Managing the Cold War: A view from the front line
(RUSI: London, 2005), pp. 267. ISBN 0-85516-191-4
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Michael Alexander, a Russian-speaking senior British diplomat who died in 2002, was a major behind-the-scenes figure in what he calls the ‘management’ of the cold war to a peaceful conclusion. (For his career, see this obituary .) Since, furthermore, he is right to say that this, together with the reunification of both Germany and Europe without major violence, ‘was arguably the most important, most welcome and least costly … of the positive politico-military achievements of the twentieth century’, this book is most valuable. It not only contains many shrewd and stimulating reflections written after the events but confidential documents written at the time, including some letters to Margaret Thatcher when he was her private secretary for foreign affairs.
For students of diplomacy, as opposed to historians of the cold war, it is what Alexander has to say about multilateral diplomacy – especially in the CSCE negotiations culminating in the Helsinki Final Act (1975), the MBFR talks (1973-89), and within NATO itself – that is particularly instructive. He highlights the formality which tends to characterise pre-negotiations in multilateral diplomacy (which I have tended to overlook) (pp. 29-34), and provides a long paper written in 1975 on the strengths and weakness of the Russian negotiating style. He is illuminating – and wise – on the need for an informal ‘directorate’ of the most powerful members, albeit tactfully conducted, in such bodies as NATO (pp. 198-200). He draws attention to the less obvious functions of multilateral negotiations which last for years, like the Mutual Balance Force Reduction talks, but produce no formal agreements (pp. 134, 172). And, following from this, he stresses convincingly that multilateral institutions generally have an educational and restraining effect not generated by the shifting coalitions of the ‘posse diplomacy’ favoured by the Sheriff of Washington – though this will not, I suspect, be news to theorists of ‘international regimes’. In passing, Michael Alexander is also interesting, among other things, on Margaret Thatcher’s deeply obtuse attitude to the profession of diplomacy (pp. 215-16). There is much more besides in this book, including a most useful Introduction by the FCO historian, Keith Hamilton. I recommend it strongly.