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Getting Our Way: 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue: the Inside Story of British Diplomacy Paperback – 30 Sep 2010
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He writes well and his tone is engagingly sardonic...an admirable diplomatic primer. (Piers Brendon SUNDAY TIMES)
This enjoyable book, by Briatin's former ambassador to Washington, consists of nine finely drawn studies of key diplomatic moments in British history. (OBSERVER)
The former British ambassador to the US weaves an interesting tale of power, deception, betrayal, espionage, intrigue and cunning...a must-read book for any astute observer of modern diplomacy. (CATHOLIC HERALD)
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.See all Product description
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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.
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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