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Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XXXIII

July 1996
Has Diplomacy a Future?

Delivered by:
The Rt Hon Douglas Hurd, CH, CBE, MP.
Member of Parliament since 1974, currently representing the Witney
constituency, within which Ditchley Park lies. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(1989-95), Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1984-85) and for the Home Department (1985-89), HM Diplomatic Service (1952-66), a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation.
The world is run on a paradox. On the one hand the essential focus of loyalty remains the nation state, and there are nearly two hundred of these. On the other hand, no nation state, not even the single superpower, the United States of America, is capable of delivering to its citizens single-handed the security, the prosperity or the decent environment which the citizens demand. The nation state is immortal : the nation state is incapable. So long as that paradox remains, and it will certainly remain during the lifetime of everyone present, there is a need for diplomacy to reconcile the two parts of the proposition. The needs of the world can only be met by nation states working together more effectively than ever before. Diplomacy is the means by which this can be achieved. Discussing the controversy at the beginning of this century between old and new diplomacy, Edward Grey said wisely “What is diplomacy? Either there is no such thing or it is something that exists in all dealings of men with each other. Business men use it in transactions with one another, the negotiations of Federations of Employers with Trade Unions, and of one Trade Union with another are full of it; men on every committee use it. It is called ‘diplomacy’ when Governments, which are the executive committees of nations, are dealing with each other, because it then has certain forms. Representatives of Governments call each other Excellency, and so forth, but the game they play is fundamentally the same as if they were called Tom. Dick or Harry. The honest man could and did play it as honestly in Diplomacy as the honest man in business or on the executive of a Trade Union. The dishonest man will be no more honest in a new diplomacy than in the old.”

Since the time of Edward Grey there have been two massive changes in the way in which diplomacy functions. First, the creation of a multitude of international organisations, and thus of multilateral diplomacy. In a way this multilateral diplomacy is more traditional than the modern diplomacy between state and state. The modem ambassador, for example in Paris or Rome, has a range of interests and duties which would totally mystify his predecessors 150 years ago. But Talleyrand and Metternich would be at home in the diplomacy of the United Nations or the European Union - small groups of highly intelligent professionals cut off by their way of life from the societies in which they live, working subtly but strenuously in constantly shifting alliances to achieve both a national and international objective.

The second change is what, in my new profession as a banker, I have learned, alas, to call the globalisation of communications. The Foreign Secretary today can, within hours, meet any of his colleagues across the world face to face. Nor does he even need to do that. The written and spoken word travels faster than the aeroplane. Instant face to face communication is easy and normal. There is a temptation here to be resisted. I have known one or two foreign ministers who thought for a few weeks at the beginning of their period of office that matters could best be settled by telephoning their counterparts or meeting those counterparts at four eyes only. They quickly realised that they were putting themselves at a disadvantage if they deprived themselves of the background, information and judgement which it is the fundamental purpose of a diplomatic service to provide.

It is sometimes argued that among all the continents Europe can break out of the paradox which I have described and that the structure of European unity will include a monolithic foreign policy. I do not think this likely. I am strongly in favour of building a common European foreign policy brick by brick. I wish that we had all made quicker and more effective use of the intergovernmental provisions of the Treaty of Maastricht. There would be great advantage for example in agreeing and proclaiming a common European policy towards Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, so that we could be valid partners with the United States in the greatest single diplomatic problem which confronts us. There is no difference of principle or of interest which impedes this. It is more important to agree and operate a common policy where a common policy is needed than to refine arguments about majority voting which in practice could be no substitute for agreement. But a European policy will be agreed between nations and executed by nations working together.

Against this background the modem diplomatic service has three main functions. I speak particularly of Britain, but I do not think the pattern would be very different in other substantial countries. It is not enough simply to talk in the jargon of our profession about the cultivation of ‘friendly bilateral relations’. Indeed I used to cross this phrase out when it came up in drafts of minutes which I was invited to send to my colleagues, particularly those in the Treasury. It is a phrase replete with that cosy vagueness which makes outsiders suspicious of diplomats. We need to be more specific.

The first specific task is the accumulation and use of relevant information. On the whole Embassies are not now needed to report immediate and dramatic events. The news of a coup, a terrorist attack, even a substantial famine, will be flashed across the world without benefit of Ambassadors. But the modem media are far less competent in the routine reporting of ordinary events, of what is actually said and done. Television is confined by the sound-bite. The written press, at least in Britain, has deteriorated in quality perhaps faster and further than any other institution. We are confronted each day with acres of comment and gossip about abroad, but a dearth of actual reporting of what has occurred. If the Foreign Secretary wishes to know what President Chirac or Chancellor Kohl actually said on a particular occasion, or the content of one of their decisions, it is no good looking to most British newspapers. You need an agency tape backed up by a report from the Embassy in Bonn or Paris.

Next under this heading of information comes analysis and the perilous business of predicting the future. The quality of this part of the output from our own Diplomatic Service is high. The briefs which a Prime Minister or a Foreign Secretary receive, for example before making a foreign visit, provide them with an understanding, and therefore a self confidence, which they could not gain in other way. My criticism would be that this output is too narrowly used. In Victorian days the Foreign Office used to publish blue books containing the despatches of their representatives abroad on a particular subject. Of course there is material which would have to be kept apart for reasons of security and confidentiality. But I see no reason why the Foreign Secretary should not provide to the Select Committee of the House of Commons for publication a wide range of diplomatic reporting reasonably soon after it is issued. I do not see, for example, why we need to wait 30 years for the publication of most of the diplomatic correspondence about Bosnia or the Gulf War.

This information is also directly relevant to British commercial interests. I have been looking at the way in which our Export Credit Guarantees Department weights the potential risk attaching to overseas projects. The rating is as follows:

Financial factors 50%
Structural economic factors 20%
Political strategic factors 30%
The first two categories of risk, namely financial and structural/economic, are broken down into subheadings such as the total debt service ratio or the ratio between the current account deficit of a country and its GNP. There is no such breakdown of the 30 per cent of risk assessment allocated to political strategic factors. But it is precisely this 30 per cent risk on which the judgement of an overseas post can be brought to bear. Yet even now, despite the improved understanding between overseas missions and British industry and finance, I find considerable ignorance in the City of London of the knowledge which could be made available to them by the Foreign Service representatives whose salaries they help to pay. British firms still rely too much on odds and ends of anecdote and press comment to build up their judgement of those political strategic factors, when a much more professional assessment is available should they have the wit to ask for it.

The second main function of a diplomatic service is negotiation. On this I need say less, since it is the best known and has changed least over the years. Particularly when successful it attracts little attention, but continues to be as technically demanding as ever. In my time I recall as haphazard examples the long drawn and painful negotiations with the Chinese about the new Hong Kong Airport, the negotiations with Argentina about fish and then about oil around the Falkland Islands, and the negotiation which brought Denmark back on board, dripping but safe, after her people rejected the Treaty of Maastricht in their first Referendum of June 1992. All these three were traditional negotiations, involving technicians and lawyers brought together under the leadership of professional diplomats, and in the final stages requiring continued efforts of well-briefed politicians who had built up a relationship of trust with those with whom they were dealing. In each of these three cases the result was thoroughly satisfactory to British interests. If I had to choose a particular operation which made proud of our own Foreign Service I would pick the Danish one conducted between June and December 1992. The different layers of diplomatic action in all European capitals, the ballet of legal argument, the sensitive relationship with Danish politicians, the handling of parliamentary opinion here, the skilful use of the British Presidency to focus attention, and finally the triumphant performance of the Prime Minister in the December Summit in Edinburgh, handling simultaneously from the chair several tense subjects, could be a model to be studied by all budding diplomats. I shall not forget those three crowded winter days in the Caledonian Hotel and Holyrood House or the talent and energy of the team which we deployed. If we had failed then Denmark might have pulled us overboard too, or indeed the whole boat might have been swamped.

The third and most important task is direct promotion on the spot of British interests. Under this heading comes a range of objectives much wider than a century ago, and growing wider all the time. The Ambassador lives and works at the crossroads where trade, finance, politics, culture, tourism and a mass of other human activities, intersect. He has the fascinating task of encouraging this flow, removing obstacles, bringing people together, promoting in its widest sense the interests of Britain and its people. We are, despite occasional appearances, an outward- looking people, thriving on contacts with the rest of the world, requiring the maximum freedom of trade, happiest when dealing with governments with show a decent respect for their own people. Our representatives can thus rightly give a broad interpretation to British interests - to cover for example a sizeable aid programme and the presence of British troops in Rwanda, Angola and Bosnia, none of them countries with which we would have been concerned under a narrow or purely historical definition of British interests.

I leave to another occasion the issues raised by Martin Bell in his strongly-felt talk at Chichester on Wednesday. As he acknowledges this debate is as old as democracy. A British Government has to take decisions about Britain’s contribution to a decent world against a background of opinions such as those of Martin Bell, who believes that we should intervene against wickedness and savagery wherever it occurs as a matter of principle, and those like Simon Jenkins, who believe that any such intervention is folly and that whether in South Africa, Ireland or Bosnia, people should be left strictly alone to settle their own affairs. It is a crucial debate and I would like to return to it.

A diplomatic service costs money, not much money, but the subject cannot be avoided. I had hoped that by now we would as a country have taken a realistic look at the costs of our overseas effort after the end of the Cold War, including defence, trade promotion, the aid programme and the Foreign Office budget. The Foreign Office budget stands at about £1.2 billion, excluding aid but including the British Council and the BBC World Service. £1.2 billion amounts to 0.4 per cent of public spending. In the last public expenditure settlement the Foreign Office budget was cut by £82.5 million for each of three successive years, a decline in real terms of 12 per cent by 1998/99. Before these cuts France was spending roughly twice as much on overseas diplomatic activity as the United Kingdom, and Germany half as much again as we do. These comparisons are not straightforward because different activities come under different headings in the three countries, but the figures are broadly correct. Within the Foreign Office budget the British Council and the BBC World Service struggle for their living. Their case is strenuously put and though they take their share of pain, I do not think that they take more than their share of pain. It tends to be the Foreign Service itself which takes any extra pain which is going. This happens because neither ministers outside the Foreign Office nor parliamentarians yet understand sufficiently the modem purposes of the Foreign Service as I have tried to describe them.

We now have a revised system of assessing public expenditure which would, I hoped, have enabled a deeper look at the relative importance for Britain of different items than took place when the Treasury simply insisted on percentages across the board. I have negotiated with half a dozen Chief Secretaries, some of whom have had the courtesy to absorb and understand my arguments before rejecting them. The difference between the old and new system of assessing public spending is not as great as I had hoped. I thought that I had persuaded my colleagues of the need to enhance our civilian overseas effort under the different headings I have mentioned. ‘Enhance’ is a good Whitehall word and eventually you will find it in the documents. We had made reasonable progress in working out how this enhancement was to be achieved. I am not sure that I ever used the phrase constantly attributed to me about Britain punching above its weight. (Since journalists live off press cuttings the fact that a quotation is often repeated is no guarantee of accuracy, and I have not been able to trace this one.) But at least we should punch to our weight. Some years ago we reached the end of the decades of British decline. Our military and economic strengths are now broadly stable; there is no reason why our diplomatic strength should have to shrink further. Public and parliamentary opinion expect us to play across the world the role of an effective and experienced medium sized power. We cannot do that if we finance only a second-rate overseas effort.

This is not an argument for complacency inside the Foreign Service. The case for a professional Foreign Service is strong provided it is not rigid. It is not perhaps as long-established as some would suppose. I came across recently the following comment by Lord Derby in his diary dated 9 August 1876. The Prime Minister felt that Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Constantinople had embarrassed the Government by slowness in reporting the Bulgarian atrocities with which Mr Gladstone was making great play. Lord Derby noted
‘.. Cabinet at 10.30, sat about an hour, discussing foreign affairs exclusively : with substantial agreement, but there was on the part of Disraeli a determination to find fault with Sir H Elliot, which I though unjust, and said so. He is however evidently nervous, and uncomfortable about the Bulgarian business, which may be an excuse. I think also that it is an annoyance to him that ambassadors should be permanent officials: he would like to have them changed with every change of ministry: in fact he persuaded Malmesbury in 1852 to revert to this, which was the old system: with the effect of raising against Malmesbury an outcry which made him unpopular, and from which he never quite recovered.’
I cannot resist adding the next paragraph.
‘... We settled to send somebody as a consular agent in Bulgaria - not that he will be of the least use but to satisfy people that there is not going to be any repetition of the acts of the bashi-bazouks.’
An early example of the CNN factor in action.

I am in favour of the occasional properly qualified politician taking a diplomatic post ‘pour encourager les autres’. The argument nowadays is more often for an onrush of businessmen into top diplomatic positions. I do not think individual appointments should be excluded, but the basic argument here is misguided. An Ambassador is not needed in order to duplicate the skills of the British exporter. He is there to supply in partnership the 30% of political judgement which businessmen have already identified as necessary for achieving or succeeding in a contract.

There needs to be a determined effort, in which Britain can play a lively part, to cut down the sheer quantity of international comings and goings. There are far too many meetings. New types of meeting are constantly being invented, but none abolished. The G7 Summit, which started as a fireside chat, has developed into a monster, replete with sherpas, preliminary meetings and a massed press corps. Recent efforts to slim it down to do not seem to have been wholly successful. The Secretary General of the United Nations, whoever he or she may be, needs to receive a firm mandate to carry on work already begun. So far as the UN is concerned, we are still in the age of barons guarding their agencies like mediaeval castles. Much nearer home, brevity is a virtue which seems to have gone out of the window as the fax and deciphering machines came in at the door.

But if I am right in my general thesis, then there is no need to look for our black ties and organise a dutiful memorial service for diplomacy. Diplomacy will survive because it will continue to be necessary. Whether it is successful or unsuccessful, healthy or sickly, is a different question which has to be tackled in different ways in different generations. What we need in this country is a greater awareness of our overseas role - a quiet continuous self-confidence based on thorough knowledge and successful use of our real assets. Politicians and professional diplomats have a shared role in cultivating the soil here in Britain. In a democracy like ours, overseas efforts can flourish only out of an educated public opinion. I am not depressed on this score. Efforts are made from time to time to pervert our self-confidence into prejudice, to argue that we can best assert ourselves by insulting our partners, customers and allies. We have just had two examples - the beef crisis, and handling by part of the press of Euro ‘96. In both cases the public reacted sharply, and in time to prevent real harm. Luckily more and more people now have experience of their own of the world beyond our shores. They can use this experience to reject the caricatures with which they are confronted.

Seven miles down the road from here Burford School in my Constituency is entertaining this week eight school children and three teachers from Bishop Dunstan’s School on an island in Lake Victoria. None of the visitors had left Uganda before. This visit will hugely influence their lives. Here we see the quiet assets of England at work. History, because of the Bishop who founded the School. Language, because there is no other country in Europe where the visitors could feel so quickly at ease. Money, a small part from public funds, the greater part raised by Burford School. Openness, since the parents and teachers here find it quite normal to receive Ugandan children and send their own children last year and next year to Uganda. If Sir Edward Grey was right, then my Constituents too are diplomats. He was right.
Perhaps we all need to remember that diplomacy, even more than charity, begins at home.