Rue Brittania, the limping lion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 1995, 12:00am

WHY is it that the British seem cursed with the ability to knock their achievements, to denigrate their world role, to be unsure of themselves? Once again when Britain tried to analyse its place in the world in a conference of 700 diplomats, politicians, business leaders, academics and experts in international relations this week there was a tendency to flounder over internal differences and reach only limited consensus on what the UK's real role should be in these post-Cold War days.

Prince Charles has made no secret of his disdain for those who would sell the country short, urging Britain to shake off a mantle of low morale and a lack of self-confidence.

'It is hardly surprising that our self-confidence as a nation is at a low ebb when we are subjected day after day to widespread cynicism about so many aspects of our national life,' he said. 'There is a persistent current that flows along undermining the integrity and motives of individuals, organisations or institutions.' Foreigners had noticed it and they thought Britain was crazy not to take far greater pride in itself.

For the future king the aspects Britain could be proud of in its foreign relations were the strength of its armed forces, its diplomatic service, its commerce and charity as well as the robust character of its people.

The conference, 'Britain in the World' was meant to be a far reaching look forward over a globe where the momentum of change threatens to overwhelm those involved in day-to-day crises and where the ideological imperatives of the Cold War have gone and aims are confused.

Both Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and his Opposition Shadow Robin Cook admitted that some issues, like Britain's continued membership of the European Union, were settled. But it was Prime Minister John Major who suggested that the question of Britain's close relationship with the US was open.

For Major, a broad-reaching analysis of where Britain stood in the world was a splendid opportunity to turn the nation's sights away from the European Union for a while and his party problems there. 'The domestic debate has focused far too narrowly on the internal workings of the European Union,' he said. It was distracting from Britain's role as a world player in her own right with her own global agenda that was not about to be handed over to Europe.

A conference like this also allowed the presentation of grand statistics on Britain as the third largest overseas investor across the world and it let a bevy of reasons be put forward on why Britain should maintain its potentially permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Of course foreign policy can never be created out of one day of speeches and 'break out sessions' between the intellectually worthy. The occasion was principally designed to mark the 75th anniversary of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. It featured speakers including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, leading international businessmen, the head of the Foreign Office Sir John Coles and several prominent academics.

Guests included the film director Sir David Puttnam, half the Cabinet and even figures like explorer Col John Blashford Snell.

There were lots of brave words from the players. Douglas Hurd was typical: 'The effort which Britain now makes in the world is an effort which Britain can and should sustain and increase,' he said. 'We are not pretending to be grander than we are. I have never been interested in a policy of prestige.' But the problem of brave statements on foreign policy is that they tend to become a kind of ideological auto-suggestion. Enough brave words and you start to believe them whether they are true or not.

Both Tory and Labour parties in Britain admit that at least half of their foreign policy preoccupations are linked to the European Union. After that the UK keeps a close eye on the US and its so-called special relationship with Washington.

So Henry Kissinger was invited to give what we might call the Atlanticist view. But he stressed the importance of links between Europe and the US. Note Europe, not the UK. Major might have wanted him to stress the importance of Britain's special relationship with the US. He did not.

'I believe that the realistic approach of American foreign policy is to recognise a fundamental difference in the relations between Europe, within Europe and in the relations with Asia,' he said. Britain had played a special role in World War II and afterwards but there was a commonality between European states now and the US should not have a special relationship with any one of them.

'In that sense, whatever the differences in approach between the core countries of the European Union and the (European) rim countries, this is the dominant factor of Europe,' he said.

'That is not the case in Asia. We can talk about a Pacific community but anybody studying the relations of Japan, China, Korea, the Asian part of Russia, even India to each other must come to the view that at this stage their relations to each other are more similar to the relations of 19th-century European states to each other than of 20th-century European states.' Net result: the US and Europe needed a special relationship with each other, even a North Atlantic Free Trade Zone (forget APEC) from which the Western Hemisphere partners could act together 'with purpose and direction' whenever conflict threatened in other parts of the world, including Asia. Despite his analyses of the changes Dr Kissinger would not appear to have changed his views on Western influence on the East in 30 years.

The conference did find a new strength in an old concept though - the British Commonwealth as a democratic force and a commercial asset to its members. That is something unheard of from British politicians in recent years, not unattached to the fact that Britain was constantly decried within the organisation for not toeing the party line on sanctions against formerly apartheid South Africa.

Sadly, if the Commonwealth intends to do anything about guarantees for Hong Kong it may have come too late, for there is a widespread view among several member states that nothing must be done to rock the boat with Beijing.

The 75th anniversary of the RIIA ended up far from being an embarrassing journey through the singing of Land of Hope and Glory and the waving of the Union Flag. Nor, as Douglas Hurd pointed out, was it to be his swansong - that will have to wait.