Diplomacy: He's clever, but has the man in the Foreign Office got a heart?

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook is back in the headlines. Stories about his private life have resurfaced, just as he takes on the task of running the presidency of the European Union for six months. Our correspondent assesses the Foreign Secretary's record in office so far.

He has just completed eight high-profile months in office. His six months in the European limelight are just getting under way. And he has now made plain that he does not seek to return to Scotland to bid for the top job there. In short: Robin Cook looks set to be Foreign Secretary for the long haul. So far, the bouquets and the brickbats have landed in almost equal abundance. The next six months will make it clear whether he will come to be admired or reviled in greater measure.

Once upon a time, it did not very much matter which European Union country was in the presidential hot seat. Things progressed much as they had always done. Now, however, the rotating presidency of this huge and powerful club carries real weight. Britain will certainly be judged on its performance in keeping the EU show on the road until the end of June. It now has a six-month tilt at glory - and Mr Cook, for better or worse, will be leading the charge.

He starts the year off with reasonable omens, after a curate's egg of 1997. Most notable on the debit side was the diplomatic disaster of the row with India after his off-the-cuff comments on Kashmir, just ahead of a visit by the Queen.

But even on ethical issues, which should be Mr Cook's strongest suit, the record remains unclear. In Nigeria, the threat of tougher action against the regime is constantly dangled, but never quite becomes real. In Indonesia, too, the jury is out. Mr Cook's visit there in September was intended to provide the flagship of his ethical policy. But Mr Cook did not want to push things too far.

A meeting between Mr Cook and the trade unionist, Muchtar Pakpahan - who faces a prison sentence because of his public criticism of President Suharto - was called off at the last moment. According to various official versions, this was either (a) because of a court appearance by Mr Pakpahan (which was over by the time Mr Cook arrived) or (b) because of lack of time or (c) because of Mr Pakpahan's illness or (d) why are you still asking questions, when we've already given you a clear answer? All that can confidently be said is that, when I visited Mr Pakpahan in his guarded hospital room on the first evening of Mr Cook's visit, he was excitedly expecting the meeting the next day. Indonesian officials later made plain they regarded a meeting with the loathed Mr Pakpahan as a snub too far.

None of which may be the end of the world. Every politician is forced to make compromises. The contradictions only arise if the public propaganda insists that the government is a compromise-free zone. This week came the latest compromise-that-wasn't: the leading former Chinese dissident, Wei Jingsheng, now based in the United States, was unable to meet the Foreign Secretary, who was said to be too busy. Officials insist that there is absolutely no connection between this lack of time and the undeniable fact that China would go gently berserk if Mr Cook, who visits Peking later this month, were to meet Mr Wei.

In reality, the connection is clear: if Britain was determined to send a strong signal of support, then even a two-minute photo-opportunity with Mr Cook would suffice.

Mr Cook sometimes still gives the impression that he regards even lightly implied criticism as demonstrating hostile intent. Admittedly, the photographers' long lenses which (together with a phone-call from Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street press secretary) helped trigger the end of his marriage have meant that he is understandably not fond of the media. His wife has now rubbed public salt in the marital wounds, claiming that the affair with his secretary Gaynor Regan was not his first, and noting that it is "selfish that men should expect it all".

None the less, Mr Cook's prickliness predates his domestic dramas. When an interviewer on BBC Radio Four's Today asked an innocuous question about the tightrope act of support for commerce vs ethical policies, Mr Cook dismissed the question as "facile". When a Channel Four News interviewer raised doubts about policy on Nigeria, Mr Cook's crushing response suggested that he regarded the question itself as illegitimate. Making the questioner look foolish sometimes seems more important to him than persuading people to accept his point of view.

(One almost feels obliged to insert an explanatory footnote: Dear Foreign Secretary, yes I do support the idea of an ethical foreign policy. But I hope it is permissible to raise what seem to be important questions, without being regarded as a Malicious Moron. Apologies in advance, yours etc.)

To be fair, there are indications that Mr Cook's prickliness (which is evenly spread; anybody who has ever asked a sensitive question has received a tetchy answer) is directed especially towards journalists, who many would regard as fair game. But if Mr Cook were to combine his characteristic impatience with the traditional British hauteur on European issues in the next six months, the results could be lethal. One of the reasons that Margaret Thatcher got so little out of Europe was because she never understood that there may be more than one way of looking at things. Europeans do not like being lectured by the least enthusiastic member of the EU team on how they should improve their game - a lesson that Britain has still not fully understood.

For the moment, things have got off to a not-bad start. Britain - at the prompting of Germany, though that bit got lost somewhere along the way - is keen for the EU to take an initiative to stem the horrors in Algeria. That is a good thing - if only in the sense that any initiative is better than none. This time (in sharp contrast to the beginning of the wars of Yugoslavia, with absurd talk of "The Hour of Europe"), nobody thinks Europe has a neat, off-the-peg solution. Greater modesty is in order.

The change in tone towards an ethical foreign policy could still bear fruit - on a drip-drip basis, not necessarily with spectacular fireworks.

Admittedly, some in the Foreign Office remain sceptical. "Pragmatism" is a word that diplomats are very attached to. But Mr Cook is responsible for his own hesitations, too; it's not just a Yes, Minister culture. He still seems reluctant to admit that there are hesitations.

Meanwhile, paradoxically, there is little boasting about the small indications that things really have changed, beyond the soundbite rhetoric. Thus, for example, Mr Cook has upgraded diplomats' regular consultations and training sessions with human rights groups - in what many at the Amnesty International regard as clear evidence of a change in attitude. And yet, the Foreign Office is deeply reluctant to discuss those sessions, as though they were faintly shameful. Support given by Britain to democratic media, for example in Serbia and in Nigeria, has been almost equally discreet.

All of which matters. Everybody agrees that Mr Cook is enormously clever. On the question of whether he also has a heart, opinions are divided. If he proves better at point-scoring than dialogue, few of his European colleagues will be impressed. But if it turns out that he has a heart as well as a brain, then both Britain and Europe could stand to benefit.