Fiendishly difficult to find the flexibility

The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy
September 26, 2003

Does Jack Straw read Christopher Hill? The strategic priorities for British foreign policy, as enunciated by the foreign secretary to last year's conference of British ambassadors, are: minimising the threat to international and domestic security posed by weapons of mass destruction and terrorism; minimising other threats to the UK; maintaining a stable international system; promoting UK economic interests; promoting democracy, good governance and development; bolstering the security of British and global energy supplies; and building a strong European Union in a secure neighbourhood.

The main expectations we have of foreign policy, as adumbrated by Hill, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, are: protecting citizens abroad; projecting identity abroad; maintaining territorial integrity and social peace; advancing prosperity; making decisions on interventions abroad; negotiating a stable international order; and protecting the global commons. There is a certain correspondence. Hill tells truth to power. Power sometimes listens.

Foreign policy is political action, Hill reminds us, or political argument.

Practically and ethically, it is extremely important and fiendishly difficult. Most people expect too much of it, academics too little. "Almost every strategy needs negotiating with a wide range of other actors, many of them bewildering and intractable in their conduct. Even if it makes little sense not to have any planning function, built in to any idea of implementation must be an acceptance that the eventual outcomes may be unrecognisable to their initiators or simply null. Certainly they are unlikely to be 'final', for international relations are made mainly in minds and on paper. Some institutions achieve physical presence but, in general, the outcomes of foreign policy are contingent and perpetually contestable. Attempts to fix matters through measures such as iron curtains or forced migration just attract opposition."

The tone of that passage is the tone of the book, at once judicious and acute. Hill is the voice of reason. "Foreign policy can lose wealth (through over-stretch, war or simply an excessive sense of international responsibility) but it can rarely create solidly based prosperity."

He is a penetrating reader, rescuing several earlier works from undeserved obscurity. He hardly ever indulges himself, but the annotated notes sometimes add a flourish to a remarkably plain text. "To R. G.

Collingwood's argument that it is how the people living on an island respond to their situation that determines their degree of insularity, O.

K. Pate drily responded that 'people cannot conceive of their insular position in any way unless they live on an island'." A note appends the thought that Switzerland is a standing rebuttal to Pate.

Plainness is a virtue easily overlooked. The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy is a deeply pondered and heartfelt work. As a primer, for the fogged student or the fuddled functionary of state, it is unsurpassed.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy

Author - Christopher Hill
ISBN - 0 333 75421 2 and 75423 9
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Price - £52.50 and £18.99
Pages - 376

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