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From aversion to diplomats to fascination with his experiences,
This review is from: Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin (Paperback)
Since my years living abroad, I have had an aversion to supercilious diplomats.
Initially Sherard Cowper-Coles confirmed my prejudices. He came across as an intellectual snob, full of his own importance and constantly referring to the "brilliance" of the public school, Oxbridge civil servants he worked with.
I did not expect to persevere with the book. But I did and the more I read, the more I was impressed by him and the foreign office. For example the lengths that he went to learn Arabic and Hebrew before his postings. Not just language training, but his learning about and understanding the culture spoke very well of his (and the Foreign Office's) respect for the people with whom they were dealing. On his posting to Egypt Cowper-Coles lived with an Egyptian family and totally immersed himself in their lifestyle. The attention to detail in the Foreign Office's preparations sometimes seemed excessive, particularly when applied to the pecking order of state visits, but is nevertheless impressive especially in their curbing of their politicians' generalisations.
His attitude to the importance of diplomacy comes across very thoughtfully, although sometimes it seems excessive. His belief "that in the world of multilateral diplomacy, form often matters almost as much as substance, and where the table of round speakers can be more important than what is actually on the table" is the kind of statement I would have taken exception to before I read his book. But when you see the effects of not meeting minds then you think twice.
The fascination of the book is the insights into Cowper-Coles', and the civil service's attitudes to events you normally attribute to politicians, because that is the way they are reported. I never understood why Chris Patten had such a burst of enthusiasm for democracy in Hong Kong in the months before handover to the Chinese, considering Britain's colonial rule for the previous 100 years. Neither could Cowper-Cole and the Foreign Office.
His firm views on the need for a two state solution to Palestine and Israel where he was Ambassador are sound. And his assertion that most western politicians do not understand Saudi Arabia, where he was also ambassador, rings true. British ministers preferred to visit other, easier to digest countries in the region rather than Saudi Arabia.. Only a few understood that just as Saudi Arabia was a swing producer of oil, so too was it a swing producer of moderate thinking on Middle East peace and , given its experience of Al Qaeda, on tackling militant extremist Islam. Al Saud are the leaders in understanding that successful counter terrorist policy needs to address the political, economic and social sources of terrorism. Tough action against its symptoms - violence - is the least difficult part.
But it is his short chapter about Afghanistan where he is most devastating on how misguided the whole western strategy in Afghanistan really was.
From a grating start it turned into a fascinating book.