War, war, war, says Tony

I'm told that a handful of readers were incensed by my suggestion last week that - in comparison with predecessors in No 10 - Tony Blair simply does not measure up when it comes to foreign policy. From my vantage point across the Atlantic, I clearly underestimated the extent of current Blairmania in the UK - even among New Statesman readers. My point was that heavyweights such as Gladstone and Churchill came into office with a depth of experience and knowledge to which Blair could never even remotely come close. His sole experience of foreign affairs when he entered office in 1997 was that he had been a waiter while a student in France: "Deux bieres, monsieur? Certainement!" - I don't know, but I suspect he got a good A-level French grade, and that's pretty well about it.

In make-believe Britain of 1999, it's conveniently overlooked that Blair started as Prime Minister two years ago with no experience of running anything whatsoever. Bill Clinton, at least, had managed a small and backward state for 12 years. But it's no coincidence, I fear, that he likewise entered the White House in 1993 with a similarly woeful lack of experience when it came to formulating international policies and strategies. His predecessor, George Bush, for example, had been vice-president for eight years, as well as director of the CIA and US ambassador to both China and the United Nations, before becoming president.

Before we go any further, though, one of my periodic NS reality checks. In the skies over Serbia, there are currently 815 US aircraft flying Nato missions; they have now been strengthened by 36 F-15s, 12 F-16s and 20 KC-135 refuelling aircraft. France is providing 102 Mirage, Jaguar, Super-Etendards and others. Britain's donation is just 38 Harrier GR-7s, Tornado GR-1s and support aircraft. In other words, the recent US reinforcements alone amount to more than the UK's total commitment in aircraft power since the bombing began - and, as I've pointed out before, British lives are being put at risk by the politicians every time pilots are sent up in second-division aircraft such as Tornados because of the need for political symbolism and the appearance of a Nato front united in resolve.

If nothing else, the Serbian conflict has already taught Americans a lesson that proud Europeans (including the proudest of all, the British) find hard to swallow: that, even when it comes to a relatively small-scale conflict such as this one, Nato is unable to defend European territory without the US military. That is why Americans are getting a teeny-weeny bit fed up with the likes of Blair prattling on about the need for war, war, war. It has taken a recently retired senior German officer, General Klaus Naumann, to point out that the US alone spends around $36 billion a year on defence research and development, compared with $10 billion spent annually by all the other 17 European Nato countries and Canada combined. Last year the US spent, on average, 50 per cent more of its GNP on defence than all other Nato members.

The second reality check: two definitive statements from the most powerful members of Nato unequivocally repudiate Blair's stance. "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight war," said Clinton on 24 March; Gerhard Schroder then pronounced, on 18 May, that sending in ground troops was "unthinkable" and that "this is our position and it won't change in the future". Recently, an international Louis Harris poll found 56 per cent of European people opposed to a ground attack and only just over a third in favour.

So with this, with Germany effectively exercising a veto over Nato's future Serbian policy, and with Clinton chuntering away as ineffectually as ever, why did our crusading Prime Minister seriously think he was ever going to change the minds of Germany, the rest of Europe and the US? Has he, as his spinners would now have us believe, been obliquely trying to draw attention to Europe's inability to defend itself? Is he bidding for some vague moral leadership of a militarily beefed-up, new Labour-dominated Europe, in which he will be GOC (St Albion's Battalion)?

Or did he - as seems more likely to anybody who has seen it all unfold from the perspectives of both sides of the Atlantic - disastrously miscalculate the intentions of the US? Has his bellicosity been purely for his national constituency, one apparently still so supportive because it's cheered on by a fawning media easily won over by the latest Blairite spin? The fact on which he is now banking is that American, British, French and other Nato troops are now virtually certain to go into Kosovo - but as peacekeepers, a point his spinners won't stress. In increasingly parochial Britain, telly newsfilm of our boys in military uniform in Kosovo will be seen as vindication of Blair's apocalyptic rhetoric, rather than the precise opposite.

Here, there are bigger fish to worry about than Blair, and he seems to have his domestic audience sewn up in any case. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's peace envoy, has angrily pointed out that, before Nato's bombing, 57 per cent of Russians were friendly towards the US and 28 per cent hostile; now, the figures are 14 and 72 per cent respectively, he says.

That other scowling new figure strutting on to the US stage with such drama - Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese ambassador in America - is now terrifying Washington with wonderfully contrived indignation and anger. The Kosovo tragedy may have taught Britain and Europe how desperately they need the US. It has taught America just how much it still needs the political goodwill of powers it has arrogantly swept aside, like Russia and China, if there is to be anything approaching stability in the Balkans - or anywhere else.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo