a moral approach that gravitated more towards a ‘foreign policy in which human rights abuses and intrastate war were no longer ignored or subordinated to power politics’? (Daddow and Gaskarth 2011, p. 109). An empirical evaluation of this question requires us to consider Blair’s Chicago speech in which he spoke of:

‘a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values’, adding that: ‘we cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed…” (Blair 1999).

It is submitted that Blair’s use of the phrase ‘a just war’, waged to counter ‘the evil of ethnic cleansing’ is not conclusive of the assumption that Blair’s intervention in Kosovo was indeed based on a policy that had at its core, ethical principles that encompassed the morality of, for instance, upholding the human rights of victims of atrocities. Rather, it is arguable that an apparent appeal provided by an ‘ethical’ foreign policy that addresses the plight of victims of ethnic cleansing, as Chandler argues, possibly ‘enables leaders to gain a moral authority that cannot be secured through the domestic political process.’ (Daddow 2009, p.552). The fact that Blair went on to secure an electoral victory in 2001 speaks of a degree of public confidence vested in him post Kosovo. What is left unexplored by the article, however, is the way in which Blair’s rhetorical invocation of an ethical foreign policy in his speeches contributed to his construction of the ‘reality’ which he described to be a ‘just war’. It is submitted that Blair’s reliance on the use of moral epithets such as the term ‘just war’ in justifying the intervention in Kosovo is indicative not so much of an ideological stance or ‘policy substance’ to ‘reconnect British foreign policy with its ethical roots’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.330), but more of a pragmatic, Realist approach to achieve greater national security for Britain and Europe by relying on ethical justifications to convince its allies of such an objective. It is arguable that the visible manifestation of such a latent Realist policy approach emerged post Kosovo when ‘national interests and hard security concerns seemed to reassert themselves in Afghanistan, Iraq and the so- called ‘war on terror’ (Daddow and Gaskarth 2011, p.103).

Blair’s conception of ‘national interest’

This section explores references made by the article to Blair’s use of the term, ‘national interest’, in the context of what he portrayed to be an interdependent world, and questions whether, from a realist perspective, his conception of ‘national interest’ subordinates the ethical concerns discussed in the previous section in, for instance, assisting victims of state atrocities. The article asserts that:

‘Under the cobweb model of liberalism, the concept of the national interest had to be redefined, from realist state-centrism to one more in tune with the collective solutions demanded of states living in a global village’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.339).

It is argued that the article does not adequately articulate the extent to which Blair’s use of the term, ‘national interest’, as exemplified in, for instance, his Chicago speech, was indeed meant to be defined by and be in concordance with the ‘collective solutions’ sought by interdependent states making up the global community. Blair’s doctrine of international community speech poses the fifth condition for intervening in a particular crisis as: ‘do we have national interests involved?’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.343). In justifying the need for intervention in Kosovo, Blair made the following statement in the House of Commons as quoted by the article:

‘We must act… to save the stability of the Balkan region, where we know chaos can engulf the whole of the European Union’ (Blair 1999).

Excluded from the article, but mentioned in the same speech is the following statement made by Blair:

‘There are strategic interests for the whole of Europe at stake. We cannot contemplate, on the doorstep of the EU, a disintegration into chaos and disorder’ (The Guardian, 1999).

It is arguable that Blair’s call for an interdependent response to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was motivated not so much by the need to ensure a collective form of justice against the perpetrators of the atrocities, ‘but by the fear of its destabilizing effects on the rest of Europe’ (Atkins 2006, p.280), and by implication, on Britain. Such a reading of Blair’s Commons’ speech, if juxtaposed with and interpolated in his Chicago speech, would arguably trigger the first four conditions for intervention only if the fifth on national interests was engaged, leaving the first four conditions subordinate and subject to the interpretation of the fifth. Although Blair stated in his Chicago speech that:

‘today more than ever before we are mutually dependent, and that national interest is to a significant extent governed by international collaboration’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013,  p.339),

yet, upon a closer analysis of Blair’s conception of an interdependent world, it is arguable that such an interdependency among states could lead one to conclude that ‘the remotest threat to ‘our interests’ could be invoked as part of the case for intervention’ (Atkins 2006, p.281). This potentiality for defining a state’s national interest to include intervention or non- intervention in other states inherent in Blair’s speech is arguably the consequence of pragmatic political calculations characteristic of ‘the realist emphasis on interests over justice’ (Atkins 2006, p.281).  


This essay argues that Blair’s foreign policy substance in relation to the intervention in Kosovo is emblematic of the realist stance, relying on ethics as a justification for the intervention in Kosovo rather than as a means to ‘reconnect British foreign policy with its ethical roots.’ (Daddow and Schnapper 2013, p.330). It is submitted that Blair’s conception of the national interest of a state in an interdependent world reflects the realist perspective, such that state interests are deemed to transcend other considerations such as justice for the victims of state atrocities. This is argued to be the case since the state is privileged in the way it defines its interests in relation to, for instance, securing its borders by intervening in other states. As such, this essay questions the extent to which the ‘bounded liberal’ tradition, specifically its component of ‘security through collective endeavour’ has influenced British foreign policy.


Atkins, J. (2006) ‘A New Approach to Humanitarian Intervention? Tony Blair’s ‘Doctrine of the International Community’, British Politics,1:2, pp.274–283.

‘Blair: ‘We must act – to save thousands of innocent men, women and children’, The Guardian, 23 March 1999.


Last accessed: 8 October 2018

Blair, T. (1999) ‘Doctrine of the international community’, Speech to the Chicago Economic Forum, 24 April.


Last accessed: 6 October 2018

Daddow, O. (2009) ‘Tony’s War’? ‘Blair, Kosovo and the Interventionist Impulse in British Foreign Policy’, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), 85:3, pp.547-560.

Daddow, O. and Gaskarth, J. (2011) ‘Introduction: Blair, Brown and New Labour’s foreign policy, 1997–2010’ in Daddow, O. and Gaskarth, J. (eds) British foreign policy: the New Labour years (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp.1–27.

Daddow, O. and Schnapper, P. (2013) ‘Liberal intervention in the foreign policy thinking of Tony Blair and David Cameron’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26:2. pp.330-349.

Honeyman, V. (2017)From liberal interventionism to liberal conservatism: The short road in foreign policy from Blair to Cameron’, British Politics, 12:1, pp. 42–62.

Wheeler, N. and Dunne, T. (1998) ‘Good international citizenship: A third way for British foreign policy’, International Affairs, 74:4, pp.847–870.

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