Words versus Warriors

Article excerpt

Byline: John Campbell

Choose Your Weapons By Douglas Hurd Weidenfeld & Nicolson [pounds sterling]25 % [pounds sterling]22.50 inc p&p ****

Nowadays it scarcely matters who is Foreign Secretary. A combination of Britain's diminished role in the world and modern communications has reduced the job to little more than bag carrier to the Prime Minister. But in the great years of British imperial power, stretching from the Napoleonic era to the Fifties, it was very different. Foreign Secretaries from Castlereagh to Eden shaped the style, rhetoric and reality of Britain's engagement with the rest of the world.

Now Douglas Hurd - a diplomat by training and the last holder of the office who looked and sounded like the traditional idea of a Foreign Secretary - has had the excellent idea (with co-author Edward Young, who deserves a more prominent credit) of tracing the evolution of foreign policy through the careers of 11 of these often overshadowed figures.

The result is a highly readable fusion of archival scholarship and personal experience, mixing vivid portrayals of the personalities and private lives of their chosen protagonists with cool analysis of the policy choices they made.

The story starts with the famous duel between Castlereagh and Canning in 1809 - but Hurd and Young are less interested in their personal quarrel than in the different approaches they brought to the Foreign Office, from which they trace a dichotomy that has lasted to the present day.

Castlereagh was the quiet diplomatist who believed in building a multilateral concert of Europe to preserve the peace; Canning was a flashy orator who believed in projecting British naval power to advance favoured causes from South America to Greece.

The same tension persisted through the rest of the 19th Century, embodied in the opposition first of Aberdeen and Palmerston, and then of Lord Derby and his Prime Minister, Disraeli. Aberdeen was a pacifist, while Palmerston was the arch-apostle of gunboat diplomacy. Derby believed that the highest aim of policy was to 'keep England out of trouble', while Disraeli delighted in astonishing the world with 'bold strokes and unexpected moves'.

The pattern began to break down around 1900 as Britain's independent power declined. Salisbury (who was his own Foreign Secretary) strove in the tradition of Castlereagh to avoid committing Britain to either of the rigid alliances forming on the Continent; Edward Grey conducted a policy of fatal ambiguity by making a secret agreement with France without making it clear to the Germans, leading to disaster in 1914. …