THE HURD RESIGNATION: A broad vision darkened by politics

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Douglas Hurd adored the office of Foreign Secretary and in return he received the unsentimental respect of the Foreign Office. He could appear like a relic from an older and grander epoch of European diplomacy yet he worked at a pace that exhausted men 30 years younger and he claimed to run a thoroughly modern British foreign policy.

Just three days before the announcement that he would retire, the Hurd machine was operating at full speed. As dew glistened on the immaculate lawn of the British ambassador's residence in Madrid, the Foreign Secretary completed his morning swim, read his telegrams and rushed off in a motorcade to board an early RAF plane to London.

The previous day had started with a dawn flight to Spain and proceeded through wearying meetings with Spanish ministers to discuss Europe and Gibraltar. There had been a private audience with King Juan Carlos, three or four press briefings and then drinks and a small dinner party for a few Spanish notables.Mr Hurd sat up until after midnight, sharply drawing out information and gossip as fine wines flowed and large cigars were passed around. It was not a bad performance for a man of 65 who was still jetlagged from a return journey to the G7 summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mr Hurd was the diplomat's ideal foreign secretary, for he had served in the Foreign Office at postings in Peking and Rome, knew its quirks and rituals, was comfortable with its air of the sixth form and the common room and employed with skill its Rolls-Royce bureaucracy.

But he was always a highly political animal, who increasingly subordinated the abstract principles of British foreign affairs to the needs of a beleaguered government. Nowhere was this conflict greater than in Europe, where Britain's diplomats find themselves conducting a policy in which few of them believe and which many think damaging to our long-term interests.

He once defined Britain's ideal foreign policy as "a mixture of Gladstone and the saloon bar". He talked of a Britain that "punched above its weight" and sought to project its influence beyond the confines of a medium- sized European power. His term as Foreign Secretary through the dramatic events from 1989 gave him unrivalled opportunities to do so. But the balance sheet shows mixed results.

Mr Hurd believed in a broad European strategy that would have been familiar to his 19thcentury predecessors. He thought the future of Russia of far greater import than wrangling over the European Union. He would move the silverware around the debris of a lunch table to show how Russia and Turkey interlocked to provide the flank of European security. He argued that Russia's conduct in Chechnya should not wreck relations with Moscow, for that would endanger reform and democracy. He claimed that Turkey's violations of human rights should not prevent it joining a Customs Union with the EU, for that would invite fundamentalism and instability.

There was not very much of Gladstone the humanitarian in any of this and in Bosnia there was little idealism at all. The conduct of policy during the disintegration of Yugoslavia was Mr Hurd's greatest failure. If ever there was a case for "preventive diplomacy" this was it. But the federation was allowed to dissolve with barely a word of warning from the big nations of Europe. Then Mr Hurd and John Major allowed Chancellor Helmut Kohl to steamroller the EU into recognising the states of Croatia and Bosnia without binding commitments on the treatment of their Serb minorities. That doomed Bosnia to war. In the words of Sir Anthony Parsons, one of our most distinguished former envoys, it was "madness" for Bosnia to seek independence in these circumstances and "frivolous" of the Europeans to grant it recognition. But Britain had made a deal with Mr Kohl to win his support in the Maastricht treaty talks, a crude bargain reached against the advice of sager heads in the Foreign Office. Almost every dismal result of our unwilling presence in the Balkans flows from that one bad decision.

Bosnia tested the British alliance with the United States to its limits. Mr Hurd refused to call the relationship "special" but he spent much time cultivating it. His ties with the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, helped to assuage the tension between London and Washington. His friendship with Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister and now prime minister, has contributed to a shift by France away from the Franco-German axis.

Mr Hurd pursued an even-handed and creative approach to the Arab-Israeli dispute. His decision to restore diplomatic links with Syria in 1990 was far-sighted, encouraging Damascus to venture towards peace. In the war against Iraq he played a faultless hand, only to allow Britain's Gulf allies to relapse into their customary addiction to arms purchases and avoidance of irksome reforms. The results of the Jonathan Aitken affair and the Scott inquiry may not be gentle with British policy in the Middle East.

Where will history rank him? A smoother professional than Owen or Eden, a sharper politician than Howe, less loved in the Foreign Office than Bevin, esteemed abroad more than Carrington, Home or Callaghan. The critics of "appeasement" in Bosnia would compare him with Lord Halifax, but that would be to caricature both men. No, Douglas Hurd was a Foreign Secretary for our times, and our times are almost Edwardian in their confusion and danger. He is more like Sir Edward Grey, perhaps gazing out on his last day in that grand office over Horse Guards' Parade to see the lamps, not going out, but flickering all across Europe.