The dustbin of history?
Dear Sir David,
We briefly overlapped, I recall, as schoolboys at Winchester, but I remember you better from the time in the early 1990s when I was reporting from the UN in New York and you were the British ambassador there. You were much admired by the journalists for your capacity to skip out of security council meetings with extraordinary rapidity to the corridor outside-where the television cameras would be waiting. Invariably you would get your version of events across before that of Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador-never your favourite, I believe. I thought then that you were a wonderful operator and often wondered whether you had not missed your vocation-you could have been an actor or even a politician. But I guess a good diplomat must also have a sense of theatre.
I had gone to New York for the Guardian to see whether the UN had a future in the post-cold war era. There was a good deal of talk after 1989 about a possible new world order, and some people thought that the UN might be revived as a valuable tool for the conduct of international relations. The Guardian, with its traditional sympathy for the peaceful resolution of conflict, was interested to know whether the time had come to upgrade its coverage of the institution.
I confess that even before I arrived in New York I was but a lukewarm supporter of the UN. I did not take the rightwing line that it was a positive menace. I saw it more as an irrelevance. I suspect that you too, after half a lifetime dealing with the evolving dynamics of Europe, must have wondered whether you had been put out to grass when sent to New York.
It is difficult now to remember that once there was tremendous political support in Britain for the UN. When I was at Oxford in the late 1950s, the UN Association was the largest political club in the university (level pegging with CND). The Congo crisis, handled by the UN for several years, attracted even more attention than the affairs of Yugoslavia have done in recent years. Working at Chatham House in the early 1960s, I recall there being at least two researchers working on UN affairs, as well as a full-time librarian dealing with the UN’s formidable printed output.
Yet by the time of the Reagan-Thatcher…