Lying abroad

Fred Halliday

  • Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger
    Simon and Schuster, 912 pp, £25.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 671 65991 X
  • True Brits: Inside the Foreign Office by Ruth Dudley Edwards
    BBC, 256 pp, £16.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 563 36955 8
  • Mandarin: The Diaries of Nicholas Henderson by Nicholas Henderson
    Weidenfeld, 517 pp, £20.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 297 81433 8

The conduct of foreign policy has of late fallen into disrepute. The confusions of the post-Cold War world have made diplomacy seem especially futile. Economic decline has turned attention to the cost of overseas display, and the disappearance of a single external object of confrontation has reduced the public sense that external commitments matter to the country. In apparent reflection of this, and for all their differences of focus, these three books share a common defensive tone.

In the British case, the conventional justification for diplomacy – that it helps governments to foresee and manage change – appears especially thin. In the Thatcher years there was a semblance of diplomatic success amid the triumphalism: in retrospect, it is evident how many events were incompetently managed. Two wars, over the Falklands and Kuwait, could have been prevented if those responsible for judging the consequences of our actions had been more alert and taken appropriate pre-emptive measures. On South Africa, the greatest political issue involving the Third World, and the club of former colonies in the Commonwealth, this country stubbornly resisted the one policy which, combined with resistance from within, was to bring the Pretoria regime to its senses – namely, sanctions. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, the British Government continued for months to insist that it would take a decade or more to achieve German unity – little wonder that some in Bonn observed an uncanny resemblance between the name of our Foreign Secretary and the German word for ‘obstacle’, Hürde. (The memoirs of Germans involved in the reunification negotiations, whether Horst Teltschik for Bonn in 329 Tage or Ulrich Albrecht for East Berlin in Die Abwicklung der DDR, show British diplomacy in a particularly sorry light.) To this catalogue may be added the Government’s obstructive posturing on European integration, its confused policy on the former Yugoslavia and its pseudo-populist sneering about ‘abroad’ (take John Major’s especially silly remark that he would not choose to spend a weekend in any of the countries he has visited over the past few years – even though he spends summer holidays in Portugal). An additional element of seediness came with the revelations of the Scott Inquiry, and the evident surprise of ministers and officials alike that they should be accountable, in public, for what they have said and done.

This malaise is not, of course, unique to our own time. It derives some of its potency from more long-term, in some cases enduring, problems. One is the growth of diplomacy within international organisations, much of it concerned with economic and technical issues, that may make less call on the skills of the traditional diplomat. Another is the speed of contemporary communications, which reduces the initiative of embassies even as it deluges them with reports and faxes. Nor has the role of ambassador ever been devoid of ambiguity, though the 17th-century description of ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad’ was, as Henderson points out, meant ironically. The issues of foreign policy, moreover, are not free from passion and contempt; indeed, the role of the irrational is even greater in forming attitudes to international than to domestic matters. Hatred, fear, grandiloquence, greed and naivety do much to determine the views of public and politicians alike. Where, as in Britain, we have the contribution – the equivalent of an ideological open drain – of a press committed to promoting contempt towards the rest of the world, these traits are accentuated.

Given all this, it is not surprising that these three books should strike a rather apologetic note. Ruth Dudley Edwards begins her portrait of life in the Diplomatic Corps with the words: ‘Of all British Civil Service departments, the Foreign Office has the most negative public image.’ Her task is both to show how useful the Foreign Office is to British interests, and to dispel the charges, of élitism, amateurishness and pomposity, conventionally levelled against it. Apart from re-affirming the prejudice of the diplomats themselves that domestic public opinion is a nuisance, her most striking lapse is to endorse the in-house explanation of why the UK has so much trouble with the other members of the European Union: all the others, it seems, have unpleasant memories, of Fascism or wartime occupation, to disturb them. This is a strange endorsement to come from someone like Dudley Edwards, who has Irish connections. It also overlooks what may after all be the greatest British problem with ‘Europe’ – its own unresolved memory of empire.

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