As Britain entered the post-colonial age some four decades ago, Dean Acheson, principal architect of postwar United States foreign policy, made his notorious comment that while Britain had lost an empire she had not yet found a role. This begged the question - what role did Britain have when she was an imperial power? After all, as Seely put it, the British Empire was acquired "in a fit of absence of mind". The empire was in fact "lost through inattention", as another commentator put it.
Now that the empire has passed into history we need to find another way of describing the current aspirations of the new, post-colonial Britain. Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, saw Britain in the 1990s as a medium-sized power, "punching above its weight". Alas, the definition of "medium-size" is not readily available outside the United Nations cocktail party circuit.
Malcolm Rifkind, the foreign secretary, will no doubt make his contribution to the subject when he is ready. At present he has serious business on hand in Europe and Africa.
But he should at least look as much at the new Asia as at concerns elsewhere in the world. Asia is the most populous continent, containing some two-thirds of the human race. Nevertheless, media coverage of Asia in Britain is distressingly inadequate.
Today, of course, Britain is just one more European power, middle-sized or not. But surely, Britain could use its historical connections in a much more positive way. A modern Foreign and Commonwealth Office should see no incompatibility between membership of the European Union and an Asian foreign policy which promotes its own self-interest.
How then should a foreign and commonwealth secretary in the l990s approach the political and economic realities of Asia? Those of us who have lived in the region over many years would at least agree on one thing. He ought to keep the concerns of Asia at the head of his priorities.
He should always be aware of the impressive weight, in economic terms, of so many states in Asia. Japan, and the so-called four economic tiger cubs - Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong - are indeed formidable. Added to these should be the new might of India as well as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia to make a list of a combined force of 1.5 billion people.
We also have to take into account the potential of the People's Republic of China in the decades ahead and the extraordinary growth achieved under Deng Xiao Ping, now in his 92nd year. The population of India will reach one billion within the next decade. Of these there are perhaps 200-250 million possible consumers in an economy which shows every sign of considerable expansion.
British policy regarding India has varied from condescension to amnesia. British attitudes are that, because the Raj has gone, there is no need to be aware of a new and formidable force in the Indian sub-continent.
Financial analysts in Hong Kong, for example, have been overwhelmed by the demand for Indian securities. Some analysts see India as the new economic tiger of Asia. At the political level, one wonders whether Britain should not play a more active role in helping to improve Indo-Pakistani relations, given Britain's historic connections with both countries.
On Malaysia and Singapore Britain has had to spend a good deal of time and trouble trying to mend fences, given the unfortunate state of relations with these two important countries. Malaysia has been upset over the British media's reporting of allegations of corruption, in part related to the saga of the Pergau Dam, while in Singapore an unnecessary row has developed over the case of Nick Leeson, formerly of Barings Bank.
As far as ex-colonial Asia is concerned the time is now ripe for more purpose in foreign policy. It is, perhaps, time for some fundamental rethinking on Anglo-Japanese relations to take Britain into the 21st century. At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain forged an alliance with the Japanese which was only temporarily interrupted during the tragic years of the second world war. This could be the time to get closer to the Japanese on a more meaningingful basis.
A special relationship with Japan is called for, not least because of Japan's continuing interest in investing in Britain, especially in areas of high unemployment in Wales and the North-East.
British policy towards Japan should look forward and not back. Japanese investment into Britain should be further encouraged. For, although seriously dented by the current economic crisis, the potential of Japan is still enviable - its economy is in the top three in the world.
At the level of language, education and culture, there is scope for more co-operation. There is a greater affinity between Britain and Japan, those two royal island states, than between the US and Japan.
Ultimately, the great question is that of Hong Kong which passes to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. When the handover takes place Malcolm Rifkind may or may not be at the FCO, as the British general election is due before April of that year and the handover takes place on June 30, 1997. The question is, therefore, what, if anything, can Malcolm Rifkind do before 1997? He can remove the governor, Chris Patten, who is the major stumbling block to better relations, not only with the People's Republic of China, but also with Hong Kong's exasperated democrats. Chinese anger with Britain is undesirable and is wholly personal, directed, for the most part, at Patten. The Chinese see his constitutional reforms as a trick, in which he has changed everything while claiming to change nothing. Rifkind could take up the cudgel and adopt confrontational politics, but he will have to back or sack Patten.
On balance, it seems that Mr Rifkind will probably give at least formal support to the embattled Hong Kong governor. In any case Patten seems to have started, rather late in the day, to lean towards the Chinese. For example, Patten has seemingly given way to Chinese pressure on the Court of Final Appeal issue which means that China will, according to opponents of Patten's move, be in a position to manipulate the court and so the Basic Law for Hong Kong.
The Foreign Secretary has, of course, the option of dropping the pilot. Patten would be devastated, but the Secretary of State should ask himself whether Hong Kong, the final imperial jewel should be handed over in acrimony. A very sensible and imaginative solution would be to invite an ennobled "Lord" Douglas Hurd to steer the new Hong Kong into a calmer and more respectable future. He would be an excellent choice as the final governor. Patten could be found a suitable peerage and a set of directorships in the City of London.
For a very short period, Britain at least can act alone in the Hong Kong drama without the US or European allies. Indeed, British foreign policy is mostly constrained and its freedom of action is hardly possible any longer. If Britain is no longer an independent actor, then it requires much thought and no little imagination to conduct foreign policy freely at all.
If I were to summarise the challenge facing Britain in the 1990s, I would suggest three words to describe the matter, viz "We Need Allies". The problem is to secure suitable allies. Of all the many tasks facing Malcolm Rifkind this is one of the most awesome.
Peter Harris is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong.