Who are we in the world?

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A confused foreign policy reflects a crisis in British identity. Are widgets the answer? By Richard Dowden and Stephen Castle

ON WEDNESDAY of this week, in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, opposite the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Institute for International Affairs will mark its 75th birthday with a meeting of unprecedented character.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary will be there, along with several hundred dignitaries and pundits including Henry Kissinger. Perhaps no one personality will sum up the character of the gathering more neatly than the guest of honour, the Prince of Wales. For this is to be an occasion for reflection, soul-searching and perhaps a little mystic gazing into crystal balls. The meeting has been called to answer the question, what is the future of British foreign policy?

We are used to Britain playing an active role in world affairs. The expression is often used these days that the country "punches above its weight", by which is meant that its influence is out of proportion to its real modern position in the world. With only 1 per cent of the global population, we have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, we have an arsenal of modern nuclear weapons, we are a senior member of Nato, the European Union and that distinctive global club known as the Commonwealth.

Britain has had a formidable military record, even in recent years. It is able to deploy highly trained, well-equipped troops to distant places, whether it be to fight wars, keep peace, provide training or do humanitarian work, and the population at home likes to see them do it.

London, moreover, is far more than just a national capital. Heathrow is the busiest international airport in the world. The lanes of the global village, political, commercial, social, artistic, medical and many others, pass through London. Britain's experienced aid organisations combined effectively in Somalia and Rwanda, and they were admired for their achievements.

History and tradition gave this country its advantages in international affairs, but something is going wrong. Britain's relations with the European Union are gravely troubled; its "special relationship" with the United States is weaker than ever; its nuclear deterrent seems unimportant; and its army is reduced. It seems that as the century ends the old international mission is withering away. The challenge faced by this week's high-profile meeting is to define a new mission for British diplomacy for the next century.

ON THE EVE of the debate the mood among many of Britain's ruling politicians is that the Foreign Office should be transformed into the marketing arm of Britain plc. Its role, they say, should be to prepare the way for British trade delegations, to help sell British goods and services, to encourage investment in Britain. Behind this view lies a feeling that our embassies have not always served the country's bread-and-butter interests as aggressively as they might.

According to their peers, British diplomats are among the best in the world. They work hard, they are well-informed and their telegrams to HQ in King Charles Street are models of clarity and conciseness. No self- respecting journalist would visit a capital without calling the British embassy to get their "view" - off the record of course - on what was happening.

But the visiting journalist would also try to call on the French, whose diplomats are well-regarded too. The difference would be marked. In both cases the information would be carefully sifted, the analysis sharp, the judgements carefully weighed. But the journalist would come away from the French embassy knowing exactly what France wanted out of the country and what French policy was. In fact, the whole briefing would have been built around projecting France and French foreign policy. British foreign policy on the other hand sometimes leaves the journalist's pencil poised over the page, the words being too bland to be worth recording.

One observer of British diplomats at international meetings said: "They are very good, very good at cutting through the bullshit, good at persuading the waverers, good at getting consensus but I sometimes wonder why. What's it all for?"

Trade - sales, cash and jobs - are an obvious answer, but the relationship between commerce and diplomacy is not simple. Ideally, diplomats should be able to talk widgets in the morning, write a perceptive analysis of the state of the nation after lunch, cheer up a jailed Brit in the afternoon and sort out his case and the Queen's visit while losing gracefully to the Foreign Minister at tennis in the evening. But the widget bit has always been a problem. There has long been a whiff of snobbery about "trade" among senior diplomats and although this has been changing for some years, there is no doubt that ambassadors still rate high politics above low commerce, and are probably better at it too.

Douglas Hurd, himself a former diplomat, epitomises the problem. He is a lucid analyser of world affairs and a tough debater, but would you buy a widget from him?

Margaret Thatcher tried to turn the mandarins into marketing managers. She cut several British missions in countries where Britain was said to have no commercial interests. Posts in embassies were given to Department of Trade and Industry officials rather than Foreign Office diplomats. The bottom line on ambassadorial reports to London was no longer British influence but British sales.

John Major has continued on the same line by taking businessmen on his overseas trips, for example, on last year's visit to South Africa. Diplomats are urged to do everything in their power to promote trade and this has been supported by Civil Service reforms. During the past five years co- operation between the Foreign Office and the DTI has developed rapidly, stimulated by Michael Heseltine's departmental reforms. This weekend, for example, both he and his minister for export trade, Richard Needham, are on separate trade missions (Mr Heseltine in Saudi Arabia, Mr Needham in South Africa). In three years at the department Mr Needham has travelled more than 300,000 miles in 40 overseas visits.

Could this process go further? Tim Yeo, former parliamentary private secretary to Mr Hurd, argues that it could. "It may be that the Foreign Office should be more inclined to pursue specifically British interests in a determined way even - sometimes - at the cost of diplomatic tensions locally."

This is what the French have been doing for years, marrying interest and influence. Just as France still has a clear idea of what it is and wants to be in the world, French diplomats always bat for French companies. They also treat their former colonies as their exclusive trading zones. Unlike Britain, which really abandoned its former colonies, France maintains a strong political influence in many countries it once ruled.

Lord Healey, the former Labour defence secretary and foreign affairs expert, says: "The French pursue their own interests, albeit in a narrow sense. They have a clear idea of their own interests and identity. We don't give a quarter of the help to businessmen on the ground that the French do. In their embassies it is almost the major objective of French diplomats to help French businessmen."

At its most extreme the Britain plc view of foreign policy suggests that we should be a nation of entrepreneurs, plying the seas like Elizabethan pirates and refusing to belong to any club prepared to have us as members. In a phrase, we would out-French the French. Someone has already done this. Over 30 years he built an empire in Africa, wheeling and dealing with dictators and tyrants, going where no other businessman dared to go. His name was Tiny Rowland and though Lonrho was based in London, he never darkened the doors of a British diplomatic mission. For this most British diplomats were profoundly grateful as they could honestly dissociate Britain from his activities.

This tells us something: if our diplomats cheated and bullied their way to influence, they would get into trouble at homeand would also make Britain about as popular abroad as a Spanish fisherman in Ottawa.

And if Britain attempts to become a purely commercial state with a foreign policy geared simply to enriching its own citizens, what will become of its responsibilities? How would the Security Council seat be justified? Would it be shared with our European partners? Would there be a two-tier Commonwealth according to the trade figures?

"I'm all for making the Foreign Office more commerically minded," says Jack Spence of the Royal Institute, "but it's also a matter of reputation. People want to think their country can do more than make its way in the global economy." The British reputation and the influence that flows from it are valuable in ways that cannot be immediately judged by the trade figures. For example, Britain still produces the most world's most credible news service, the BBC World Service. When Mikhail Gorbachev was held in the Crimea during the Russian coup in August 1991 it was no accident that he tuned into the BBC. He wanted to know what was going on.

The French spend millions every year promoting the French language and French culture. English has become the language of commerce and the world's most preferred second language. Some images of the British overseas are quaint caricatures of British eccentricity, but they enhance Britain's reputation and the most hard-nosed marketing adviser will agree that brand image is worth many millions of pounds.

In Rome, for example the British ambassador lives in a magnificent villa and has a large black hound called Nero. Should the Foreign Office sell the Villa Wolkonsky, move into an apartment and get a cat? Not if Britain wants to be a political or commercial influence in Italy.

An ex-minister still harks back to an overnight stay in the British embassy in Paris before the last general election: "There were footmen, there was a four-poster bed, fresh orange juice and croissants in the morning - and a fresh copy of the Times, specially flown out."

The scale and grandeur of the entertaining allows British diplomats privileged access to the great and good of French society. According to the ex-minister, "no French politician or senior businessman would refuse lunch at the British embassy".

But if splendour counted all that much then what went wrong at our Washington embassy? One of the grandest and most generously staffed missions of all, with our hottest diplomat, Sir Robin Renwick, as ambassador, it still could not prevent President Clinton meeting Gerry Adams in the White House this month. Britain was given a poke in the eye by her closest and most important ally.

That friendship has been unravelling for some time. The significance for Britain was not that America chose Sinn Fein before Britain but that Clinton weighed local American votes against British friendship. The bonds that tied America to Europe in two world wars are fraying from old age. According to Lord Healey: "Our influence on the United States is lower than it has ever been. We whinge about it all the time. There is this incredible sensitivity about the fact that Clinton is not stopping here on his way to victory celebrations in Moscow. It's humiliating to me."

Meanwhile, whatever influence Britain might have in Europe is being undermined by the public quarrel about Britain's attitude to membership of the European Union. The row is revealing the uglier and more insular British traits to our neighbours. One European diplomat recalls that when everyone got over the shock of seeing Lady Thatcher handbagging the Brussels bureaucracy there was a great feeling of excitement that British commonsense was going to rescue Europe from its rigidity and red tape.

"But then it became clear that there was no follow-through, she was not serious, she did not want to save us, she did not even like us. It was the same as after Waterloo - they fought and then the British retreated to their little island and pulled up the drawbridge."

Europe now divides Britain and there is no profit for any politician in becoming more enthusiastic about it. America has let go of Britain's hand and the faithful little brother is feeling lost and abandoned. It is partly that feeling that has led to Wednesday's conference. Lord Healey is blunt. He believes that this week's conference is "typical of the total lack of direction of this government. It talks about punching above our weight but we are spending infinitely more of our gross national product on defence than Germany and Japan, with a smaller threat, and we are getting no influence from it. Dean Acheson's comment that Britain has `lost an empire and not yet found a role' is truer than when he said it in 1962." At the end of the Cold War, Mr Major and Mr Hurd urged democracy, good governance and respect for human rights on the world. The dream was not matched by commitment. The post-honeymoon period has already been dubbed the New World Disorder in which Britain was among those who retreated from the difficult zones. In Bosnia, for example, it voted in the Security Council for a mandate to protect the enclaves but gave inadequate military support to British troops on the ground to fulfil that mandate. Indecision and weakness over Bosnia has done much to undermine Britain's reputation in the world, particularly in Washington.

Shimon Peres once said that a country that loses its enemy loses its foreign policy, and a country that loses its foreign policy loses its identity. Britain has many old enemies. They survive in our popular culture and conflict with our official aspirations to see old enemies (especially in Europe) as friends and partners. One result is that Britain's foreign policy is undermined by political weakness and indecision.

But that thought by Shimon Peres is also why the meeting being held this week at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre is about more than just the future of Britain's foreign policy. It symbolises a wide-ranging search for a British self.

Ten things Britain can still be proud about

1 There are 350 million native English speakers. English has official or semi-official status in 70 countries.

2 The British music industry earned £1bn for the UK in 1993 and a net surplus of £517m.

3 The British Council operates in 109 countries, teaching English to 100,000 people and bringing 20,000 to the UK for training annually.

4 The UK has the world's sixth largest aid programme (£2.2bn) and 70 per cent of its bilateral aid goes to the poorest group.

5 The estimated daily turnover in the London currency markets in 1992 was $300bn, as opposed to $192bn in New York and $128bn in Tokyo.

6 The Commonwealth includes five of the world's 10 fastest- growing economies: Singapore, Mauritius, Botswana, Belize, and Hong Kong.

7 The UK is the third largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations with 3,903 troops in Cyprus, Kuwait, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia.

8 Britain is responsible for 14 Dependent Territories and two dependencies.

9 Britain is the world's sixth largest tourist destination with 20.6m visits in 1994.

10 The BBC World Service has a global audience of more than 130 million, with more listeners than its five closest competitors combined.