Douglas Hurd was a great Foreign Secretary and his account of power, greed, corruption etc which formed the present world is both academic and very readable. The Brits were the best rapers and pillagers the world has ever seen in spite of lots of bungles along the way. This is a masterful account of recent history.
Douglas Hurd having been both a career member of FO staff and subsequently Foreign Secretary himself is enthralled by the subject which makes it an interesting read but overburdened with detail and therefore much too long for all but the equaly enthusiastic.
Douglas Hurd's "Choose Your Weapons," written with the help of Edward Young, is a sweeping review of British foreign policy and its architects from the Napoleonic wars to Suez. The book is worth reading for its history and for its observations by a man eminently qualified to make them. However, it falls somewhat short against the inevitable benchmark of Roy Jenkins' "The Chancellors," published in 1998, in both the quality of its writing and its insight into human nature.
"Choose Your Weapons" begins with the duel between Castlereagh and Canning on Putney Heath in 1809. Their physical contest stands as a metaphor for the tension between the multilateralist diplomacy favored by the former and the more interventionalist, nationalistic policies advocated by the latter - a theme that has run through all of British (and for that matter, US) foreign policy ever since. It also illustrates the importance of personality in determining national direction. Hurd observes that the right path can seldom be deduced simply from objective analysis of the facts: "that intelligent people have occupied both aisles of .... the argument suggests more clearly then any essay the limits of reason in foreign policy. "
Of the eleven foreign secretaries covered by the book, Hurd - true to his own personality - reveals a preference for Castlereagh, Salisbury and Bevin and a certain disapproval of the more flamboyant Palmerston and Disraeli. He is quite forgiving of Grey, who arguably let Great Britain drift unnecessarily into the Great War, he bolsters Austen Chamberlain's reputation as an early critic of Appeasement and he shares posterity's disappointment in the superficially promising Anthony Eden. Several themes, other than the Castlereagh-Canning dichotomy, run through the history: the relationship between Prime Ministers and their Foreign Secretaries (Hurd believes that the PM should be more of a senior colleague than a boss, though many PMs did not agree), the increasing professionalism of the Foreign Office, the influence of public opinion (which even Salisbury, no natural democrat, took very much to heart), the importance of concepts of national honour and prestige even up to the present day, the inadequacy of strategies based narrowly on notions of the balance of power, and the evolution of the Atlantic relationship even as Britain's great power status waned.
While the book formally concludes in the Fifties, it makes some relatively subtle but clear comments on more recent events. Tony Blair is chastised for misusing the "doctrine of humanitarian intervention," cynically "flinging " it into the "pile of words" he used to justify the war in Iraq. Gordon Brown is compared to Eden in that his failings as Prime Minister have come in the domain over which he presided for years prior to his accession to the top spot - perhaps for the same reason "relying too exclusively on his own judgement, he ignored the warnings and expressions of dissent that were plentiful in the lower reaches of Government." President Obama's situation is compared to that of Salisbury: "none of the dangers confronting the United States can be overcome by the asset in which she is still unmatched, namely the massive use of military force."
Looking to the future, Hurd believes that a "Fourth Settlement" is needed (following those which concluded the Napoleonic and the two World Wars) in which new frameworks and institutions embracing a wider set of issues and giving due weight to China and India are created. Inevitably, only the US has the influence to initiate this future, but Britain has a role in which its "values and character" can help define an "intelligent middle way."
"Choose Your Weapons" is a worthwhile book, but it falls short of what it might have been. Its writing is choppy, alternating between formality and colloquialism and intermixing successful epigrams with clichés. Its balance between multiple biography and pure history is uneven, with personality frequently swamped by a torrent of facts. Its Hurdian insights and wisdom often seem pasted on rather than emerging naturally from the work, and it has a disappointing dearth of entertaining and penetrating anecdotes about its subjects.
Choose your Weapons by Douglas Hurd is a very good book dealing with a select group of foreign secretaries from the nineteenth century onwards. It is well-written, fast-paced, opinionated and full of insights and deals with more than the usual suspects. The work is also very well held together by the overarching argument that British foreign policy over the last 200 years has been a battle between different visions of the country and its place in the world. The one major flaw is a problem that almost all works of this nature suffer from in that the different chapters are of differing quality. All in all a very good book.
I purchased for my son who is an economist and has an interest in history. He found it both interesting and enjoyable. It was a very good read, but as it covered such a long period it did not go into any great depth.