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Summer Reading: Ever the Diplomat

July 22, 2014


Sir Edward Grey 1914

As the anniversaries of key events leading to the outbreak of the First World War start to fall almost on a daily basis, I like to imagine the scene in the institution that was at the heart of the crisis: Britain’s Foreign Office. Smartly-dressed clerks scuttling around the building carrying telegrams from the ministries of other protagonists; reports from the Britain’s far-flung embassies describing meetings, opinions and hunches; morning-suited mandarins and ministers drifting in and out of their ornately furnished offices; foreign envoys waiting in anterooms waiting to meet the man at the apex of this venerable organisation: Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary.

Not a bad time, then, to read Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles’s latest book, Ever the Diplomat. In writing his memoirs, Cowper-Coles is following a long tradition on the part of retired diplomats. As he points out in the book, a diplomatic career doesn’t earn you a fortune, so I’m sure the royalties help. A couple of years ago I read his last effort, Cables from Kabul, in which he tellingly portrayed the consequences of of the muddled thinking behind the West’s intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11.

In Ever the Diplomat he covers his pre-Afghanistan career. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have been desperately happy with the subtitle Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin, which sounds a bit like the latest in a series of sleazy tomes that started with Confessions of a Window Cleaner. As he himself notes in the introduction, there are limits imposed by obligations of confidentiality as to what he can say, so much of what he writes is in the form of personal reminiscence likely to offend nobody.

That said, it’s an interesting read. Cowper-Coles comes over rather like Forrest Gump with brains. At the heart of many significant events over the past twenty five years in which British diplomats played a part, was Sherard. The Lebanese civil war, Sadat’s assassination, Hong Kong at the handover, Paris when Diana died, Saudi Arabia during the Al-Qaeda attacks on Western expatriates and finally Afghanistan, where he ended his public career as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative.

In many respects I would have loved to have worked in the FCO. The life of a top career diplomat – hopping from one foreign post to another and enjoying the lavish (though now fast diminishing) facilities accorded by Her Majesty’s Government to its senior diplomats – would definitely have appealed, but I fear that I would have been too much of an outsider, both in attitude and background. The world Cowper-Coles moves is inhabited by insiders. Public school, Oxbridge, distinguished ancestors, connections everywhere made him eminently suitable material. Having said that, the days when the nice but dim second sons of the great and the good could forge themselves comfortable careers in the Diplomatic Service seem to be over. Nowadays connections are useless without intelligence, discretion and good judgement, all qualities which the author seems to have in abundance.

Exalted insider though he undoubtedly is, Cowper-Coles comes over as refreshingly unpompous, and not afraid to mock himself, even if he occasionally appears a tad self-satisfaction, which I supposed he’s entitled to be. He is an expert in damning with faint praise, but tends to be annoyingly effusive in his praise – though no doubt sincere – of various fellow mandarins and others he meets along the way.

He describes colleagues as having high intelligence, as incisive, kind and so forth. I keep hoping that he will condemn one or two people (apart from the usual suspects like Gaddafi) as total rats. But that’s not his style, even if it would probably sell more copies of his book.

I have passing familiarity with his world and the conventions within which he operated, so his stories of the internal workings of the FCO, its hierarchy and obsession with form, often over substance, ring true. But while he’s also under no illusions about Britain’s declining influence in the world, he tells a story of a government department that really does believe that it matters.

In recent years the Foreign Office in my experience has seemed much diminished. Yes, our embassies still harbour the usual cluster of acolytes – the political officers, the military attaches and the British Council staff, not to mention a few spooks – but the decline in our political clout has undoubtedly caused some painful adjustments in the role of the Diplomatic Service.

Our armed forces are reduced to a shadow of what they were even at the time of the last Gulf War. We have been so badly bruised by Iraq and Afghanistan that virtually no modern British politician has the courage even to contemplate armed intervention, let alone carry it off, beyond the use of air strikes and Special Forces.

So there is a gap between the ultimate deterrent – sledgehammers with a single purpose – sitting in our nuclear submarines, and the efforts of our diplomats. The great powers of today – the US, China, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Germany – have a far wider range of options sitting behind their diplomatic efforts. They can deliver as well as threaten. We have not been able to take significant unilateral action since the Falklands. So we are reduced to piggybacking on the agendas of allies better equipped and powerful than us.

What remains of our network of embassies and consulates these days appear to most casual external observers as a set of sales offices for Britain plc with a bit of customer support thrown in for citizens who get into trouble or need rescuing from situations not of their making.

Yet as Cowper-Coles points out, the curious reality is that many countries still seem to believe the myth of Britain punching above its weight, of having more influence or power than it actually has. Hence the disaffected – especially in the Arab world  – tend to lump us with the US as the main cause of their troubles – the great manipulator and fomenter of unrest, the Little Satan.

Our involvement in recent wars certainly helps to cement that impression, but as Cowper-Coles noted in Cables from Kabul, beyond the unhappy participation of our armed forces, our influence has been limited. In post-Saddam Iraq, the blundering US grand vizier Paul Bremer proceeded to sow the seeds of the current ISIS land-grab by applying a disenfranchisement policy against Baathist structures, most notably the armed forces, based on the denazification of Germany after World War 2. In Afghanistan the US again called the shots in its clumsy attempts at nation-building. However much our politicians claim otherwise, there is probably more distrust and divergence of opinion between Britain and America over foreign policy than at any time since the Suez crisis in 1956, when Eisenhower effectively torpedoed our attempt to neutralise the growing power of Gamal Abdul Nasser.

The author is good on the often uneasy relationships between junior and senior officers of his department, and especially interesting when describing his years as Principal Private Secretary to Tony Blair’s first Foreign Minister, Robin Cook. Cook was a difficult man. Intelligent, principled but chaotic in his working habits. Not the kind of biddable insider that the mandarins prefer. By all accounts he so loathed the red dispatch boxes that were full of government papers he was expected to read and act upon, that Cowper-Coles often had to chase after him with documents requiring his signature like a mother trying to feed a reluctant toddler.

Intellectually vain, bad tempered and given to wearing inappropriate hats, Cook nonetheless won praise from his chief minder and occasional dog-walker for his achievements in the job, even though he was heartily disliked by the FCO hierarchy. Not content with “being Foreign Secretary”, by which Cowper-Coles means submitting to the time-honoured system created by generations of civil servants, Cook was more interested in doing, and won the author’s respect for what he achieved in East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and other troubled hotspots of the time.

It’s a fair bet that someone like Cook, with his quirky looks and personal idiosyncrasies, would be unlikely to make it to the top in today’s coalition government. His closest modern counterpart, Michael Gove, equally a man of principle and no more blessed in his looks, has just been kicked downstairs (or sideways, if you believe the Prime Minister) from his job as education secretary, allegedly at the behest of the Conservative Party’s abrasive election strategist Lynton Crosby, who argued that Gove’s “style” did not sit well with the electorate. I suspect that Cook’s removal was for similar reasons.

Which goes to show that an anodyne appearance, preferably with a full head of hair, combined with a biddable nature, can give a male politician a serious head start in British politics. Though when there’s an election coming up, he should look anxiously over his shoulders at female rivals equally capable of doing his job, provided that they don’t look like Russian shot-putters. Margaret Thatcher would not have approved.

A measure of the decline in the status of Cowper-Coles’s beloved Foreign Office since 1914 – when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith effectively delegated the conduct of negotiations with the other great powers in the run-up to war to Sir Edward Grey – is that in today’s crisis over Ukraine, Philip Hammond, the new Foreign Secretary, is a relatively anonymous figure who sits in the background while David Cameron does all the talking and, presumably, negotiating.

That said, those of us who have lived abroad for any length of time would miss the FCO if it wasn’t there, still flying the flag in locations popular and obscure. I have met many diplomats in my time, including a few ambassadors. Ours representatives are unfailingly polite, pleasant and, of course diplomatic. I would sooner be dealing with them in times of trouble than some of the diplomats of other nations I’ve encountered along the way.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, according to friends who knew him during his stint as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was one of the best. He writes fluently and thoughtfully about his experiences. Ever the Diplomat is well worth reading if, like me, you have taken a keen interest in international politics through the times he describes. If I was starting out today, would I consider a career in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service after reading his book? Absolutely. Even working in a mouldering South American outpost surely beats a zero-hour contract in a call centre any day of the week. But don’t be dazzled by the glamour – that’s for the chosen few. And stay off  Twitter.

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