BRITAIN IN THE WORLD: Foreign Office makes sure it has the last word

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The Independent Online


Diplomatic Editor

If the quality of foreign policy could be measured by literary reference alone, then Britain might have emerged from yesterday's proceedings in a position of global supremacy.

The Prince of Wales offered up Kipling. Robin Cook talked of Orwell. Douglas Hurd rewrote some lines from "Land of Hope and Glory''.

Sir Peter Inge, Chief of the Defence Staff, quoted with approval the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu.

Game, set and match to the Brits with effortless ease, one would have thought. Alas, it was a day on which these old-fashioned delusions of British predominance were to be dashed.

Josef Joffe, foreign editor of that rigorous journal the Sddeutsche Zeitung, can match in literary firepower the most erudite Englishman. He took the stand after John Major, whose speech is unlikely to grace future volumes of oratorical genius. Dr Joffe fired off an opening salvo of Locke, Adam Smith and Hume. He deployed Milton, Mill, Shelley and Shakespeare in eloquent illustration of his case, which appeared to be that Britain "had more to offer the world than hedgerows and rose gardens".

He delved into the state papers of Castlereagh and the speeches of Churchill to provide the most succinct outsider's assessment of British policy in Europe: "Balance and lead if you must, but stay out as long as you can.'' And just for good measure he finished up by quoting an odd mixture of Margaret Thatcher (who now qualifies as a literary reference-point) - "You are a strong country with a great future" - and Forrest Gump - "Stupid is as stupid does.''

But it was, unsurprisingly, to Bismarck that Dr Joffe had to revert for a definition of diplomacy: "The slow boring of hard boards"; a verdict that grew more apposite as the day wore on. Henry Kissinger, of course, was fully at home in Bismarckian territory and his ponderous intervention reflected the divergence of styles on offer.

If Mr Cook chose the rhetorical tricks of Cambridge Union debate and Douglas Hurd the tones of the Head Boy's prize-day speech, with Dr Kissinger we were transported back to the Harvard lecture-room where the young professor first polished his glib doctrines of disinterested power.

No Kissinger lecture would be complete without a few resonant, if ultimately shallow, formulations. For the record, yesterday's were that Britain has "made the transition from power to influence" and that "almost all American foreign policy has been presented alternately in psychiatric or theological terms". (Fortunately, a mixture of protocol and British politeness prevented anyone asking into which of these categories Dr Kissinger's policy in Cambodia fell.)

In the panel discussions, Britain fielded a genuine hero in the shape of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, who avoided literature but spoke of the "tower of Babel" he encountered soldiering for the United Nations. General Rose said people had to decide if they wanted UN troops to engage in peace-keeping or war-fighting missions. "The use of F-18 bombers lies uneasily with the delivery of aid and supplies," he said, proving that we have, at least, not lost our aptitude for under-statement.

Then a distinguished French academic began holding forth on the "solidarit" inherent in European union and spoke of the three circles of Europe which would one day unite in logical convergence in the - er - context of something or other. General Rose began visibly to glaze over. Two venerable historians took issue over the peace-keeping record of "our American friends" which one, apologetically, thought "appalling".

A gentleman from Poland warned us all of the perils attached to the Tashkent Treaty between Russia and its neighbours, at which only the man from the Financial Times nodded knowingly. Another speaker said the fraught state of global security "was like the Wars of the Roses with no Henry the Seventh in sight" - a comparison which left at least half a dozen foreign observers in a state of hapless bemusement.

The Foreign Office will be weighing up yesterday with meticulous care. The mandarins will, in private, have been aghast at Mr Cook's suggestion that leading business people be named as ambassadors to commercially important posts (Anita Roddick to Brasilia, perhaps, or one of the soon-available Barings to Bonn?).

But it can take comfort from one unchallengeable distinction. Through a tidal wave of Euro-waffle, academic jargon and political oratory, one speech stood out to merit the day's award for English prose. Concise, elegant, chiding but discreet, Sir John Coles, head of the diplomatic service, delivered a defence of his department as sharp as a valedictory telegram.

Thank heaven that the talents honed at Magdalen College, Oxford, can still give the Sddeutsche Zeitung a run for its single currency.