6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 32

Gambits, ploys and checks

John Vincent

IN PURSUIT OF BRITISH INTEREST: REFLECTIONS ON FOREIGN POLICY UNDER MARGARET THATCHER AND JOHN MAJOR by Percy Cradock John Murray, £18.99, pp. 228 The genre to which this slim volume belongs is an unusual one: the world histo- ry of the very recent past thinly disguised as autobiography. It is an insider's view of why the arms race ended without mishap and how the West escaped Soviet domination. More important themes one can hardly imagine. It is carried off in style, with not a word wasted, with a gift for total recall, in the light of a belief that officials usually know best and matter most, and it portrays the mystique of negotiation as an arcane technique not readily accessible to out- siders. For anyone who wants to know what has really been happening in the world since the Falklands war this is a wise book by a cool and analytical mind, strong on depicting character, recalling mood and tempo, disentangling the complexities of the course of events, and weakened only by a final chapter of conventional Foreign Office Europhilia, seemingly written in 1996 just as the conventional Europhile position was starting to unravel.

Chapters on South Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf war and Yugoslavia, provide garnish for the specialist. Chapters on the Downing Street setting tell you which sec- retaries sat where. A chapter on Intelli- gence, where Sir Percy was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee 1985-92, is inevitably guarded. The picture of Lady Thatcher and her methods is a useful addi- tion to her biography: it is respectful, fair- minded, and mordant by turns, but I do not think Sir Percy could ever have been 'one of us'. The overall picture is that the UK in the 1980s did have a foreign policy, much as in the days of Pitt and Disraeli, that it was produced in No 10 rather than the FO and that, with reason, it centred on the superpowers. (Cradock does not recall any meeting to discuss our long-term aims in Europe during 1984-90.) But any lecturer who has committed himself to the view that mid-1980s Thatcherism was primarily about defeating the unions or inflation may now have to tear up his notes and begin again with the primacy of Thatcherism as Weltpolitik.

However, before we turn to the world of superpower politics in the 1980s, let us first look at what Cradock omits. These omis- sions signify as clues to the official mind of Whitehall, not as authorial weaknesses. There is hardly a word on the Indian sub- continent, tropical Africa, or the white Commonwealth. There is one sentence on Ireland, but not a word on Latin American policy in the post-Falklands decade (when the FO, to its credit, set up a special Falk- lands Unit). That should be no surprise. If Whitehall can get by without a doctrine about the less troublesome parts of the world, it will. More puzzling and myopic, though, is the omission of anything on China outside the context of Hong Kong. The hidden tides of Sino-Soviet relations here remain hidden, despite their obvious effect on Russian policy in the West.

Japan gets a paragraph, confirming that Whitehall has little idea of how to fit it into the scheme of things — a weird omission given its potential importance. Likewise foreign policy, as presented here, does not include the power politics of the world economy and currency system. Perhaps what took place behind the closed doors of G7 has sometimes mattered, but for Cradock there was no linkage between his role as foreign policy adviser and that other global arena where the great monetary offi- cials sought to add a point to the global growth rate. Trade war with the US apart, economic matters tended not to count as foreign policy.

For what would be the use of a point on global growth rates if the globe had been destroyed? Foreign policy, in the 1980s, was ultimately military. When Cradock took over as adviser, just after the Falk- lands war, no happy endings were in sight. Russia was ahead militarily and gaining ground. True, the Russian economy was weak, but then it had been so for decades, and this showed no sign of undermining Soviet capabilities. Because of technologi- cal progress, it was clear that the relatively safe Cold War of the 1970s based on MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) would not be around for ever. At any rate, we could not make the situation of the 1970s stand conveniently still.

For Russia there were windows of oppor- tunity: momentary missile supremacy in 1984, various opportunities to trade Ger- man reunification for German neutrality, opportunity created by Reagan's wish as a nutty American sentimentalist to leave behind a nuclear-free world. Russia could, till almost the end, have won game, set and match. Cradock's version of the 1980s is a useful antidote to any triumphalist history based on the hindsight of the 1990s.

Here one may usefully ponder the global Cold War context of the Falklands war of 1982— a context from which it has got strangely detached. Lady Thatcher and her allies had to act at a time when Russia's position was not only strong, but might soon get yet stronger. Two important ques- tions remain unanswered: this book yields no clue as to how we squared Russia over the Falklands, or why Russia did not turn it to account — or, more important still, whether the Falklands diminished the risk of a Russian pre-emptive strike about 1984. The answers must lie in the Moscow archives.

For both Reagan's America and Gor- bachev's Russia the way forward lay in breaking with orthodoxy, adopting higher- risk policies than usual (such as Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative, from which Lady Thatcher initially recoiled). In such a situation, the personal chemistry between international leaders became of consider- able importance to them in helping out- manoeuvre internal dissent, and the Iron Lady played the equivocal part of a Friend of Both Sides with flair and distinction. These were happy days for English diplo- macy. Cradock tells the inside story of how a British trade mark was placed on what were surely great gains for the human race.

In this record of success, too long and intricate to recount here, there was one stark exception: Herr Kohl. It was not that Lady Thatcher, for all her economy in the social arts, could not make herself agree- able when occasion demanded — that she rarely failed to do. With Herr Kohl she failed utterly, at every level: in terms of personal chemistry, despite a common wartime provincialism, but still more in terms of a failure of sympathy over reunifi- cation. Personalities apart, she only embodied the normal British view, then and now, that though we supported reunifi- cation in principle there was no need to hasten matters. This represented a general failure in British understanding of Ger- many, of what unity meant to Germans (until it happened), and, worse perhaps, of what unity meant to Washington. Isolation in Europe was perhaps bearable; isolation from Washington in addition was certainly not.

And yet how could we not fail in sympa- thy for Germany? We never went to Ger- many, except as squaddies. We had no German gites. The idea of our elite holiday- ing in a German version of Chiantishire was unthinkable. No one went there on `gap years'. Our schools barely taught Ger- man: German authors were closed books to us. We did business with Germans — in English: we often thought of them — in images of the second world war. We made no attempt to understand their experiences and their recovery. They were the far side of a mental Berlin Wall, and a price is being paid.

There is perhaps a hint of the Vicar of Bray, if not of simple nostalgia for lost influence, as the author in conclusion tries to move from pure Atlanticism to pure Europhilia, but that, no doubt, is what diplomacy is for. His story of world affairs may appear an everyday tale of logic, industry and strenuous persuasion. In reali- ty, it becomes far more than that when one recalls that saving the world, ending the Cold War, and stopping the arms race had to be fitted into any spare time left over from the petulance of Mr Heseltine, the endearments of Mr Scargill, poll tax riots and Question Time twice a week.