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Masterclass on Britain's role in the world: Jonathan Powell

last modified Jun 01, 2015 08:52 AM
Masterclass on Britain's role in the world: Jonathan Powell


On Thursday 21st May 2015, CoGGS held a Masterclass on Britain's role in the world with British diplomat and author Jonathan Powell. Mr Powell served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, from 1997 to 2007.

He began by reflecting on his experience in the Foreign Office, informing the class that when he first entered the diplomatic service, during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, his principal training consisted of being given a copy of Harold Nicholson's 'Diplomacy' and a guide to placement.

Mr. Powell offered insights from his involvement in major diplomatic negotiations, including the Sino-British talks on the sovereignty of Hong Kong, arms control talks in Stockholm and the CSCE negotiations in Vienna, the 2+4 talks on German unification, the Northern Ireland peace talks and his current role as the UK special envoy to Libya and as CEO of the charity Inter Mediate. He suggested that responsibility for decision making in diplomacy had been increasingly sucked upwards in recent decades and that it was increasingly the preserve of prime ministers. The most important Foreign Office work now occurs in multilateral institutions.

Mr. Powell bemoaned the lack of historical perspective that underpins diplomatic analysis. Having recalled a masterful memorandum that Sir. John Fretwell wrote on German unification, placing events in their historical context, he lamented the failure of diplomats and policymakers to see the Arab Spring in its larger perspective. History should teach us that revolutions are likely to trigger a counter-revolution and that it would be wrong to think the Arab Spring is over.

He regretted that the basis on which Britain has built its foreign policy since 1945 is on the verge of collapsing. Having lost its Empire, Britain's world role was dependent on the Transatlantic Relationship and a leading role in Europe. While the personal relationship between leaders can enhance U.S./UK relations, Mr. Powell argued the ties between the intelligence communities and armed forces of the two countries were equally important. Reflecting on his own experience dealing with the Clinton administration over Kosovo, he stressed that British leaders should give advice to U.S. presidents but shouldn't be seen to be directing their actions. The cutting back of Britain's military forces threatens its role as America's most dependable ally.

Even more concerning to Mr. Powell was Britain's diminished role in Europe. This also threatened Britain's significance to Washington. While the Blair government had attempted to build a troika with Germany and France, Britain was now on the sidelines in the Ukrainian crisis and the threat of leaving the EU left it further marginalized. Britain's diplomatic isolation would also leave it incapable of adopting a sensible policy of humanitarian intervention when it was required.

He urged Britain's leaders to propose a positive agenda on Europe and to learn the lessons from past interventions rather than focusing on fighting the final five minutes of the last campaign. Mr. Powell stressed how difficult it was for Britain to have an independent foreign policy and said that, rather than punching above its weight in the world, Britain had now left the ring and was barely boxing at all.

However, he saw hope for the future in a new generation of British diplomats and confided to the class that Tony Blair had once told him that he wished he's done something useful at University and studied history rather than law!