Former British prime minister Tony Blair offered a sobering, almost grim conclusion to his half-hour of prepared remarks at Lafayette College on Monday afternoon, telling the crowd of about 1,600 that for today's world leaders, "the decisions are tough and the choices are ugly."
Such an unvarnished assessment is a marked departure from the usual, more optimistic fare served up by visiting speakers, but coming from the charming Blair, those words somehow seemed easier to swallow.
Blair was, by turns, gracious, ruminative, self-deprecating, incisive and even shocking (his suggestion that the United States was going to have to learn to "share power with China" in the coming years prompted an anxious murmur from the crowd).
Near the beginning, Blair paid homage to an old political foe and former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who died of a stroke earlier in the day at age 87.
He acknowledged, with typical British understatement, that he, as a progressive leader, and Thatcher, as a conservative standard bearer, had "plenty of disagreements."
But, he said, she was a "remarkable and powerful figure" and "a very substantial and great leader," adding that like himself, she "profoundly" believed the relationship between Britain and the United States is important. "She will be missed on both sides of the Atlantic."
Blair began his talk with an anecdote about a recent conversation he had with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., when the two were at a dinner in Paris.
Casey, who was unaware Blair was scheduled to speak at Lafayette, told the former prime minister he should pay a visit to Pennsylvania, "and I told him I definitely would," Blair recalled, as the crowd laughed. "I think Bob went away convinced of his greatly enhanced powers of persuasion."
Blair sketched out the challenges now facing world leaders, saying now is an especially tough time for them because we are living in "an era of low predictability. We have to adapt very fast or be left behind. … In a very irritating way, [crises] come in their own way and on their own time."
Blair said the European economy is still at a "very, very fragile" point, and whether leaders of the European Economic Community like it or not, "the debts of one country are the debts of all."
This means, he said, that "if you're Germany, you're faced with a big bill. … And if you're Greece, you're looking at the biggest shrinkage of public sector jobs and services since World War II."
Blair then turned to the Middle East, touching on Syria and Egypt, and describing the region as being "in revolutionary turmoil [that] is not going to stop anytime soon."
He said while the short-term political solution would be to disengage, it is important to do otherwise.
The U.S. and Britain can help countries where revolutions have not taken place to evolve, and help countries where revolutions have taken place to become true democracies, Blair said.
The true test for nascent democracies, he noted, is how the majority treats minorities.
Afterward, Blair spent about 25 minutes answering some of the written questions that had been submitted by Lafayette students and faculty.
One questioner wanted to know if Blair had a time frame for results in the Middle East. "Not really," he said. "It's not a matter of time, but of will." He said there would be no greater symbol of tolerance and diversity than a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side, he said
Blair was applauded when he said the real struggle in the world is not between races or religions, "but between the open-minded and the closed-minded."
He pointed out that solutions to the world's problems are not always as simple as good versus bad, adding, "I found this out over [the decision to support the invasion of] Iraq."
Even so, he said he backs the policy recently articulated by President Obama, that the U.S. will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. "The dangers of Iran with nuclear weapon is greater than the danger of action against Iran," Blair said, "and the danger of action is considerable."
There was some improvisation by Blair during the Q&A. As he was relating a story about German dictator Adolf Hitler, a sharp, piercing shriek from the sound system filled the gymnasium, startling Blair and the crowd. "Even at the mention of the name," Blair muttered in mock disgust, to the crowd's delight.