Aside from the gossip, does Christopher Meyer's Washington memoir tell us anything useful about British foreign policy? A former Europe minister considersby Denis MacShane / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
DC Confidential by Christopher Meyer
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
Leaving aside the snobbery and sneering of Christopher Meyer’s now infamous Washington ambassador’s memoir, it is difficult to find in the book any serious points about the conduct of foreign policy. He protests, for example, that the foreign secretary and senior ambassadors were kept out of key decisions by Downing Street. But prime ministers have always controlled foreign policy. It is the chancellor of Germany and the president of France who take all key foreign policy decisions, not their foreign ministers. In his new book on François Mitterrand, Jacques Attali describes a dinner with Margaret Thatcher in which she went out of her way to humiliate her foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, in front of the French president. Whatever his views on his two foreign secretaries, Tony Blair behaved with scrupulous politeness in their presence.
No 10 makes foreign policy and has done so for centuries. That is why the foreign office sends its best people to work not in embassies or even in its own offices but through its courtyard straight into Downing Street. In every key European or international decision that Blair has taken as prime minister he has been surrounded by foreign office people. Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, an unsung hero of the Northern Ireland peace process, is also a foreign office hand.
So rather than lamenting the absence of the FCO from key Downing Street decisions, Meyer should acknowledge that his fellow diplomats are closer to the centre of British state power than any other corps of Whitehall functionaries. Where the foreign office may be faulted is in the excessive time it allows a British foreign secretary to spend duplicating the prime minister’s role in seeking to be close to the US. Robin Cook was proud of the special phone he had installed which connected directly with his opposite number, Madeleine Albright, in Washington. It rang just once. A pizza delivery biker wanted to check the address for a Sloppy Giuseppe.
Good personal relations between a foreign secretary and a US secretary of state are important, but it is difficult to think of any moment in the last eight years when they made a difference. British foreign secretaries should leave Washington to the prime minister. Instead, a foreign secretary should look to Europe and east to China, India, Japan and Korea and build a network of influence to promote British interests that are primarily commercial rather than geo-strategic. No British foreign secretary has set foot in Latin America for years. Yet Latin American votes are vital in key UN decisions.
British diplomats are not meant to hold political views. What that means is they tend to be small-c conservatives—it is hard to sustain idealism and optimism while watching the cynical manoeuvring and brute national interest at play as the world’s nations try to get along with each other. Yet the low cunning of understanding politics is vital in advising what will happen next and making necessary plans.
Unfortunately, Meyer does not seem to have much interest in politics outside the Daily Mail-Spectator range of approved ideology. He was ambassador in Germany at the end of the Kohl era. I remember being horrified at how the newly elected Blair was advised to suck up to German conservatives around Kohl—the embassy had advised that the SPD would select the unelectable Oskar Lafontaine as its candidate for the 1998 election, and that therefore the CDU would stay in power. I had campaigned with Gerhard Schröder in regional elections in spring 1998, and it was obvious to me that he would be the SPD candidate, and would win. I asked the man who would emerge as German chancellor a few months later if he had ever met someone from the British embassy. He shook his head.
During the run-up to the Iraq conflict, Meyer had a seat in the upper circle, but his views on the conflict add little that is interesting or new. Blair performed a small miracle in persuading Bush to make his September 2002 speech to the UN, and to agree to a second UN resolution against the wishes of his vice-president. Bush also announced that America would rejoin Unesco, which used to be more loathed by American conservatives than the Soviet Union. Under Blair’s urging, Bush became the first US president to back a Palestinian state and the current developments in Israel are the consequence of this shift.
If Meyer believed Blair failed to use his leverage to stall the war, why did he not say so at the time? On WMD, the big lie is that there was a big lie. I can testify from meetings with every European government in 2002 that no one disputed the belief that Saddam had WMD, was hoping to reconstruct his arsenal, and was a menace to regional peace. The debate was over containment or the amount of force needed to make Saddam comply with UN resolutions.
Meyer says that a further six months—waiting until autumn 2003—would have allowed a more unified western approach. This is disingenuous. Chirac’s famous invocation—twice in the same interview—of his willingness to veto any second UN resolution in March 2003 authorising the use of force is often blamed for undermining that united response. Yet France, despite the anti-Americanism of the cultural-media elite in Paris, had always been careful not to get on the wrong side of the US in a crisis. The French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, was sent off towards the Gulf in the autumn of 2002 and France flew more sorties against the Taleban than the RAF.
What changed the dynamic of European politics was the return of German neutralism as an election-winning force for the unhappy SPD-Green coalition in the election of September 2002. The right-wing candidate, Edmund Stoiber, said that if he became chancellor he would not permit US flights over Germany in the event of conflict with Iraq. This appeal proved popular and required Schröder to trump it.
He won the election and Europe suddenly had its biggest state locked into electoral promises that threatened the Atlantic alliance. Schröder looked for support and validation of his shift to neutralism. In October 2002 he was offering Chirac a secret deal on sustaining the CAP for another decade. But as late as February 2003, the most senior officials in charge of foreign policy in Paris assured me that when the moment came France would not disconnect itself from America. However, Germany was already shaping French policy and giving fresh hope to Saddam that a divided west would allow him to survive. As Meyer demonstrates, the only game in Washington was between the Pentagon and the state department and between those policymakers who knew Iraqi history and those for whom history is bunk. The first Bush presidency had no Europe policy worthy of its name—no latter-day Harry Hopkins able to persuade Berlin and Paris not to divide the democratic world. Britain at the time of the Iraq crisis was on its sixth Europe minister in as many years, and the foreign office, despite urgings from Downing Street, had not embraced a new European politics of networking and winning political friends and influence.
Alas, none of these themes are discussed in Meyer’s book. Instead he has further damaged the foreign office—it is already being squeezed of funds as more and more British public spending on overseas policy goes to the department of international development. Yet the FCO remunerated him well, paid for his children to go to expensive private schools, secured him a knighthood, pays his generous pension and gave him the status that has brought directorships and the sinecure of the Press Complaints Commission chair. (It is hard to see how he can now stay as head of the PCC, a post which involves taking on more private confidences and personal details than lawyers and doctors. If he does stay, the PCC will be greatly damaged.)
Meyer’s cynicism is a shame, as British diplomats are hard-working, patriotic and generally committed to helping to make the world a better place. Many serve in unglamorous and hostile parts of the world. I had to attend the funeral of a young woman diplomat killed when Islamic extremists attacked the British consulate in Istanbul. I mumbled words of condolence to her parents at the service near Manchester. Her father replied: “You know what she would have wanted, minister. That we pitch a tent in the rubble of where she worked, plant a Union Jack beside it and show them Britain is still in business. That’s what our Lisa would want.” That is the foreign office I prefer to celebrate, not the gossipy self-importance of this tawdry book.