author: John W. Young
Twentieth Century Diplomacy: A case study of British practice, 1963-1976
Book review by Geoff Berridge
What is so original about the book is that the author has asked himself: What are the major forms of diplomatic contact? And followed this with the question: How and to what effect were they each employed by one state over a period sufficiently short to make detailed research possible but not so short as to make it impossible to identify trends? Having chosen Britain over the years from 1963 until 1976, he seeks to establish which diplomatic methods were the most useful for which purposes.
Young begins with two contextual chapters. The first provides a succinct overview of the issues confronting British foreign policy in the period, a penetrating – and at times amusing – analysis of how policy was made, and a most useful description of the significant changes in the composition of the diplomatic service during these years. The second chapter is on ‘the diplomatic machine’, which he tackles by examining in turn the three major official post-war reports of which it was the object, which happened to fall more or less within his period: Plowden (1964), Duncan (1969) and Berrill (1977). He rightly praises the first, salvages the second from the mistaken charge that it was inconsequential, and damns the last with faint praise (Berrill made the elementary mistake of failing to recognise that declining military and economic power meant more diplomacy not less). My only reservation about the account of the Duncan Report is its relatively slender treatment of its impact on the commercial priorities of embassies as opposed to the economies which it urged in the diplomatic service itself.
It is with chapter 4, ‘Resident Embassies’, that Professor Young gets into diplomatic method itself, and it is an impressive launch. The role of the British embassy, whether accredited to states or international organizations, did not diminish in either the volume of its work or its importance, he demonstrates; instead, the increase in ministerial visits and multilateral diplomacy simply produced a change in the character of its role. But this varied from embassy to embassy (“There is no ‘typical’ embassy.”) and could vary in the same embassy in just a matter of years. To support and illustrate his theme, he looks in some detail at the work of six ambassadors during these years: David Hunt in Nigeria (1967-9), John Freeman in India (1965-8), Patrick Reilly in Paris (1965-8), Christopher Soames in Paris (1968-72), Lord Caradon at the UN (1964-70), and Michael Palliser at the EC (1973-5). “Their experience confirms that … it was essential to have an efficient, permanent and large diplomatic service”, he concludes, adding interestingly that some of these ambassadors contributed not only to the efficiency with which foreign policy was executed but also to its content.
The chapter on special missions is illustrated with a multitude of examples, especially that of Rhodesia. Here the author demonstrates how such missions multiplied massively during the period, using a host of different kinds of person for a host of different purposes. He rightly concludes that while resident ambassadors sometimes saw special envoys as a threat to their standing as well as a practical nuisance (especially in the case of the much put-upon Washington Embassy), the relationship was symbiotic: each needed the other. The dependence of visiting envoys on their country’s resident embassy is obvious enough but why does the latter sometimes value the former? In light of his research, Young suggests that this is not just because of the specialist knowledge that visitors can bring but because it is easier for an embassy to preserve good relations with the government to which it is accredited if it can pass to the visitor the task of delivering any unpleasant message. This is certainly true but some governments in this period undoubtedly also valued visiting envoys, especially high-ranking ones, because there was no better way of getting the local government’s favourable attention, increasing the embassy’s access, and giving it a peg on which to hang its propaganda work. My own recent research has revealed that during the 1960s the Turkish government felt undervalued by an absence of high-level visitors from Britain, and as a result the British Embassy in Ankara repeatedly begged for more of them in order to improve the bilateral atmosphere and make its own job easier. The author later makes the same point in connection with bilateral summits (p. 140) but many embassies would settle for less!
In dealing with summitry, first bilateral and then multilateral, John Young confirms most of what we already knew about this subject. This is a relief! However, some interesting new points also emerge: summitry may be used to boost the domestic position of a favoured leader; the ‘exchange of views’ category, which I had favoured, is too broad; and at least during this period the telephone conversations between British and other leaders were too trivial to be bracketed with face-to-face summits. State visits are also dealt with at length in a particularly original and interesting chapter. ‘Outward’ visits by the Queen, which totalled 18 over the period, were designed chiefly to promote ‘Great Britain plc’ and were generally thought to be successful, and ‘inward’ visits by foreign heads of state, which came to 26 in all, were designed principally to advertise Britain’s achievements and show what it had to offer. The chapter on this subject brings out how difficult the planning of such visits could be.
The book’s final chapter deals with British diplomatic practice in these years in dealing with unfriendly governments, or at least governments making unfriendly gestures on a narrow front. In particular, it describes how and why Britain brought its policy on recognition into line with the less problematical one of its European partners, shifting from recognising regimes to recognising states; and then followed willingly a path pioneered by the Egyptians and West Germans in the mid-1960s in employing interests sections to preserve diplomatic contact with governments which had severed relations with it as a publicity stunt.
I am full of admiration for this book but no reviewer worthy of the name will pass up the opportunity to point to some sin of omission. So I shall say that it is a pity that Young does not say more about so-called ‘public diplomacy’. This is a pity not because this is now such a wearyingly fashionable subject but because it was roughly at the beginning of his period that the Drogheda Report, which had urged the importance of this in 1953 (it was then known as ‘information work’), first began to be taken seriously. But the author is aware of the gap and in any case does touch on it at more than one place in passing.
What is the general conclusion of the book? Special envoys, bilateral summits and multilateral conferences all increased in number over these years but still left “plenty of room for more traditional forms of diplomatic contact to flourish”. This was not just because each of them met different needs but because each was dependent in some degree on the others. And so does Young convincingly demolish the still widespread assumption that ‘new’ forms of diplomacy are by definition competitors to old ones. His book is not just a sound test of existing general ideas about diplomacy during this period but a model which, if carefully emulated by others, using different states in different periods or different states in the same period, would advance dramatically our understanding of diplomacy.