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The best books on Diplomacy

recommended by Michael Palliser

Veteran diplomat Michael Palliser discusses his friend Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic skills and says his experiences in post-war Germany made him a committed European

Michael Palliser

Sir Arthur Michael Palliser is the vice chairman of the Salzburg Seminar's Board of Directors and a former senior British Diplomat who worked with Ted Heath, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher.

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Michael Palliser

Sir Arthur Michael Palliser is the vice chairman of the Salzburg Seminar's Board of Directors and a former senior British Diplomat who worked with Ted Heath, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher.

Save for later

You’ve chosen Henry Kissinger’s book first.

Kissinger’s book is called Diplomacy, but it is really a monumental historical work where the conduct of international relations is interwoven through every one of the different aspects of it that he talks about. That was really the basis on which I chose the books that I have mentioned to you. Much of the book is devoted to Europe, and especially to European power struggles and relationships in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, in doing that, Kissiner is really addressing the unfolding of American foreign policy in the 20th century, and especially the direction it should now take. He talks about the singularities that America has ascribed to itself throughout its history, which have produced two contradictory attitudes towards foreign policy: one of them being the desire to perfect democracy at home and act as a beacon for the rest of mankind, and the other one being the view that America’s values make it obligatory to crusade for them around the world. However, he pays absolutely no attention to the post-war construction of the European community and to the influence that it exerted on the economic and political development during that period. It’s an immense canvas that he covers, and there are lacunae and you can criticise a certain amount of it – but I reckon that it’s an exceptionally interesting book. It’s a remarkable intellectual achievement.

Why do you think Kissinger does miss out the European Union?

I got to know him really rather well, and he’s always taken a fairly Gaullist view of Europe; he’s very much affected by the Europe of the past, by 18th- and 19th-century politics. Now if you talk to him about it, he understands perfectly, but when he wrote this book he wasn’t really thinking in terms of Western Europe’s economic and political development. He once said about Europe, ‘I don’t know, if I pick up the telephone, who I should talk to.’ Of course, he did actually know. The person he should have talked to, because that was the way Europe was developing, was the Danish foreign minister, because Denmark was in the Chair in the six-month period during which he wanted to make his call. He didn’t like the Danish foreign minister and, anyway, he didn’t think Denmark was important enough. So he had a blind spot about Western Europe but, nonetheless, it’s a very remarkable book.

You say you got to know him very well. He’s a very controversial figure. What personal view do you come away with?

When I tell the younger members of my family that I’m going to see Henry Kissinger, they say, ‘Oh! The merchant of death!’ He is a very controversial figure, and much of his political activity was pretty controversial, but, whether one likes it or not, and whether one approves of the methods or not, there is no doubt that he and Nixon established a relationship with China and he and Nixon got America out of Vietnam at a time when America had to get out of Vietnam. One can take a positive or negative view of that, but, on the whole, I take a positive view. One forgets that this is a German, born in Germany, who left as a boy, a Jewish boy in the early 30s, and then became a really extraordinary figure in American intellectual, political and historical life. Unlike some of the others of his time, he could never be president because he was not born there.

Do you like him?

Yes, I do like him. I do. I may be a bit exceptional, but I do. An awful lot of people abhor him, but as an individual I find him entertaining and intelligent and amusing to talk to. I saw him not long ago, and, like all of us, he’s getting old – but he’s still very good value!

Tell me about Duff Cooper.

I don’t know how many biographies of Talleyrand there are in English and in French. I’ve read several in both languages over the years, but Duff Cooper achieved an extraordinary feat with this short book. It’s only about a hundred and fifty pages long. It brings Talleyrand completely to life and covers his own life, bringing out the person he was and the achievements he had to his credit(or, as some people would say, to his discredit). In a funny kind of way, Talleyrand has the same sort of problems with his personality and so on as Kissinger. There are some people who think he was a real scoundrel, and there are others who admire him greatly.

Tell me what kind of person he was, and what his achievements were.

He was devious, crafty, a fundamental survivor. He was a priest, which people tend to forget – I think he himself forgot it fairly often. He had a fairly interesting personal life. He managed to survive and steer French foreign policy through a very difficult period during the Revolution, the Napoleonic period and post-Napoleon. He was the French representative at the Congress of Vienna, which sorted out Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, but he also served Napoleon very faithfully for a while. He had a great capacity for compromise, for staying on the right side of things, for spotting which was the right side of things and making for it. He rendered very considerable service to France, quite apart from managing to keep going himself and to survive through all sorts of difficult periods and jobs at a time in history when survival was jolly difficult.

Do you think that being devious is a key attribute for a diplomat?

No. I think it depends a little bit how you define ‘devious’. A diplomat has to understand why people are doing things, and one of the essentials in any diplomatic negotiation is to start by asking yourself what you want, what you hope to achieve, and then to ask yourself what the other guy wants and how he will try and get it, and then to be willing to sway with the punch of that and to recognise that if you are going to have an agreement you are going to have to compromise with what the other person wants. Is that devious? I don’t know, but it’s part of diplomatic skill.

Tell me about Postwar.

Richard Mayne was a very remarkable man. He died not long ago, and I knew him pretty well. He was a passionately keen European, and he knew all the leading continental Europeans. He worked in the coal and steel community and at the commission in Brussels, but he was also a journalist and wrote several books. I found Postwar extremely interesting. It deals really with the whole period from the end of the war in 1945 to the Rome Treaty [1957] and all that. It’s a very positive account of the way Europe developed in that period – what made people want to have a united Europe – and it’s written from the perspective of someone who believed in it but who was also immersed in it and describes it really very well. It’s a kind of prelude to the Tony Judt book about the period after the war, which I might have chosen if I hadn’t thought of Richard Mayne. Mayne brings a special dimension. He understood what was going on in a way which not many British people did or do now. The understanding of what it was that made people want a European community is pretty poor.

How do you understand what it was that made people want a European community?

Well, I think I was fortunate enough, if that’s the right way to describe it, to be in the British Army as a young officer during the last year of the war, fighting in northwest Europe on into Germany, and then spending 18 months in immediate postwar journey, in various places including Berlin, and I saw on the ground the real enormity of what had been done to Europe. It’s very hard to describe, although it’s not hard to remember, how simply dreadful life was in postwar Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium – but particularly in Germany. I’ve never regretted having had that experience, but it’s that which made me come away thinking that this really must never be allowed to happen again and that the way to deal with it was to bring the countries of Europe closer together.

A fascinatingly simple explanation for something which I think a lot of people try hard to make complicated.

It’s not complicated at all. Although I never discussed it with him in detail, I think it was the same reasoning that made Ted Heath the convinced European that he was. He was older than me, I think a Brigadier in the army, also serving in Germany. A number of us had the same feeling, and I think having lived through that period is a great help to one’s understanding.

Tell me about the de Gaulle book.

A fascinating book. I’ve got about twenty books, mainly in French, about de Gaulle, and I can’t find – to my sorrow – Le Fil de L’Epée, which I think was translated into English as ‘The Blade of the Sword’ or something. It was written in the early 30s when de Gaulle was a colonel in the French army, and in the book he describes what a leader should be and do. It’s fascinating in that it is an exact description of the way he behaved when he was a leader during and after the war. Having observed him a bit at the time and seeing him come back to power, I can see that it’s a description of what enabled him to be the strong leader that he was. It’s almost an autobiography, written before rather than after. He described how a great leader ought to behave, and then he went on to behave that way ten years later.  His impact on French diplomacy was incredible. He was an international diplomat of the calibre of anybody you like.

How should one behave, just in case it ever arises?

You don’t compromise; you have a very clear vision of what the national interest is – this, specifically, is a very nationalistic book about France. There’s the famous line at the beginning of his memoirs, as you know: ‘All my life I’ve had a certain idea of France.’ That spirit informs the book, and it’s about how you stand up against he opponent, how you argue your way through a problem, always maintaining a firm position, always being absolutely clear in your objective. It’s a description of a very intransigent, difficult, determined person. That exactly describes General de Gaulle.

Do you think Thatcher read it?

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know. She would have felt a certain affinity if she had read it. I ought to have asked her.

There’s still time!

There is. But we’re both of us past our prime, let’s put it that way.

Your final choice is The Boys on the Bongo Bus.

This one is quite different, but it’s written by someone who’s become a very good friend. John was a journalist, a good journalist who came into his own when he was appointed the Daily Mail’s diplomatic correspondent in the days when the diplomatic correspondents of the big newspapers were a sort of clique, knowing each other very well, and the Foreign Office news department had a separate briefing for them every day. These were men – and it was entirely men at that time, there were no women, in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s – who had a great interest in foreign policy, acquired a very considerable knowledge of the world and British policy in particular, and wrote about it intelligently, but who also had discretion in knowing when they should not report things. There was a kind of empathy, if you like, which that group had with the people in the Foreign Office. It’s called The Boys on the Bongo Bus because they were somewhere in Africa accompanying the Foreign Secretary and the woman who was dealing with them said, ‘Come on! The Bongo bus is ready to go!’ It’s also an entertaining book because it describes the life they led following the Foreign Secretary on his travels, and it gives a different kind of perspective.

What kind of thing?

Well, he describes travelling with Alec Hume, Peter Carrington and Tony Crossland – just episodes in those travels. It’s not a serious book like Kissinger’s or any of the others, but it’s a rather mischievous look at the way British foreign policy was conducted at home and abroad during that period.

Is that your period? Does it describe the work you were doing?

I joined the Foreign Office in 1947 and I left it in 1982, as permanent undersecretary. Those were the years I was serving – but there were particularly active periods. I was in Paris for the transition between the Fourth and Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle, and then I was there again ten years later and I interpreted for Ted Heath in his talks with Pompidou which led to the recognition that they should let us into the European Community. I had four years with Harold Wilson in Number 10, and then I dealt with Callaghan, Crossland, Owen and Carrington with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

Who did you like best?

I liked Peter Carrington best. He is a remarkable man.  But the others were all very interesting in their different ways. Crossland, if he hadn’t had his stroke and died, would have been a remarkable Foreign Secretary. Callaghan of course became Prime Minister. Owen was perhaps promoted a big young, but he had an extraordinary feel for foreign policy.

You say Owen was promoted a bit young. What on earth must you think of this lot?

Well, I worry a bit.

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