7 JULY 1973, Page 19

ome abroad at seventy

atrick Cosgrave

a el II ly

en, in the early hours of Tuesday mornSir Alec Douglas-Home left his birthday ty at Downing Street to fly to Helsinki for opening session of the second stage of the ks on European security he could be forgito for spending part of his journey indulging !hood of self-satisfaction. The plaudits ring in his ears were not merely those gladly ffered by friends and admirers, but those tung from enemies and dectractors. Home seventy looks a formidable, and well-nigh

rmanent, figure on the British political ge; and the fixed smiles of congratulation the faces of those who have sniped and Iped at him, and written him off time and ine again, would have given any normal Ic utnan being more than a minute or two of liVage pleasure. As it was Sir Alec probably

ad a bit — a Foreign Office paper or two "'Perhaps, probably a detective story — and lent. His inner coherence seems proof gains t criticism and praise alike; and proof, oo, against exhaustion.

The Vienna talks have just reached the end Li their first stage, and the next stage will il,q,egin on October 30. These have been called c

tae MBFR talks — the initials standing for i litual and Balanced Force Reductions (in Urope). The title for stage two has, however,

)ien changed — significantly, as will appear. 1he second stage of the Helsinki talks begins , week, the first having laid down general 01)jectives, the second being designed to re Ii these objectives to practical details, fi 1", tally to be agreed upon, it is hoped, at a huge „'is,arrimit conference in 1974. The Helsinki talks %1 with much larger, though not less prac l'oAeal, issues than those in Vienna. There is Lorne difficulty for both the Eastern and the "festern sides in the fact that the various sta ir Res of both sets of talks are not contempo !„" Ilneous: thus a side worsted, say, at Helsinki, ,41ight make difficulties at Vienna this autarnn and winter. The object of the Helsinki ,111kS is best staged in the British principle of diminished tension with undiminished seenrity."

The implementation of that principle, however, requires the overcoming of certain ob. Ldcles of varying intractability. At Helsinki, qage two, the Russians want to proceed im

i[ediately to the discussion of the drafts of 'inal communiques, these to be issued not at the end of stage two, but at the planned 1974 ,'rrnrnit conference. The dangers here are at nothing but generality, and certainly nthing of substance, likely to alter the still 4angerous pattern of European foreign Policy, will emerge at the end of several years cr diplomacy, and that because nothing is ieved in detail the Russians and their alties, already militarily vastly superior to the ATO alliance in Europe, will end with a po''tion of undiminished strength while, because (),f a tendency to euphoric optimism charac;,.eristic of democracies, the Western Powers will be weakened. The Russians have their Yes fixed on a summit parade; and a significant problem for the Western European countries is that the Americans, always Di'nne, especially under President Nixon, to ridiosity in foreign policy, and susceptible domestic pressure for pulling some of the QN's out of Europe, have more than a sneakl1 liking for the Russian plan: certainly, illericans and Western Europeans go to Hel4inki without a pre-co-ordinated policy. LSir Alec goes to Helsinki with the toted de7inination that this situation will not hap

The Government, with varying degrees of support from its European allies, is quite determined that the Helsinki exchanges will work in the opposite way from that which the Russians desire; that each step forward will be marked by the most careful and minute attention to detail; that whenever a British minister speaks, a position paper will be released to the press, showing the relationship between the generality he utters and the reality he is negotiating about; and if Britain does not get her way on the evolution of the talks, she is more than prepared to sabotage the 1974 summit, even against the will of the Americans and the Russians.

Professions of this kind of determination are out of tune with British foreign policy as conducted recently — at least in the Wilson years. As it happens, they can be tested to some degree by reference to what has happened at the MBFR talks in Vienna where, though the British regard the talks as far from satisfactory, they have been able to achieve a distinct triumph, through a combination of stubbornness and finesse. What the Russians have always wanted from the MBFR talks is a one-for-one reduction of troops and armaments on either side of the Iron Curtain. The theoretical end of such a process could reduce NATO forces to nil, leaving them and their allies with substantial power. It was for this reason that the Foreign office once opposed the use of the word balanced ' in the title of the talks, because that word, to a Western mind, seemed to mean one-for-one. To the Russians, however, it meant balanced in a wider, more asymmetrical, sense. For this reason they spent much time at the recently concluded stage of the talks trying to get rid of the word. Purely as a tactical ploy, the British resisted this move, to the puzzlement of their allies. Eventually, however, it was possible to wear the Russians down, and win from them a replacement for ' balanced ' which greatly widened ate scope of the talks. The replacement title is clumsy; it is a Foreign Office formulation; and it describes — though the Russians did not realise this until too late — precisely what Britain would like the talks to be about. From Octo

ber the exchanges will be called, "Negotiations on the mutual reduction of forces and armaments and associated measures in Central Europe." This, as it was put to me, is a British formulation for a British interest: it means that the next stage will not merely be about reductions, but about constraints and verification as well. The last point is one that the Russians have always resisted: it is nonetheless vital to the British principle of undiminished security.

The Vienna talks have suggested that British negotiators have regained at least some of the skills once traditionally associated with British diplomacy. But they suggest something more important as well — that, under Sir Alec in his latest phase, the Foreign Office has abandoned the tactical principle which Dr Kissinger (in The Troubled Partnership) found most characteristic 6f the conduct of British policy, that of always conceding the principle and then arguing about the implementation. That was, indeed, a principle appropriate to a Power which, since Suez, has always made it a cardinal rule never openly to disagree with the United States even if — as in the case of the NATO Multilateral Force — much covert energy was spent undermining American plans. Under Mr Heath and Sir Alec, enjoying as they feel they now do a larger European base, the emancipation from the United States has begun.

It is not surprising that it has been under Sir Alec that British policy has developed a measure of intransigence in the interests of these vital practicalities. As Foreign Secretary under Mr Macmillan he demonstrated a sometimes inconvenient and perturbing independence of mind (first examined by Mr Anthony Sampson, in the first edition of Anatomy of Britain). However, all his life since Munich he has been educating himself in the belief that intransigence depends on the possession of power: it was weakness at the time of Munich, he believes, which led to appeasement. This conviction that Britain needed a wider power base led him to espouse the cause of EEC entry: his conversion from loyalty to enthusiasm on this subject, he once told a party conference, came when he found, as Prime Minister, that this country could not go it alone on a major military air project. It is hardly to be wondered at, then, that, the wider base having been achieved, and these vital talks at Helsinki and Vienna entered upon, Sir Alec wants to stay on to guide his country's foreign policy under conditions nearer to what he has yearned for than at any time since he was first Foreign Secretary.

Practical-minded though he may be, however, Sir Alec's philosophy of foreign policy is highly generalised and subtle. His geo-political reasoning, and his grasp of the balance ot power, is rather similar to that of General de Gaulle: the great difference between them being that the General believed that weak ness dictated intransigence, while Sir Alec is convinced that intransigence is possible only with strength. His more important speeches are almost entirely general in character, not merely because generalisation is an impor tant activity to him, but because he believes that the public appreciate generality better than particularity, which is for the negotiat ing table: he has frequently struck out com plicated arguments in draft speeches sent to him and in his own, frequently off-the-cuff, addresses is sometimes in danger of confusing simplicity with simplification. This is a pity, because it means that audiences rarely see the sense of generalisation and the sense of detail fused together, in the way anyone does who talks privately about foreign policy to Sir Alec.

Nonetheless, it is that fusion, in discussioh and in the implementation of policy, which could be achieved by no other British politician, which makes him indispensable as a pilot in the dangerous waters ahead; and justifies the description of him by Shinwell as the best Foreign Secretary of this century.