23 FEBRUARY 1962, Page 6

To See the. Emperor Naked


A RECENT history of British foreign policy tsince the war* opens with the admission that it 'deals with the surface of events, which I; all that a contemporary book on foreign policy can do.' If a writer who has devoted his time to producing a whole book on foreign affairs must speak in this depreciatory way of his efforts, how can a mere day-to-day commentator hope to avoid inaccuracy or banality?

Mr. Woodhouse was referring in particular to the secrecy that makes it impossible to deal with that major part of diplomacy which is not public knowledge, but another considerable difficulty arises from the atomisation of international affairs. Up to 1914 a writer on foreign policy would have had to deal with events arising out of decisions made in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Constantinople. All of these cities he could reasonably have been expected to visit for the purpose of acquiring sources of information. At that time the centre of the maze was recognisably European, and it was not inordinately difficult to follow its wind- ings closely.

But today the increasing flow of material pre- sented by modern communications soon makes the writer aware that he cannot possibly have first-hand knowledge of all the new centres of power. He may travel widely, but he cannot hope to have that experience of residence in influential countries which is necessary if anything like an instinctive understanding of their policies is to be acquired. The position is complicated rather than eased by the recent discovery which govern- ments have made : that the newer and smaller the country, the more it must rely on an intru- sive public relations service. Deluged with print, the journalist must rely on other sources to check it: what he has heard of the country in question, the opinion of people he has met who have conic from it and, above all, the expert's view of what has been happening There. Unfortunately, this reliance on the expert's view does not only extend to countries, but also to whole subjects that have the most direct bearing on foreign affairs—the technology of missiles, Kremlinology, the economics of foreign aid; etc. But the diffi- culty is that, since many of these experts hold opposite views, the commentator will make his choice between them not only on grounds of general logical probability and coherence, but also in accordance with the likelihood of alterna- tive theories as he sees them in relation to his own opinion of the world scene. in other words, he will be in danger of arriving at his synthesis by means of elements which themselves have been determined by a prejudice in favour of the whole which they are intended to support.

For instance, it must lessen belief in theories about the Berlin crisis when we note that any such theory is a hypothesis based upon two other hypotheses: one concerning the intentions of the Soviet Union, the other concerning its mili- * BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY SINCE THE SECOND WORLD WAR. By C. M. Woodhouse. (Hutchin- son.) tary strength in relation to that of the US and its allies. In these circumstances consistency is often gained at the cost of neglecting fact. Since 1958 commentators have shown a singular skill in using every development of the Berlin affair to prove their own initial view of the USSR and its foreign policy—an ingenious game, but one which is played at a considerable remove from reality.

The mainspring of this kind of problem is as secret as anything in the 'old' diplomacy, and it is useless to pretend that an analyst can do much more than bring order into the alternatives, avoiding the grosser errors of logic and prob- ability such as the attribution to our opponents of a limitless malevolence or 'cunning. The choices to be made are bound up with the histori- cal enigma of Russia's future. Though one may believe firmly that it will develop in one direc- tion rather than in another, this is of no help when it comes to calculating how far the evolu- tion has proceeded at a given moment or how it is affecting immediate issues of peace and war. An observer of post-Thermidorean France would .have been right to note a diminution of revolutionary fervour, but he would probably have failed to remark the existence of Napoldon Bonaparte.

Of course, foreign offices often possess infor- mation about imponderables which is not avail- able to journalists, and something can be gathered from background briefings and talks with officials of one's own or other countries. But this is another form of reliance on the expert, and this time on the expert who has an interest in getting his department's view accepted without necessarily being able to put forward the facts on which it is based. If in some of its aspects diplo- macy Was become more 'open,' to the extent of furnishing an embarrassing abundance of infor- mation, in others it has receded into the twilit world of intelligence reports. The writer on foreign affairs must therefore resign himself to the fact that the data which he possesses are ex- ceedingly imperfect, and that the improbability of his theories increase in geometrical proportion with every new element in a chain of reasoning.

Is there any remedy? One which is currently adopted in the British press is to exhort rather than explain. Governments, Ministers, officials must be advised, condemned, patted upon the hack. If the courses advocated by the writer arc not adopted, then doom and disaster will issue. This approach to writing on foreign affairs ; often combined with the conspiracy and; or Giitierdiimmening theory of history. Lips are smacked with gleeful gloom over the rude awak- ening which State Department or Foreign Office are going to get through their neglect of Mr. X's advice, while Mr. X himself, who, if he really believed his own predictions, should be emigrat- ing to some remote part of the world, remains untroubled in his London office.

At the moment British comment on inter- national affairs seems to contain rather too much of this 'type of ingredient. If these admonitions are addressed to foreign governments, they can hardly be expected to have much impact. If they are addressed to our own, it can hardly have escaped the commentators' notice (since we must assume that they are reasonable men) to what extent Britain's freedom of action is limited. Clarion calls for Britain to 'take the lead' are likely to have about as much effect as similar calls to a flagging runner in an Olympic mile.

For this reason I prefer the word `is' to the word 'should' in the discussion of foreign affairs, while believing that in practice affirma- tions of this kind frequently have to be put in the form 'either/or.' Reasoned analysis seems just as likely to reveal the folly of governments as moralising bluster or foreign policy horror comics. It also has the advantage of doing more to put things right. If the writer on foreign affairs has a place at all, it is because a reason- able discussion of the issues involved is sup- posed to have sonic effect in producing better policies.

For if he cannot always answer questions, he can at least ask them. 'Aid to underdeveloped countries.' The phrase has become a universal panacea: but how much aid from whom to which underdeveloped countries where and how? 'Com- munist penetration in Africa.' But to what extent is it not inevitable that one of the two most powerful States in the world will exercise in- fluence in Africa, and is this necessarily to the disadvantage of the West, which otherwise is likely to be saddled with the responsibility when things go wrong in that anarchic continent? The Commonwealth': does the Commonwealth still mean anything? And if so, what?

To- analyse the alternatives in a given situa- tion, the writer on foreign affairs requires (in addition to as much information as he can digest) the common sense which will enable him not only to see the emperor naked, but also the feeling for historical change which will indicate to him who the emperor is at any given moment. Common sense may serve to detect the weak- nesses in a chain of theory—above all the major weakness that it is a chain of theory—while a feeling for history will provide some guidance by which to distinguish the accidental event from a more general movement of change. With all this he may still be wrong, but his mistakes may at least be interesting ones, marking a step to- wards the truth though they fail to attain it.

'They think they're trailing me to the Elephants' Graveyard, but actually 1 intend to be