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.

Nicholas Henderson, a former Ambassador to Warsaw, Bonn, Paris and Washington, begins by acknowledging in his turn the ‘mystification’ and ‘misrepresentation’ attaching to the role, but takes a different tack. His memoirs are a defence of the traditional role of the ambassador, as someone who mediates between individuals. For this reason, and perhaps also because he has wisely supposed that his potential readers will be more interested in tales about former British politicians than about foreign dignitaries, much of the book is taken up with the visits of politicians from the UK to embassies abroad and with the various forms of ‘unburdening’ that seem to take place on such occasions. We hear about the preparations involved when the Queen presented President Giscard d’Estaing with a dog (including teaching it to obey simple commands in French), and much about the comings and goings of Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Roy Jenkins, Prince Charles and the like – plenty of material here for a comparative study of the discourteous and the bibulous, with suggestions of an inverse correlation between the two. At one point in Henderson’s career, however, the role of ambassador acquired particular significance: during the Falklands crisis of 1982. Then, he was propelled into a central role in dealing with the White House and the US media. As we now know, much more was offered by way of American support than appeared at the time.

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is a very different kind of book, a study of two hundred years of international politics and of attempts to manage it. In essence, this is a set of lectures on the history of international relations combined with a vindication of his own period in office: a reiteration, not much revised, of the arguments already provided in his two volumes of memoirs. In his perspective, ‘diplomacy’ is not the profession of ambassadors or lesser diplomats, but grand strategy, the vision that statesmen must have in the face of a dangerous world, transcending obstructive bureaucracies and benighted domestic politics. Kissinger’s message is above all an appeal to US politicians to conceive of foreign policy as a means to establish a global order, and a plea that the twin strains of idealism and pragmatism in US foreign policy should be brought closer together. His historical survey, of balance-of-power politics in 18th and 19th-century Europe, is intended as an introduction to what he foresees as the predominant issue of the 21st century: the need to maintain the balance of power with policies that combine power and flexibility.

There are some interesting comparisons to be made between these books. Kissinger dedicates his book to the men and women of the US foreign service, but he obviously has little time for the US State Department: ‘for the most part staffed by individuals who have dedicated themselves to what is, in American society, a rather unorthodox career so that they may promulgate and implement their views of a better world’. Henderson is not entirely taken with Kissinger, ‘in poor form: bitter at the attacks on him from his own side and indignant over William Shawcross’s vendetta against him’, or suffering, like Heath, ‘from post-power frustration’. His observations of Henry and Nancy Kissinger are among his better examples of the higher gossip:

I am reading Kissinger’s book with intense pleasure and admiration. I asked him to what he attributed the great improvement in style compared with earlier books. He could offer no explanation – about the only thing I found he could not explain – except perhaps that he had not read a book for eight years. Not only is he immensely interesting to talk to but I am intrigued by the contrast between him and his wife, Nancy. She is much taller than he is and evidently has a highly sensitive nervous system, where I wouldn’t think that he has any nerves at all. She is very conscious of her surroundings and likes looking for antiques. I would guess that he is oblivious to them.

Sir Nicholas does not figure in Dr Kissinger’s account.

Dudley Edwards and Henderson offer what are, in contrasting vein, justifications of the diplomatic profession, largely unrelated to any broader assessment of how successful this profession has recently been in meeting the international challenges it faces. They thus take up the defence of the Foreign Office against the recurrent disparagement of it. This criticism, however, cannot be sidestepped, since it arises from elements deeply rooted in our political culture.

It rests on two different, and contradictory, propositions. One is that the Foreign Office is not ‘doing its job’ properly, however that job may be defined. The second is that there is no need for this ‘job’ to be done at all, either because relations with the rest of the world could be better conducted without a separate institution such as the FCO, or because all such relations are corrupting, and lead to people speaking in alien tongues, having long dinners and living in palatial houses. In this sense, the railing at the Foreign Office (like railing at Chatham House or, for that matter, at the LSE) derives from a more general attitude, pervasive in British politics. That many of those who denounce the Foreign Office are, by the standards of its working day, layabouts who have long lunches and dinners in and around a neo-Gothic palace in Westminster does little to blunt the charge.

The central problem with the Foreign Office is the degree to which it reflects the broader nature of the administration of the British State. The most common criticism made of it, that it is élitist and arrogant, endures despite the fact that its social and gender bases have been broadened by new recruitment, to which Ruth Dudley Edwards draws attention. Anyone who wants to see Whitehall conceit at its worst should attend the daily press briefings of the Foreign Office News Department, a ritualised exposure to the most obstructive side of the British élite. But the point which critics of the Foreign Office miss is that these attitudes are common to the state as a whole, and can be found as much in the ministries dealing with domestic issues as in the diplomatic service.

Nothing has brought this out more clearly than the lraqgate affair. In the papers released by the Scott Inquiry, the evasions of the Foreign Office are more than matched by those of the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Intelligence Services and, not least, Downing Street itself. Such is the common culture. Small wonder, then, that Whitehall appears to have closed ranks over the affair. My own recent chance encounters with civil servants have quickly elicited the party line in five nice variants: the public questioning of civil servants and ministers was ‘quite unfair’; this was hardly the first time we had sold arms to dictators; the very setting up of the enquiry, with the powers it had, was a mistake, and ‘called into question the judgment of the Prime Minister’; the reinterpretation of policy guidelines was not the business of Parliament anyway; the publication of the Report would create a stir for a week, and it would all then blow over. The expostulations of David Gore-Booth at the Scott Inquiry, in themselves characteristic of our robust Man in Saudi Arabia, merely voiced what others in the ‘policy-capable’ strata have been thinking, so revealing the untroubled conscience of our rulers. Some years ago, I found myself in conversation with a Soviet diplomat who expressed admiration for the effortless way in which the British state handled its affairs (particular awe being expressed at the news management of Bernard Ingham). In reply it was only possible to offer some historical perspective: ‘You must understand that while you have only been in power since 1917, they have been there since 1066.’

For Henry Kissinger, however, the inner workings of the US Government and of politics generally are merely the background to the workings of grand strategy, or a distraction from them. Kissinger has served as both analyst and politician, so it seems fair to assess his writings from both these points of view. Their strengths are evident: a broad historical sweep, a good sense of the complexities of a particular crisis, a fascination with the personality of his interlocutors and with differences in national politics. Equally evident are his weaknesses: the use of what purports to be academic history to justify or obscure his own record, an obtrusive vanity and, most seriously, a strange lack of interest in ideas. At one point, rather kindly, he cites a book of mine to bolster his argument, but overall there is rather little reference to what others have written on international affairs over the past half-century or so.

Kissinger’s record, first as National Security Adviser to Nixon, then as Secretary of State to Nixon and Ford, is one he is happy to defend: by commission, with regard to China and the strategic negotiations with the USSR; by omission, when it comes to the encouragement of the anti-Allende coup in Chile and the bombing of Cambodia. The drama of his secret mission to China, and the aura of scheming with which he, and his detractors and defenders alike, chose to envelop his period in office have served to set his record in a particular light. Yet one may wonder how particular a light it was. Kissinger’s big successes were ones open to any reasonably alert diplomat. The main purpose of his intense negotiations with Russia and China in the early Seventies – the isolation of North Vietnam – failed to work out, when Hanoi reunited the country by force of arms in 1975. In Europe, his interventions were misguided: he remained long suspicious of the Ostpolitik of Brandt and failed to see how the situation on the continent was changing.

Ironically, the initiative which had the greatest long-term impact was the one on which, in his preoccupation with grand strategy, he procrastinated, and that he appeared least able to understand: the Helsinki Final Accords of 1975, which get a mere two pages in this study. It was this agreement above all, rather than the negotiations on nuclear weapons, or the dialogue with China, which paved the way for the final weakening of Communism. It was ideas, and long-run internal social change, that undermined the Soviet bloc, not the management of the Cold War. Time and again Kissinger cites ‘over-extension’ as the main cause of the Soviet collapse, echoing Paul Kennedy’s thesis, and his own analysis in A World Restored, of the propensity of revolutionary states to overreach themselves. But it is open to question how far the commitment to the arms race and its Third World allies was the central factor in the Soviet demise. If what Kissinger alleges about overreaching is true of some revolutionaries, notably Napoleon and Khomeini, there have been many others who have known how to keep within their limits: Robespierre, Lenin and Mao among them.

It is in this repetitious assertion of the primacy of grand strategy that Kissinger’s greatest weakness as an analyst emerges: one searches in vain, in the eight hundred-plus pages of Diplomacy, for any reflection, revisionist or otherwise, on what the momentous collapse of Communism means for international relations. Indeed, the absence of any reflection on how the world of grand strategy intersects with that of economics, ideology and society marks this off as a work of limited intellectual scope. One conspicuously absent authority is Karl Polanyi, whose The Great Transformation, published in 1944, aims perceptively both to locate international politics in their social and economic setting, and to provide an alternative account of the most successful of Kissinger’s grand strategies, the 19th-century balance of power. Polanyi shows that beneath what appeared to be a strategic balance there lay other mechanisms, such as the gold standard and the management of international trade, and that it was the breakdown of these, rather than the follies of monarchs and generals, that led to the war of 1914-18. It is Polanyi’s lessons, rather than those of Kissinger, which are likely to be pertinent to the 21st century.

Where Kissinger is strongest is in his exasperation at the vacuity of much of the criticism directed at foreign policy in the US, which counterpoises a high-minded isolationism to imperialism, and sees foreign policy uniquely in terms of how its exercise may corrupt the Republic. In Kissinger’s own case this same narcissism takes the form of lamenting what Vietnam did to the US, without showing much regard for what the US did to Vietnam; in the case of too many liberal critics it denies any autonomy to the world of international relations at all, and culminates in the current idea that both sides somehow ‘lost’ the Cold War. The root cause of the discrediting of diplomatic activity in recent years has been the lack of agreement as to what action can be taken where action is possible, but much of the criticism of the UN and indeed of the US on this score has been vacuous. The UN has achieved a great deal in a number of countries over the past few years. The US, far from imposing some new hegemonic order, has, if anything, failed to fulfil the expectations which many around the world had of it.

The establishing of a link between domestic and international politics is what specialists in international affairs, both diplomats and academics, often fear the most: in this Kissinger, Henderson and Dudley Edwards, who reflects the attitudes of the FCO, are at one. Yet it is this link also which presents the greatest challenge for the academic study of international relations, and, today, the greatest challenge for the conduct of foreign policy. The difficulty in the post-Cold War world is not that of deciding whether foreign ministries have a job to do, but of finding a policy that commands domestic support in the country the ministry is meant to represent. This is as true for the USA and Russia as it is for Britain. The chronic social and economic problems faced by developed countries, exacerbated by the chauvinism of press and right-wing political movements, and allied to the disappearance of the overriding logic of colonialism or of the strategic nuclear threat, mean that there is now a reduced willingness at the level of popular opinion to conduct costly, longer-term foreign policies.

This is woefully clear when it comes to reorganising the world economy, or confronting the problems of ecological degradation; but it is evident also with regard to Yugoslavia. Much of the criticism of governmental inaction has focused on the timidity of individual politicians, or on the perfidy of other countries; and there may be much truth in these charges. But the overriding reason for the failure to adopt, and to implement, a more vigorous preventive policy has been the reluctance of public opinion throughout the developed world, and especially in the USA, to bear the costs which such a policy would entail. The roots of the failure of foreign policy and the current disparagement of diplomacy lie within, not between, states.