John Williams: Robin asked me if he was finished. I said he was not

Related Topics

Of all the moments that came back to me when I heard he was dead, two stand out. The first was in May 1998. Robin had had a famously rough first year in the job. His ethical foreign policy had been ridiculed, his marriage had broken up very publicly, and now the Sandline controversy was tearing at his reputation for competence. "Am I finished?" he asked. "No bullshitting." "No," I said. "You can come back from all this."

The second moment was the following summer. He went on a tour of liberated Kosovo, and the crowds chanted: "Robin Cook, Robin Cook, Robin Cook."

Those were the extreme moments of Robin's four years at the Foreign Office, the low point and the high. Nobody should make the mistake of assuming this notoriously prickly, apparently tough performer came through his ordeal of media ridicule by sheer resilience. He hurt badly. Robin's vulnerability - his best kept secret - made his endurance a remarkable achievement.

A lesser figure would have been stripped of self-confidence. But even in that unhappy period Robin maintained a strong sense of moral purpose in the job. It was at this time that he drove along the negotiations which led to the International Criminal Court; negotiated the European Union code of conduct on arms sales; and established the Foreign Office's annual human rights report.

One Saturday morning in 1999, a pile of corpses was discovered on the outskirts of a village in Kosovo called Racak. I rang Robin to discuss a press statement, and found him determined that we had to stop the killing.

Robin Cook, Tony Blair and George Robertson (then Defence Secretary) could have put it in the "too difficult" file. President Bill Clinton had no intention of committing ground troops. Every military commentator said you could not win a war by air power alone. The critics seemed right when the first result of our intervention was a massive refugee crisis resulting from Milosevic's vengeance on the Kosovans. Robin spent the whole day on the phone in pursuit of a haven for the refugees, which he agreed and established with the Macedonian government.

The diplomacy of the Kosovo conflict was largely conducted through daily conference calls between Nato's big five foreign ministers: US, UK, France, Italy, Germany. Robin became the leader of that group, its most creative force, to whom the others looked for solutions. I recall a difficult discussion during which Madeline Albright cut through the babble, saying: "I want to hear Robin's take on this."

The critics of air power seemed vindicated on another Saturday when we were woken by the news that Nato had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. "I hear we have a problem," said Robin, in that laconic way. He was booked to do the Today programme, which he found stressful in the best of circumstances. He got through it by saying sorry before John Humphrys could demand it.

Robin and George Robertson kept hope alive among the victims of Milosevic's terror. If it was worth Robin being Foreign Secretary for one thing, it would be the thanks of Kosovan leaders. Let's not forget that war was fought in defence of Muslims. It was, in fact, a triumph of ethical foreign policy, but Robin longed to be free of the phrase.

He knew he needed a less grandiloquent way to describe his approach to the world, and he chose "critical engagement". This meant engaging unpleasant regimes, while remaining critical of their excesses, in order to make the world less dangerous.

This led to the breakthrough with Libya that made the Lockerbie trial possible, and to the engagement with Iran which resulted in it no longer supporting the death threat to Salman Rushdie.

Jack Straw has always credited Robin with making clear his objections to the Government's Iraq policy, stating clearly in Cabinet where his bottom line was, and resigning when it was crossed.

I am very confident that Robin Cook will be remembered as one of the best Foreign Secretaries, as well as the finest Commons speaker for a long, long time.

John Williams is director of communications at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas