Magazine article The Spectator

My Mess or Yours?

Magazine article The Spectator

My Mess or Yours?

Article excerpt

TONY BLAIR has ordered that all Whitehall departments must now have mission statements by which their performance can be judged. That of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to use its best efforts to secure peace and security throughout the world. But as Nato's Balkan war drags into its sixth week there is an irresistible temptation to add - in brackets - the word 'failed'.

So far during this war the Foreign Office appears to have chalked up so many 'misses' that it is hard not to wonder what is going on. As the search for a diplomatic solution to the war is stepped up this week, the puzzle remains as to why the Foreign Office has misfired on both the political and military fronts -- literally in some cases.

For it is the FCO's lawyers who are called in several times a day to vet bombing targets in Yugoslavia and ensure that they comply with the rules of war. In an age of spin sergeants and focus groups some may find such legal niceties reassuring. Others will echo the French General Pierre Bosquet's comment on the charge of the Light Brigade, 'C'est moralistique mais ce n'est pas La guerre.'

But it is in its own diplomatic arena that the FCO seems to have been off-target most often. First, our diplomats allowed themselves to be painted into a corner at the failed peace talks in Rambouillet. Now, after weeks of bombing, we find ourselves variously at odds with such Nato allies as Greece, Italy, France and Germany. The Americans are distinctly wobbly about Britain's more belligerent approach to the use of ground troops. And our cavalier attitude to Russia has undermined the moderates in that country in a way that could have the most serious consequences.

Our treatment of the Russians is particularly hard to explain. They were virtually ignored at the start of the Nato bombing campaign. Yet they are acutely sensitive about their loss of superpower status. To cold-shoulder them in the way we did was to rub their noses in it. More specifically, the snub weakened the position of Russia's liberal reformers who are identified with the West because of the moral and financial support we have given them.

Russia has historically been sympathetic to the Serbs, and the Nato bombing campaign is deeply unpopular there. The West has therefore played into the hands of the extremists - the nationalists on the Right and the Communists on the Left. We have done so in an election year. The state Duma and the regional governorships are all up for re-election.

When Boris Yeltsin came to the aid of the reformers by talking of a third world war, Nato leaders, including the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, started making placatory noises. They are now encouraging Russia to take a leading role in the latest round of diplomatic manoeuvrings. But it is all rather late in the day.

The Russians are not the only ones who could have done with some diplomatic soothing at a much earlier stage. The Greeks, for example, belong to Nato but have long been sympathetic to the Serbs. Some have taken to the streets to demonstrate their hostility towards Nato bombing raids. And it seems strange that action in the form of financial and humanitarian aid - was not taken sooner to allay Macedonia's deep unease about taking in thousands of Kosovan Albanians. …

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