That tricky blend of realism and idealism

Rupert Cornwell@IndyVoices
Tuesday 06 October 2015 11:55

Idealism and realism. They are the twin driving forces of diplomacy, and striking the correct balance between them is the very art of statesmanship. Pity therefore poor Mary Robinson, in London yesterday to mark her second month as the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. Mrs Robinson, the former President of Ireland, was appointed to give the UN a louder voice in a field where, to put it mildly, it has not excelled.

But yesterday that voice was curiously muted. There was, for instance, no castigation for Algeria. Speaking out prematurely on human rights violations, she warned, could do more harm than good. The key was to find a balance between quiet diplomacy and being a moral voice. And so on and so on. The demons of realism and idealism had already got to her. For comfort in her dilemma, however, she could do far worse than watch Douglas Hurd's current BBC series.

These are not good times for Hurd. Former Tory Cabinet ministers - Michael Portillo, Alan Clark, now him - return to haunt the small screen: Have they no decency, do they not remember what happened on 1 May? But Hurd of the safe pair of hands, who had Britain punching above its weight in the global arena, has come in for some particularly savage revisions, above all for his role in the Balkan conflict. Be that as it may. He is a splendid broadcaster, wise but not condescending, plummy but not too plummy. The Search for Peace may not find it. It does at least illustrate the pitfalls along the way of realists and idealists alike in this uniquely bloody 20th century, from Sarajevo to Sarajevo.

Of those Hurd talks to, no idealist is greater than Eduard Shevardnadze, whose part in the peaceful dismantlement of the Soviet empire must place him in the first rank of modern statesmen. Shevardnadze is a latter-day Woodrow Wilson, an unqualified believer in collective security. Gorbachev's Foreign Minister insists that the surrender of Soviet global power was an act of idealism. Foreign policy not only can, but must, be run on the basis of principle and universal human values, he maintains: the task of the United Nations is to not to react to events, but to forestall them.

This would have seen the UN moving decisively to nip the Yugoslav civil war in the bud - something Hurd insists was simply asking too much. "It would have meant acting early, accepting risks and casualties and taking over a country and imposing on it what we thought should be done." Beyond an acknowledgement that the term "safe haven" should never have been invented, and that the split of ground and air commands between the UN and Nato was a recipe for disaster, mea culpa is not a sentiment that greatly features in the Hurd diagnosis of what went wrong in Bosnia.

But pause an instant before hurling boulders at the world-weary patrician in his old Etonian drainpipes, Hurd the cynical Realpolitiker who "appeased" the likes of Slobodan Milosevic. Shevardnadze may be an idealist, but the decision to let Eastern Europe go was equally an act of political realism: empire's burden was crushing the Soviet Union to death. Hurd may not seem to help his cause by confessing an unfashionable admiration for Anthony Eden; in fact, Eden's record as Foreign Secretary, from resigning in 1938 rather than play along further with Hitler, to his brokering the division of Vietnam after Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and persuading the Americans not to plunge into South-east Asia a decade before they were fatally to do so, was eminently creditable.

Eden is stigmatised as being too much of a realist. But when he went off the rails, it was over Suez, as an idealist who believed that in Nasser he was fighting an Arab Hitler; he was unable to comprehend Britain's diminished power and that the Americans would refuse to support what they saw as a last twitch of colonialism. Had Eden been more of a realist - more of a Hurd one might say - Britain might have been spared its greatest post-war humiliation.

And such paradoxes persist to this day. In the end, a settlement was imposed on Bosnia not by an idealist but by Richard Holbrooke, realist par excellence - a diplomatic thug who understands power, and the limits of power. China's behaviour in Tibet may be a monstrosity, but Mr Holbrooke tells Mr Hurd, a Western rescue of that unhappy country "just isn't going to happen". Or take Robin Cook, so different from Hurd sartorially and in most other ways, who is now wedded to an "ethical foreign policy". Unanswered, however, is whether Britain will place outrage over Saudi Arabia's human rights record above the preservation of multi-billion-pound arms contracts. As the Americans say, don't hold your breath. And, just yesterday, Mary Robinson.

The real trick is to blend realism and idealism. Sometimes, as in the Gulf war, the task is easy: in opposing Saddam Hussein, their demands coincided perfectly. The same, in retrospect, was almost certainly true in Bosnia. But hindsight is always 20/20. It can be argued there is no conflict between realism and idealism. Should not the latter always be the goal of foreign policy - the former merely the means, where necessary, to achieve it? But many good men have fallen along the way. As Hurd the realist points out, the League of Nations and the aspirations of President Wilson died at Auschwitz.

Unarguably, however, this bloodiest of centuries is ending on a more hopeful note than it began. Plainly the Western powers will be in Bosnia for a good while yet. Equally clearly, other conflicts could erupt, especially in the Middle East. But after two hot World Wars and one 40-year Cold one, no global conflagration beckons. Far more likely, messy and sometimes barbarous civil wars will be the stuff of the future, calling for peacekeepers and humanitarian aid, but not the despatch of half-million man armies halfway round the world. And the lone superpower is benign. You may object to its economic and cultural sway, but in diplomatic terms the risk is not that the US may swallow up the world but that it may try to withdraw from it. For this reason perhaps Hurd is cautious: "Three steps forward and two steps back." But even on that reckoning, Pax Americana is progress. For a while at least, realism and idealism are in reasonable harmony.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments