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…