Getting Our Way. By Christopher Meyer. Phoenix £8.99.
A diplomat, it is commonly claimed, is a man sent abroad to lie for his country. Not only is Meyer aware of this saying, he actually regards it as a compliment. As former British ambassador to Germany and the US, he is well placed to write a history of diplomacy.
In some ways he is a maverick (his previous book, DC Confidential, was criticised by some for its supposed revelations), but he is clearly an establishment figure. His aim in writing this book is to argue for a revival of diplomacy and a proper ‘foreign’ policy, as opposed to one supposedly based on ‘the daft utopianism of ‘global values’. But what strikes a socialist is how open Meyer is about how diplomacy serves British national interests (i.e. the interests of the British ruling class).
By considering examples from the sixteenth century onwards, he looks at a number of cases where British diplomats have endeavoured to defend these ruling class interests, often with more than a little help from guns and gunboats. In China, for instance, a mission in 1793 was unsuccessful in gaining access to Chinese markets as a means of reducing the trade imbalance caused by the Western thirst for tea. Then in the mid nineteenth century, the Opium Wars achieved what mere negotiation had failed to win. In 1856 the bombardment of Canton led to further growth in ‘free trade’. Hong Kong became British territory as part of these shenanigans but, as Meyer says, ‘It was trade not territory that Britain was after.’
In the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia became another centre of conflict, with the Western powers fearful that fighting there would spread and destabilise the rest of the Balkans and perhaps an even wider area. It was these considerations that led to armed intervention in Kosovo. But in Africa there are few examples of such intervention, simply because Western national interests are not at stake in the same way.
Meyer quotes approvingly Palmerston’s statement that Britain has no eternal allies or enemies, just eternal interests, the main one being the protection and extension of trade. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British navy defended trade routes, the importing of raw materials and the slave trade. Nowadays the emphasis for the most powerful countries is on the struggle to control natural resources, as witness China’s activities in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, and also the tensions over the control of minerals under the Arctic ice cap.
So here is one representative of the ruling class who is well aware of what lies behind capitalist wars and is quite happy to proclaim that to the world. But of course he does not mention the millions of workers and peasants killed or maimed in these conflagrations.
The above book review is listed under the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard on the SPGB website but it's not in the PDF of the January 2011 Socialist Standard which is also on the SPGB website. Instead, the PDF carries the review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'm not sure what happened so I've included them both on the blog.