Politics - John Kampfner on the ramifications of Blair's demise

In Europe and America, people are considering the "when" rather than the "if" of Blair's eventual de

Tony Blair, the brand, has in recent years consistently sold better abroad than at home. Foreign politicians, diplomats, journalists and business leaders would extol the virtues of our young and dynamic leader, chastising us for failing to appreciate just how lucky we were. The Prime Minister's modernity was seen in Europe as communautaire and essentially un-British. In the US, Blair was seen as marrying Anglo-Saxon liberal economic values with a fluency and sense of purpose that Americans wished for their own. His ability to shift from Bill Clinton's easy cosmopolitanism to George W Bush's Bible-thumping was seen by Americans not as opportunism or ideology "lite", but as a virtue.

Iraq has shattered all that. In European embassies and media, there is no little schadenfreude as they consider the "when" rather than the "if" of Blair's eventual demise. People around the French and German leaders, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder, see the US and British failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the botched reconstruction and the Kelly affair as proof that the old world order, based around the UN and other institutions, should not have been so peremptorily dismissed. Even before the war, French and German officials were privately warning the British government of the perils of hubris. They are surprised by what has happened to Blair, but not that surprised.

It is in the US that a sense of shock has really taken hold. At a recent media seminar in New York, Blair's misfortunes were the main talking point. Participants asked, with incredulity and sadness, whether he really was finished. They wondered about the consequences for Bush. After all, Blair has been his only consistent and internationally credible ally. As one participant put it: "In the postwar news story, Bush is three to four weeks behind." Blair's problems of today are Bush's of tomorrow. A US media that has been craven towards the White House since the events of 11 September 2001 is very slowly beginning to bite back.

The ramifications extend beyond that. The admirable but hazy theory of liberal intervention has been seriously damaged, if not destroyed. It reached its apogee with the war against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo, a military attack led by the Americans, carried out through Nato and with broad international support - all in the name of human rights. The flaws, such as the inconsistent application of international standards, were evident. They were put to one side. People appreciated how Blair and Clinton had gone out of their way to bring alongside as many countries as possible, just as George Bush Sr and John Major had done in the Gulf war of 1991.

The problem Blair then faced - and failed to solve - was marrying liberal intervention to the post-9/11 US thinking of primacy, pre-emption and coalitions of the willing. That could still be done, but would require a new mindset in Washington and London, a sense of contrition, a willingness to engage again with the UN and a move towards reconciliation with "Old Europe". All of the above would be anathema to Bush. If a weakened Blair does have any clout left with the White House, he could at least try to push the president down that route. Bush will do whatever it takes to get re-elected, and if that means extricating his forces from Iraq with the help of the international community, he will do it. Chirac and the others - whose reluctance to go to war against Iraq was wilfully misinterpreted by Blair and his ministers as both weak and amoral - will now be in a position to extract a good price for their magnanimity.

Blair is unlikely to rush headlong into another conflict. Paradoxically, a man who has fought five wars in six years - a record unsurpassed by other UK prime ministers or equivalent foreign leaders - has probably made future military intervention less likely. That is by no means in the interest of those who, like Blair, have seen foreign policy as much more than an expression of narrow national interest.

The first demonstration of a new-found caution in Washington and London can be seen in Liberia, where, for all the carnage, the Americans have been reluctant to accept their responsibilities. In the Middle East, in spite of the tough-talking rhetoric, military action against Iran or Syria, which were seen by intelligence agencies as much more likely proliferators of weapons of mass destruction than Iraq, may now be less likely. As for North Korea, the only reason the US has confined itself to diplomacy is that it fears a catastrophic military response. Burma's leaders have rarely felt so little pressure. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's ruthlessness is showing no sign of wilting. The list goes on.

As he surveys the international scene from the luxury of a Barbados villa, Blair may not want to contemplate the unfortunate truth that, thanks to the mistakes made with Iraq, there may rarely have been a better time to be a dictator or torturer.