The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Tony Blair’s Answer

June 1, 2010

The Force of Ideas Over the Force of Arms

Shermer and Tony Blair

Last week I attended the Khosla Ventures summit at Cavello Point in Sausalito, California, an ex-army base converted to a posh resort, where the venture capitalist (he calls himself a “venture assistant”) Vinod Khosla brings together start-up CEOs and their venture backers who are together innovating new science and technologies for alternative and environmentally efficient energy sources. Vinod heard my TED talk in Long Beach in February 2010 (to be posted at in June) and invited me to explain why people believe weird things about money (“The Mind of the Market”, based on my book of the same title). Vinod hosted a fireside chat with Bill Gates and Tony Blair, and in the Q & A I raised my hand and asked Tony a question. By way of background…

Since I am in the business of spreading good ideas and debunking bad ideas, I ask this question all the time of a diverse range of people, in search of different answers to this difficult question. I believe in the power of ideas to free people and empower them—a fundamental principle that was born of the Enlightenment—but I also recognize that not everyone shares this belief, and since one of those Enlightenment principles is the freedom to disagree and the right to think and believe whatever you want as long as it does not interfere with my rights, then we can’t force people to embrace these Enlightenment values. On the other hand, we are tribal and we still live in a world with walls that are guarded by men with guns, and there are other tribes who would just as well terminate our existence or replace our Constitutional liberties with theocratic rule, we need a strong military. Thus my question for Tony Blair, and his eloquent and insightful answer:

Michael Shermer: “How can we spread liberal democracy, market capitalism, science, technology, education, the Internet, etc. globally, when there are people who are still essentially living in theocracies who, as you said, would just assume see us dead, who don’t believe in the education of women and children, who don’t believe in civil liberties and equal treatment under the law, etc., and how can we do so non-militarily? That is, how do we spread these ideas without imposing them on other people?”

Tony Blair: “It’s one of the great myths perpetrated in our own societies is that somehow people who live in oppressive or backward looking governments actually prefer it that way and that we just don’t understand their culture. You will often hear this in certain countries about the role of women when it is usually men talking about it, but any time you get the opportunity to talk to any women in those countries separated from those who might overhear them, believe it or not they tell you that they would prefer to be free and equal.”

“We have allies in this fight who are the people, most of whom want change. The thing is, however, you need the security means to stand up when you are confronted to answer back, and if you don’t you will get rolled over by them and there’s no use in thinking any different. However, the ultimate answer is not the force of arms but the force of ideas.”

“I think the 20th century was the century of fundamentalist political ideology, but the 21st century is going to be about religious or cultural ideology. The single most important thing we can do is also to provide a basis for peaceful co-existence. The best way of defeating these ideas is with better ideas. The better idea that we have in our way of life is not just about freedom and democracy, although I think those are important elements, it’s also about a basic concept of justice—the basic idea that anyone, no matter what their background, will get a chance to succeed.”


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