Britain’s Quest for a Role: A Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN

Author: David Hannay

Volume Volume 44, Issue 3, 2013, Asian Affairs

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Lord Hannay is one of the most effective diplomatic operators of his generation, as this reviewer had a foretaste of when we served together in the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office at the start of our respective careers (both learning our drafting skills under the meticulous instruction of the late Sir Percy Cradock).
Hannay had recently returned from his first overseas posting in Afghanistan. It proved to be his only posting to a classic bilateral embassy and he describes it with affection as an idyllic time. The main question for foreign observers (in the early 1960s) was over the Soviet Union’s strategic intentions for the country. There seemed little reason for them to intervene in the country since they were already the foreign country with the most influence, the USA having seemed to have lost interest (a mistake set to be repeated after the Russians’ eventual departure in the 1990s), and the Afghans’ proven aversion to foreign intervention making it clearly a hazardous operation. Hannay lays the blame at Prince Daud’s door for removing the king and setting in train the tragic events of the past 40 years.
Hannay’s major postings were successively as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the European Community followed by his appointment (having been turned down by Mrs Thatcher for the top job in the FCO for being too “European”) as Britain’s ambassador to the UN. From the rarified heights of these two critical positions, he was in a unique position to observe and also influence British policy.
His account of Mrs Thatcher’s robust negotiations in Brussels on the so-called Delors package and the UK rebate is somewhat detailed. But it contains one moment of drama when at one point the Prime Minister accepted Hannay’s tactical advice over that of her senior ministers. “But you had better be right”, she said and Hannay left No.10 with these ominous words ringing in his ears. Fortunately his advice proved to be sound.
Hannay’s time occupying the UK chair on the UN Security Council came in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall which ushered in a supposed new world order. This did not last long and the Security Council was hampered, in his view, by US neglect, Russian grumpiness and Chinese detachment.
But, in the Middle East, the UN had an important success in securing Iraq’s compliance with resolutions requiring it to give up its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Unfortunately the detailed work of the weapons inspectors ended before the job was completed due to Saddam Hussein’s skill in portraying his country as the victim of harsh sanctions and playing on divisions in the international community. Hannay had retired, and was in the House of Lords, by the time of the invasion of Iraq. He writes that his experience at the UN had inclined him to credit the belief the Saddam had managed to conceal some WMD once the sanctions on Iraq had become eroded. On this basis he initially supported the invasion. What really offended him was Saddam’s flouting of UN authority. He withdrew his support, however, once he saw the disaster of the occupation.
The same rather procedural approach colours Hannay’s conclusions when he comes to consider the question implied in his title about Britain’s role in the world. Hannay is a convinced supporter of the UN and, as a member of Kofi Annan’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, he has made an important contribution to its reform. In his final report from New York he gives Britain good marks for its consistent support for the world body.
Hannay argues that in trade policy and climate change Britain has played an effective role, acting through the EU. Britain can also claim to have found a role and to be exercising it responsibly in collective efforts to achieve peace and security, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Since in all these areas, however, the USA is only a reluctant player and Britain shares most common ground with other European countries, the conclusions to be drawn for the conduct of British foreign policy are clear.
This closely argued memoir will be an essential source book for any student of British foreign policy over the past 40 years.
Michael Burton C. 2013
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