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A foreign minister\'s lot

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26 October 2010 09:39

Margaret Thatcher was distressed at reports that she had been bullying and dominating her cabinet. She decided to make amends by inviting her ministers to dinner at Number 10. The butler asks the Prime Minister whether she'll have the fish or meat. And the vegetables, ma'am' 'The vegetables,' says Mrs Thatcher, glancing at her ministers assembled around the dining table. 'Oh, they'll have what I’m having.'

That yarn came back to me because I've been reading a book on diplomacy by one of Thatcher's Foreign Secretaries, Douglas Hurd. Having served one of Britain's less diplomatic leaders, Hurd has produced a superb practitioner's work, surveying British foreign secretaries over two centuries. The revenge of the vegetables!

In 'Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary – 200 years of Argument, Success and Failure', Hurd approaches the Foreign Secretary's burden as an event-driven juggling act. In talking about the art and machinery of diplomacy, he has a quiet admiration for the mechanics who keep the engine purring silently.

The Foreign Secretary's key relationship is with the leader. Hurd writes that the relationship between Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister depends overwhelmingly on personalities rather than constitutional principle. The Foreign Secretary's ability to engage with his or her domestic power – the leader — determines much of the success or failure of the engagement with foreign powers.

Leaders without previous experience often develop a passionate interest in foreign policy, not least for the pleasure of 'escaping from the roughness of domestic politics into a world where they were treated with proper respect.' Those who developed such a passion included Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair:

These were highly complex characters with wildly contrasting views on the direction which foreign policy should take. What they had in common was impatience with and distaste for the detailed niceties of the Foreign Office. They also liked to convince themselves about their personal charm and ability to get important things done.

The book starts with four bangs – the discharge of pistols in a duel fought in 1809 by His Majesty's Secretary of State for War and His Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Castlereagh and Canning took to Putney Heath at dawn to confront the differences that most Cabinets deal with through argument, vote, plot and leak. The two ministers hated each other (how unusual!). Beyond personalities, their differences illustrated the questions which run through any foreign policy.

What should be the balance between the interests of a nation and the ideals which its leaders or its people profess' Is an ethical foreign policy a contradiction, or a hypocrisy, or a realistic ambition'...What is the role of alliances between nations' Of international institutions with rules binding all' How important is national prestige and how is it best expressed and sustained'

Castlereagh's answer lay in quiet negotiation and compromise. Canning preferred a noisier foreign policy emphasising independent British action and liberal causes around the world.

Over two centuries, Hurd traces these key questions through the problems that confronted his predecessors. Hurd embraces Salisbury's view that good foreign policy means behaving as any gentleman would, in order to get on with his neighbours. To meet an adversary or a bad ruler is an act of good sense, not surrender: 'A handshake is not an absolution.' But good manners and good methods are not enough. Foreign policy needs a moral foundation as well as the instruments of power.

In his epilogue, Hurd concludes that the invasion of Iraq meant 'the discrediting through misuse of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.' The case for invading Afghanistan 'was and remains very strong. But it has been weakened by adversity and by a failure to communicate effectively the limits of our ambition.'

As he concludes, Hurd expresses his creed for a Foreign Secretary: 

We should do good where we can, but not pretend that we can do good everywhere. Rhetoric, however sincere, which disregards the facts is a corrupter of policy. Method remains important, and the rules of method have hardly altered. To listen as carefully as you speak; to speak from a background of knowledge; to study the character, the background and motives of those with whom you deal; to form your own judgement of your interlocutor rather than accept automatically the judgement of others; to practise courtesy and patience unless you decide that harsh words and impatience will help you to your objective; to store clearly in your mind your understanding, agreed when necessary with your colleagues, what that objective is; to calculate how much of what in that objective you can abandon in discussion in order to achieve what is essential; to explain clearly and truthfully before and after your discussion what you have done and why – these are the rules of diplomacy.

In researching the book, Hurd spent some weekends at St Deiniol's, the library founded by Gladstone at his home. It is, he writes, a magnificent library, 'frequented alike by exhausted rectors in need of a rest, eager theologians and Liverpool football fans.'

Staying at St.Deniol's, Hurd was allotted the Lindisfarne Room, which had a book about the Lindisfarne Gospels, containing two deliberate mistakes of calligraphy. The Anglo-Saxon monks who copied and illustrated the Lindisfarne texts inserted the mistakes 'to underline the truth that only God can achieve perfection.' Now there's a thought to console any exasperated Foreign Secretary, or even an Australian Foreign Minister.

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