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Lord Ricketts

Gavin Esler talks to Lord Ricketts, doyen of diplomacy, who believes that after the chimera of “Global Britain” the country has to rediscover its real role in a multipolar world
STEVEN MAY / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, addressed the Bundestag in February 2022 to explain his response to the most dangerous security threat facing Europe since the end of the Cold War. Tens of thousands of Russian troops were pouring into Ukraine. Germany, Scholz said, had to change course because all of Europe stood at a Zeitenwende, a turning point. It was time to rethink old certainties in security and international relations.

But, as Scholz discovered and as Britain has found out since Brexit, turning points can be tricky. You need to decide which way to turn. In 1991 the world witnessed another geostrategic Zeitenwende when the Soviet Union finally collapsed and Americans talked about a “unipolar world”. The Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy drafted a classified document known as the Defense Planning Guidance. This DPG suggested that the United States would wield unrivalled military power for the foreseeable future. The American intellectual Francis Fukuyama put an even more hubristic gloss on the same idea when he said the USA was the lone superpower at “the end of history”.

Talk of Pax Americana was fashionable for a while, although to his credit an independent-minded democratic senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, was one of the original sceptics. Biden, of course, was correct to raise doubts. I lived in Washington at the time and thought that Fukuyama – un homme sérieux – sounded almost comically like the 1930s English spoof history book 1066 And All That. It suggested to generations of British schoolchildren that history must be coming to an end because the United States was destined eternally to be “top nation”. But real history is never so definitive.

The unipolar idea disintegrated. As a result we have in the 2020s our own confusing and potentially dangerous multipolar world. An assertive China, a newly invigorated India, the rise of Brazil and Nigeria, and the return of autocratic-style leaders in parts of Europe have all put an end to those 1990s delusions.

At Britain’s own self-made Zeitenwende, Brexit, we also overturned some old certainties. Chief among them, at least in the view of foreigners, is the tradition that the UK is generally predictable, rational, competent, values expertise and is rather good at acting in its national interest. Boris Johnson’s fecund imagination proclaimed otherwise. He would make the UK in unspecified ways “world-leading”, even “world-beating”, in a renewed Global Britain that Johnson promised would be the “greatest place on Earth” and “improve the quality of life for everybody”.

Now that the Boris blather has receded, those of us citizens of this rather wonderful nation we call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are trying to make sense of our place in the reality of the new world order – or disorder. Perspective, dedicated to solving problems rather than creating them, wanted to seek wise counsel about all this, and so turned to someone who for decades has thought deeply about Britain’s place in the world.

Peter (now Lord) Ricketts was a career civil servant. He chaired the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee under Tony Blair. Under David Cameron he became our first national security adviser. He then was the UK’s ambassador to France. More recently Ricketts is the author of a provocative and insightful book on Britain’s role in the world, Hard Choices. The title says it all; the UK has difficult days ahead and difficult decisions to make. In the book Ricketts compares the choices we must make now with some of the profoundly significant policy decisions necessary during and after the Second World War, most notably those taken by Churchill and Macmillan. Whether Rishi Sunak is up to the challenge of those forebears, we will see.

I suggest to Lord Ricketts that the self-congratulatory concept of a “unipolar” world in the 1990s now looks horribly out of date. “We certainly got it wrong,” he says, “because nothing is forever in life and in international affairs. The Francis Fukuyama hubris, the ‘end of history’ and all that, looks extremely dated. There was a balance of power very much in favour of the United States and its allies. That has completely changed – economics, tectonics, geopolitics have moved (and it’s) now multipolar.”

Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ricketts then surprises me by insisting that what has not changed is the value placed internationally on “the rule of law”. He explains that “international relations are better if they are subject to some rules that are set out in the UN charter” and most countries continue to abide by those rules. The exceptions make the news of course. They include leaders he describes as “authoritarians”, including Vladimir Putin, although widespread support for Ukraine demonstrates “it’s right for small countries to be protected from predatory neighbours, and the rule of law and human rights are worth pursuing”.

That’s a solid reason for optimism but I wonder where Britain might be in all this. What is our role in the post-Brexit world, if indeed anything so grand as a future British world role is realistic? In Hard Choices Ricketts describes how Prime Minister Harold Macmillan faced a similar turning point after the Suez debacle in the 1950s. He feared European countries were coalescing around France and Germany in what was to become the European Union, and that post-imperial Britain might be excluded from an alliance of our closest neighbours. Macmillan in 1959 therefore set up a top secret committee to examine the options under the guidance of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook.

It took a year but the committee concluded: “One basic rule of British policy is clear: we must not find ourselves in a position of having to make a final choice between the United States and Europe.” In any British dispute with Europe, Brook’s committee said, the Americans “are likely to throw their weight behind an ally for whom they have the most respect as being actively powerful”.

“We must not find ourselves in a position of having to make a final choice between the USA and Europe”

More than 60 years since that secret report hit Macmillan’s desk, you may consider whether in any future British-EU argument President Joe (“I am Irish”) Biden might tend to stand with 450 million Europeans rather than with 68 million British in what has become a less-than-completely-special relationship.

Ricketts picks up the point and gets to the heart of the British foreign policy dilemma of the 2020s and our own difficult turning point. “We have, by leaving the EU, weakened our role as the honest broker between the two sides of the Atlantic,” he says. “It was true to a large extent that for a long time we were the interpreter of Europe to the Americans, who never really understood what was going on in the EU, and to some extent the interpreter to Europeans of what was happening in the US. We were important to the Americans partly because we were influential in Europe. The less influential we are in Europe, the less interesting we are as a foreign policy player to the Americans.”

I mention that in my own recent travels around the world foreigners still cannot comprehend what Britain expected to gain by leaving the EU. “It’s a very baffling thing,” Ricketts agrees. “It probably is going to need twenty years of hindsight and a brilliant historian or two to unpick what was going on, what the forces were. I think many of us in this country are still very puzzled. And indeed the mood is shifting to the feeling that it was all probably a terrible mistake. One of the things we squandered was a sense overseas that whatever our peculiarities, we had robust common sense and a sense of our own interests; we were hard-headed, we were pragmatic, we were unemotional. I think we have lost that reputation from this period of national psychodrama. And that’s going to take a while to rebuild.”

In a time when British governments are more obsessed with tomorrow’s newspaper front pages than strategic planning for the next decade, I say that recovering Britain’s reputation for competence may prove difficult. Ricketts replies that even the idea of Norman Brook’s robustly independent committee deliberating in secret probably could not happen nowadays.

“It feels like two different planets,” he says, comparing now with the 1950s. Macmillan’s future policy study “was very, very hard-hitting. It warned Macmillan that, unless you do something, our relative position vis-à-vis both the Americans and the Europeans is going to decline.” Listening to expert advice, Macmillan acted immediately on both fronts. “Within months he’d been both to Nassau to sign the deal for Polaris [nuclear missiles] with Kennedy and also had his first shot at putting in an application to join the Common Market, which of course de Gaulle vetoed. And I don’t think we could do that now. Partly because the culture of secrecy is completely gone.

“There’s no way that the top echelon of the government could write a 50-page memo to the prime minister which would stay secret. The idea of longer-term strategic thinking was more in the DNA in that period, having come through the war and taken some wrenching decisions in the postwar time. There was also still a culture where advisers felt able to speak truth to power. That’s the other thing that’s really changed now – the politicisation of the senior civil service, the ousting of people who have the temerity to tell ministers things they don’t want to hear, and ministers being willing to take it seriously and not shoot the messenger – whether it’s Kim Darroch in Washington or Ivan Rogers in Brussels or various permanent secretaries around Whitehall.

“And if you don’t have that honest advice, then you won’t get the best decisions either. That’s a real heart of the problem that we’ve got now in terms of governance of the UK.”

Kim Darroch was UK ambassador in Washington. He informed the British Government early in 2017 that, as US President, Donald Trump was disorganised, unreliable and – to put it bluntly – likely to be a disaster in the White House. Ivan Rogers, formerly the UK’s chief representative to the EU, pointed out to ministers that Brexit would never be an event; it would always be a process, and a very difficult one at that. For their – now obviously accurate and important expert advice – both men felt it necessary to leave their posts. Our loss.

As for Lord Ricketts, despite his pessimism about Britain’s current difficulties with strategic thinking and the way in which expert advice has been ignored, he points to some hopeful signs. Under Rishi Sunak (who does seem to value expert advice) he suggests that British diplomacy and governance is returning to its tradition of competence, at the same time as the authoritarian model of other countries has been exposed for its
serious weaknesses.

“It’s possible in an authoritarian state to think about the next generation, to make five-year plans, to lay out glossy schemes,” he says. “Nobody will challenge you, which is very handy. But that’s a problem as well. If the plans turn out to be bad plans, because they haven’t been tested and contested, then you can really run the country into major difficulty.

“The war in Ukraine… nobody contested Putin’s decision to do that, but it’s turned out to be catastrophic. The zero-covid policy in China was far from being a good idea, clearly never contested. Nobody dared say to Xi Jinping this was really harming the economy. So the authoritarian’s capacity to lay out long-term plans is fine if the plans are good, but it can also be very damaging.”

As Ricketts himself well knows, the “authoritarian” style of not listening to expert opinions and instead bullying decent public servants has a British variant too. History may record that trying to persuade Priti Patel, Chris Grayling, Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Suella Braverman or Jacob Rees-Mogg that their ideas were doomed to fail has not added up to some of the finest hours of British governance. Ricketts rightly says it is always up to individual politicians whether they want to hear honest advice, but why on earth wouldn’t they? Aren’t advisers supposed to, well, advise?

He sums up: “Classically, Britain has been an archetypal team player. We have kept ourselves secure and prosperous because we have been brilliant at playing the multilateral game. We made sure that, coming out of the Second World War, we were best friends with America. We secured ourselves a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We were often the ones drafting the resolutions, coming forward with possible solutions to the world’s problems, always at the heart of the multilateral system.

“I think we checked out on that over our period of Brexit psychodrama. We tried Johnsonian exceptionalism, where we made out we were capable as an independent solo operator of returning to a Global Britain position in the world. That dismally failed, in short order. We are now back. The documents the government are putting out recognise that we are strongest when we are working with our allies, both in Europe and America and, more widely, the Commonwealth – not much talked about these days but still a reservoir of kith-and-kin contacts with a capacity to influence. So I think we are back in that spirit.

“The idea of a Global Britain was never going to work. In relative terms, we have declined”

“Almost all the problems we face can only be solved internationally. That’s why I think the government’s policy on China, as was set out the other week by [Foreign Secretary] James Cleverly, is a good policy because it recognises there is no simple answer to China either.
“So yes, Britain should be a classic multilateralist. We’ve got the power of English, which can always be fantastically useful. We’ve got contacts all around the world. And we’ve got a civil service and a diplomacy – dare I say it? – that is still well respected for having ideas, if we’ve got the ministers with the bandwidth and the attention to go out there and do the job.

“The idea of a Global Britain was never going to work. In relative terms, we have declined. We’ve still got major assets, but we haven’t been husbanding them. We haven’t been helping them to prosper over the past five or ten years and we now need to put that period behind us in a period of political calm and a little bit more respect for the institutions of the country.”

Hard Choices ends, like our conversation, with a degree of optimism. Ricketts notes that one of the most striking aspects of the Brexit referendum was that those aged between 18 and 24 overwhelmingly voted to remain; soon that generation will be running the country. “They will arrive in power in politics and business knowing that they have been denied precious benefits without any compensating advantages from Britain’s new ‘independent’ status. They will not be encumbered by nostalgic fantasies about a return to a golden age of Britain’s greatness.”

I think Peter Ricketts is broadly right. So were Kim Darroch and Ivan Rogers and Sue Grey and Lord Geidt and Sir Alex Allan and a host of other hugely experienced and qualified British civil servants and ethics advisers who one way or another did not fit what recent British administrations felt they needed. Perhaps, at last, we are learning the lesson that has been part of British history since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 1850s: a turning point, a Zeitenwende, is an opportunity to build a better future in a rapidly changing world by relying upon the advice of experts. And that opportunity is easily squandered if it instead becomes an exercise in nostalgically trying to recapture the glories of a largely imaginary past.

“Hard Choices”(Atlantic Books) is out now

Gavin Esler’s new book, “Britain Is Better Than This”, will be published by Head of Zeus in September

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