Why we’re in the state we’re in

Woolly thinking, cloudy expression, and the possibility that great matters are at hand: two books by a pair of Foreign Office grandees


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Foreign policy is imprecision. It’s the purest form of politics — Oakeshott’s boundless and bottomless sea, with “neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat.”

By that measure, these books by a pair of Foreign Office grandees triumphantly demonstrate their authors’ art form. Woolly thinking, cloudy expression, and the possibility that great matters are at hand, but have been hidden for raisons d’état mortals can’t be expected to grasp, is the best case you can make for these Rolls Royce mandarins. Taken at face value, we have sorry proof for why we’re in the state we are.

Their CVs are spookily parodic — obscure West Country public school and Midlands Tudor grammar school, then Oxford, then the Office. Westmacott got Ankara, Paris and DC; Ricketts, by far the wilier proposition, got Paris and was also Permanent Secretary, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the first British National Security Advisor (NSA), and lead civil servant for the disastrous 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (the one that sank the carriers and cut the wings off Nimrod).

Hard Choices: What Britain Does Next by Peter Ricketts, Atlantic, £14.99

Although these books are a dirge, reflecting, as the Peters see it, the lack of heed both politicians and the fool public paid to their authors’ wisdom, the problems they chart are neither their fault nor their responsibility. Ricketts and Westmacott were only very senior functionaries, with very similar views, entirely representative of their caste. They advised, and analysed, and harboured profoundly sincere and patriotic beliefs. The sad truth that both books show is simply that they were wrong, bewildered, and deep in the shadow of their great predecessors, such as Alec Cadogan and Norman Brook.

They Call It Diplomacy: Forty years of representing Britain abroad by Peter Westmacott, Head of Zeus, £8.99

Neither has an unkind word to say about the quality of the civil service, fashionable as it was to worry about that when they entered it. Indeed, their youthful shelves could have groaned with volumes decrying the sort of chap entering the service just when they did. But their own books are criticism of others, not self-reflection.

Westmacott’s is an amiable ramble which Pooterishly wonders why he has written it. To mutter darkly about Putin’s all-powerful, American election-stealing, Brexit-arranging, in part. His book concludes with Sir Peter at a Remain rally; then, after the Referendum, at an Oxford dinner he calls for a second one (a plebiscite, not another very agreeable meal), so an informed public could get it right this time — “a number of people, even at high table, made their displeasure felt”.

Lord Ricketts, being so much the slyer (though as keeled over by Brexit: he’s most recently been in court failing to get a judge to make Boris admit Vlad did Brexit), doesn’t give us a single delightful garden party or a wonderful lunch with anyone. Instead we get history, concepts and choices. Although the author is too subtle to spell this out too often, too frankly, it’s also character, absence of.

High standards matter to both men. Though never set out how, our not adhering to British bushido¯ is a dreadful mistake (by “threatening” the sacred text of the Northern Ireland Protocol for example). Although we are a second-rate player with a vastly mistaken sense of ourselves, we are also central to other states playing up and playing the game (Churchill invented Human Rights by nodding through Alec Cadogan’s Atlantic Charter draft, Ricketts helpfully explains). So we must set a good example, or it’s very bad for our soft power.

Boris is a terrible liar of course, though the Clintons are a lovely couple (Putin stole the election from Mrs C). Westmacott hosts a wonderful do for their grifting Foundation at the Lutyens embassy in DC and even gets the cast of Hill’s beloved Downton Abbey to tape her an in-costume “the best is yet to come!” video, after she’s convalescing from a little oopsie whoopsie.

It’s odd that two men so achingly devoted to the EU are so stern about British rhetorical missteps on the rule of law. It’s possibly my ignorant bigotry, but the EU seems a curious hero in this regard. The sly Ricketts doesn’t mention its many legal misfortunes; the guileless Westmacott mentions wine lakes maybe being a bit of a problem. Neither sees any problem in the EU entirely stepping round its own legal order to circumvent Cameron’s lawful objections to their spending plans in 2011. Merde happens.

Ricketts is very opposed to soft-headed silliness. The ECHR’s mimsy overreach into what the army did in Iraq or Afghanistan was wrong; the 2017 return of the prerogative (so May could fling cruise missiles at Syria without a Commons vote first) was right. Though obviously proroguing parliament in 2019 was as wrong as anything could be.

Other, firmer details about how and why we should conduct our foreign policy are difficult to discern. For example, both men are devoted Atlanticists. Westmacott brilliantly notes that our significance in Washington enabled us to play a critical role in Brussels. Ricketts insightfully notes it the other way round. Neither notes any consequences for the EU of our absence from Brussels, which seems odd, not least given the ability of the men we sent there.

Europe is the heartbreak of both books. It’s a very British-centred sorrow of course: our actions are the interesting ones

Europe is the heartbreak of both books. It’s a very British-centred sorrow of course: our actions are the interesting ones. All the things the Europeans do, or don’t, get lost sight of. 1998’s Saint-Malo defence declaration is a dead letter thanks to the French, but it was a gloriously properly done thing for the Peters, even if it didn’t in fact do anything.

Their true fury, being not far from self-hatred, is directed at exceptionalism. Vote Leave, Ricketts tells me (I sat on the Board, I did not know this), were narrowly nationalistic global imperialists. We harked back to a golden age that wasn’t, or isn’t. Yet, as Peter W reminds us, people like him want to “ensure that the UK [remains] a player commensurate with the relationship, knowledge and understandings we [have] acquired over the centuries of some of the world’s most complex and challenging problems”. Thankfully we have a — Roget’s suggests — remarkable Foreign Office to do just that!

Unexceptional as Britain might be, we’ll always have the JIC, whose world class value to the Americans Peter R urges us not to underestimate. PW bluffly tells us that the Office is “one of the best-performing governmental machines in the Western world”. And he should know, having worked abroad.

America is the great mystery. It’s key for both men that we should be useful to them — they do not say why, nor in return for what — and Ricketts is explicit that our interests should come second to theirs, in order to retain their affection. Because. Despite much relevant desk and other experience, Ricketts entirely ignores the reversal in Actual British policy in the Balkans in the 90s. When what Major and Hurd, his own ministerial masters whom he loyally served, wanted was first undermined then overturned by the Americans (and in really quite toothy, arms-smuggling ways).

Ricketts’ attitude towards the cousins has le Carrésque dualities. He has a belief system and the evidence of his own eyes and there’s a tension. The superb JIC is, as we know (its former chairman tells us), at the disposal of the Americans, elegantly cutting through DC departmental divisions the simple souls haven’t yet sorted out (where would they be without us? Aeì Libýe¯ phérei ti kainón! as no one seems to have said; we really must recruit more classicists).

But what does that get us? Even by Ricketts’s own account, all it affords us is the pleasure of service. Just being in the room doesn’t deliver; Ricketts is very clear on that over Iraq. Though less clear on this over Brussels: being in the room there works wonders (though again, what it delivers isn’t set out: neither of these books are catalogues of UKREP’s many mysterious upstream wins).

Norman Brook’s 1960 Future Policy Study (which expertly foresaw economic parity between the US and EU “six” by 1970) is singled out for praise by Ricketts. “We must not find ourselves in a position of having to make a final choice between the US and Europe” is the line. You could ask, how? when? and things like that, but this is Ricketts’s lodestar. It’s the intellectual equivalent today of Brook resting his assumptions then on the world of 1899 and explains so much that’s so wrong in British foreign policy.

Take the evident tilt to China, by America, for American reasons: what is in that for us? We all now know (some of us knew it then) that blindly following the Americans into Iraq was a mistake, which gained us nothing for doing it, and cost the French nothing for not doing it. However Ricketts, a man who aspires to the cold clarity of a Percy Cradock, can’t formulate his thoughts as well as he might.

Westmacott and Ricketts alike are romantics, one hot, one cold

“The militarisation of the South China Sea,” he says, “threw down the gauntlet in terms of [Xi Jinping’s] ambition to replace the US as the indispensable power in Asia” [my italics]. The what? The “indispensable power”? What is Ricketts trying to say or describe here? Does he mean, China wishes/intends to replace the faltering/crumbling American military pre-eminence in East Asia?

Because of course he does, as that’s precisely what China’s “militarisation” seeks to displace — a military supremacy which lasted only as long as it went unchallenged. And seeking to artificially sustain it now would be folly. Is how Cradock might have put it. So why is Ricketts so coy then? Why not describe reality as it is? Why befuddle oneself with euphemism? What purpose, intellectual or otherwise, is served by such evasion?

The answer is the failure of the leadership cadre the British state has equipped itself with this last half century. Men of the calibre of Peter Ricketts should be capable of writing, and thinking, better things than “indispensable power”. He should set out why we should so willingly join America’s war of hegemonic preservation (a phrase no more and no less silly than “militarisation”). We didn’t feel obliged to join their last East Asian folly, even when we had rather more Cold War skin in the game. Why should we be so desperate now, European power that we are?

Westmacott and Ricketts alike are romantics, one hot, one cold. That’s why such realistic men can think the world is changed — that an era of nationalism, protectionism and spheres of interest has returned, and was not present in the golden haze of their youth. Their romance was to imagine the world was ever other than it is.

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