Skip to Content

Books

Home thoughts from abroad

This book is companion to a television series (though the times seem slightly out of joint — on the front cover we are told that it is ‘As seen on the BBC’ while at the back the series is described as ‘first broadcast in 2010’).

25 November 2009

12:00 AM

25 November 2009

12:00 AM

Getting Our Way Christopher Meyer

Weidenfeld, pp.320, 18.99

This book is companion to a television series (though the times seem slightly out of joint — on the front cover we are told that it is ‘As seen on the BBC’ while at the back the series is described as ‘first broadcast in 2010’).

This book is companion to a television series (though the times seem slightly out of joint — on the front cover we are told that it is ‘As seen on the BBC’ while at the back the series is described as ‘first broadcast in 2010’). As such, perhaps unfairly, few would expect it to be scholarly or profound. Sir Christopher, certainly, has no pretensions to either. Getting Our Way is an enjoyable scamper through 450 years of British diplomatic history: from Henry Killigrew negotiating with the Scots at the end of the 16th century to the tribulations of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Any rational foreign policy, Meyer maintains, must be based on national interest. The three pillars of this are Security, Prosperity and Values. Each is examined in turn. The first two are pretty straightforward. Meyer’s main preoccupation is to establish that, though much has changed, the essentials of diplomacy remain the same. The qualities of good foreign servants are unaltered: tact, endless patience, charm, a good memory, a dash of low cunning, a profound understanding of the country to which they are accredited, resistance to the temptation to ‘go native’ or to commit the ‘ultimate diplomatic sin’ of losing touch with their own country.


Some of the analogies Meyer draws between the past and the present seem a little strained. When Killigrew had a secret audience with Queen Elizabeth in the completely secure surroundings of Woodstock the reader is not much enlightened by being told that this was the equivalent of today’s ‘secure speech’ room in embassies. Nor does a parallel between a ball at the Congress of Vienna and the Red Cross Ball at Palm Beach, Florida, carry complete conviction. But on the whole, Meyer convinces the reader that, though today’s Foreign Service may be demoralised and confused, the tasks that it confronts and the skills required to accomplish them are much as they have always been.

Meyer often uses his own career to illustrate parallels with the past. He compares the rebuffs met by British diplomats, who tried in the 19th century to open Canton to foreigners, to his own experiences in Russia when he was refused permission to travel outside Moscow on the grounds that the local hotels were not up to scratch. His wife, he insists, was as essential a partner in his work as Emily Castlereagh had been for her husband in Vienna. This is fair enough, but at times the author is unduly obtrusive. Is the reader really any the wiser for knowing that Macartney, when he was despatched to Peking in 1793, was ‘more or less the age at which I went as Ambassador to Washington’? Or that, again in a comparison with Macartney, ‘I could never have hoped to have kept close to the political opposition to General Franco . . . without good Spanish and an ability to read Catalan’? To express his admiration of Henry Elliot’s trenchant despatch on the Turkish massacres in Bulgaria, Meyer bestows the accolade, ‘I could not have bettered [it] myself.’ Could praise be higher?

The final section, on Values, is both more controversial and more interesting. Meyer ridicules the well-meaning efforts of David Owen to assess the countries of the world in terms of their observance of human rights and to adjust foreign policy in the light of their standing. To mark a government out of ten on this basis might serve some purpose but it could not tell you

the relative weight to give the mark against competing strategic, political and economic interests. Arms sales to a Third World despot? Looks like an open-and-shut case. But what if the contract will guarantee several thousand jobs in a politically sensitive constituency?

The national interest, Meyer insists, must be the overriding factor in the formulation of foreign policy. Britain had no vital interest in Abyssinia while it was critically important that Italy should not be thrust into the arms of Germany; the Hoare-Laval pact was thus a perfectly sensible plan. The only trouble was its presentation, and the fact that it failed to take account of public opinion. The ethical element can never be altogether ignored, but it must only be a part, and not the most important part, of the equation.

When values become detached from reality, and tip over into ideology and messianism …. the first casualty is the national interest. Who paused to think in March 2003, as Britain and America invaded Iraq, that the strategic beneficiary would be Iran?

Meyer has strong views and expresses them well. This is an entertaining and modestly instructive book. But if you wait for the television series you will not be missing much.


Show comments
Close