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Getting Our Way: 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue: the Inside Story of British Diplomacy Hardcover – 29 Oct 2009
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One of the intriguing sub-texts of Meyer's book is his undisguised disdain for British foreign policy under New Labour... His book is an eloquently argued defence of a public body that gets more than its fair share of brickbats. A pity that so few of our politicians share his grasp of reality and clarity of vision. (THE MAIL ON SUNDAY - 01.11.09)
he does write well. His trenchant prose is unsullied by the managerial gobbledegook that has infected Whitehall. His tone is engagingly sardonic...an admirable diplomatic primer...Meyer is the silkiest of mandarins. (Piers Brendon THE SUNDAY TIMES - 1.11.09)
his conclusions are more explosive than Mr Prescott's famous temper. (Richard Beeston, BOOK OF THE WEEK THE TIMES - 31.10.09)
The former Ambassador to the US takes a dim view of Britain's foreign policy, arguing that it's high time government started to look out for numero uno. ("Books we've loved in the past few weeks." THE TIMES)
His book is an argument for a return to a coherent foreign policy with a "clear-eyed vision of the national interest." A dose of refreshing realism which is over due. If we want to get out way, we have to be clear what way we want. (PETER LEWIS DAILY MAIL 13.11.09)
an entertaining book and also a valuable one.. Meyer writes well... he has made the difficult transition to writing for the general reader, and the book is not far short of a page-turner. (OLIVER MILES, FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR THE GUARDIAN 14.11.09)
Meyer knows very well that a good story sells an argument. So he has chosen to write a history book, a retelling of ¿500 years of adventure and intrigue¿ in British diplomacy, to make his case...These are good stories, especially those about the grand failures... (QUENTIN PEEL, FT'S INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS EDITOR FINANCIAL TIMES 14.11.09)
'We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow' -Lord Palmerston, 1848
This is a highly informed insider's account of some of the 'honest men' as they sought, by fair means or foul, to get Britain its way in the world.
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That case is the extent to which a top-rate diplomatic corps is a critical asset to a country, when given a clear brief in support of a coherent overall foreign policy. As much as armies and traders, diplomats can play a profound role in furthering the national interest (or, if not up to the task or if not given adequate tools for the job, can miss crucial opportunities).
It’s an argument he makes by means of nine case studies. As such, Getting Our Way is something of a patchwork quilt and neither of the things claimed of it in its sub-title. It is not a ‘story’ in the conventional sense; there is no narrative. There are themes both explicit and implicit, and there are many examples, but ‘inside stories’ – in the plural – ‘of British Diplomacy’ would be a more accurate description. Similarly, while the examples run from the 1570s to the 1990s (nearer four centuries than five), only one is in the first half of that period. There is certainly a place for a comprehensive history of English/British diplomacy, but this isn’t that book.
That patchwork quilt, however, fits together very nicely in a three-by-three grid; one axis thematic and one linear. The book’s divided into three main themes – security, prosperity and values – and each theme contains three case studies, one from a time when Britain (or England in one case) was a small or medium power on the rise, one during the height of British power, and one during the period of decline. It’s an effective format and allows the reader to understand how much of the diplomat’s job is given in the sense of external circumstances, and how much is down to their discretion, competence and effort.
All this is buttressed by a fine running commentary from Mayer, drawing on his own experiences as ambassador, Foreign Office spokesman or more junior official, drawing out common challenges and demonstrating parallels in the behaviour and dilemmas of diplomats across the centuries and across the world. The humour is that of the wry smile than the belly laugh, as might be expected, but lightens the mood all the same. Indeed, the overall tone is conversational (as might be expected of a book that’s a companion piece to a TV series), and the better for it.
Book-ending the case studies are the introduction and conclusion where Mayer makes his case most forcefully for how Britain’s foreign policy should be constructed and conducted, namely with the focus on a well-defined national interest. I find it hard to disagree with those sentiments and Getting Our Way should be mandatory reading for those who now with their hands on the levers of power – and interesting and illuminating reading for anyone else.
Very strongly recommended.
Meyer highlights three `pillars' of `national interest'; security, prosperity and values. For each pillar, Meyer selects three `case studies' and with a brief description of each case he explores and examines the key aspects of diplomacy. In doing so he reveals that effective diplomacy needs a both a `clear goal' and a crisp understanding of the national interest.
To explore the pillar of `security', Meyer starts with an examination of the role played by `Killigrew' during the reign of Elizabeth I. Sent to Edinburgh, Killigrew sought to ensure that the `English' favoured faction won in a power struggle; the goal achieved, its northern border secure, it allowed protestant England to focus on threats from France and Spain. The second case explores how Lord Castleragh, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, set out to and succeeded in establishing the balance of power in Europe between Austria, Prussia, Russia and France following the fall of Napoleon. The third case focuses on how in 1962 the British Ambassador to the US, Sir David Ormsby-Gore, used his personal connections with President Kennedy to impress on the Americans the need for an independent British nuclear deterrent. In all three cases Meyer exemplifies how the personal skills of the diplomat was allied to a clear vision/goal to secure the needs of the government of the day. In all three cases success was achieved.
Success was not necessarily the outcome from some of the case studies chosen to illustrate the pillar of `prosperity'. Indeed as examples chosen from Britain's relationship with China illustrate, there are occasions when not even an experienced diplomats skills are enough to secure the national interest. The first case explores how in 1792, in Georgian Britain with the tea trade flourishing, Viscount McCartney, led a tribute laden trip to China but failed in its mission to redress the trade imbalance. Some sixty years later `Bowrings' mission was more impactful as by use of force of arms he was able to secure the Island of Hong Kong as a base from which to conduct trade. The trilogy of cases is concluded by a discussion on how the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Pattern, oversaw the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The trilogy underlines how the balance of power can change; how the legacy of previous interactions impact on subsequent negotiations; and how the diplomat has to `play his cards' from either a position of strength or weakness.
To explore the third pillar of `values', Meyer uses three cases to exemplify how the growth of `public opinion' has become a factor in international relations. Victorian Britain saw the support of the Ottoman Empire, in the face of Russian expansion, as imperative to its security in maintaining the balance of power in Europe. However, following atrocities committed in suppressing Nationalist uprisings in Bulgaria in 1875/76, newspaper reports of the atrocities led to public opinion becoming antagonistic to the policy of support for the Ottoman Empire. The British ambassador in Constantinople, Elliot, became a sacrifice to public opinion despite supporting government policy as Gladstone played the `values' card against Disraeli. The second case explores how Vanisttart, the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) in the Foreign Office, despite his own `realist' judgement, became burnt by sticking to `League of Nations' approach as Italy under Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. The third case returns to the Balkans and the recent disintegration of Yugoslavia. How, the multilateral bodies of EU and UN floundered in finding a solution before the US took the lead in securing the Dayton accords in 1995 using `old fashioned' power backed diplomacy to assert a solution on the combatants.
Through drawing examples from 425 years of British history he demonstrates that the character of the state is slowly changing and that it is not always easy to perceive just who is manipulating whom in formulating policy. Bravely, admitting that he is no Sinologist, he tackles three episodes of British-Chinese relations. In the first Britain is rebuffed, in the second she is successful through the twin tools of the opium trade and the power of the gunboat, in the third the invidious treaties forced through by the second episode are instrumental in the hard line adopted by the Communist Government. All the examples chosen repay examination with an open mind.
The author has strong opinions and is rarely able to mention those who have thwarted him without fulminating. Cool, rational analysis might occasionally have worked better. He finds difficulty in not obtruding himself into the narrative. Some may find this attractive; others may be reminded of similarly egotistical colleagues.
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