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Sir Michael Alexander’s premature death in June 2002 brought to an end a distinguished career. He served as an adviser on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1981, ambassador to Vienna from 1982 to 1986, and ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 1986 to 1992. He was the chairman of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) at the time of his death and left behind a manuscript about his career in the Diplomatic Service. The posthumously published book, Managing the Cold War: A View from the Frontline, blends rigorous analysis, personal reminiscence, and detailed accounts of negotiations and policy discussions, plus original documents. The book includes a series of interesting letters written in the 1980s to Prime Minister Thatcher, and it provides critical insights into the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the behind-the-scenes negotiations crucial to the conduct of international affairs. The expenditure of effort and the achievements of these sorts of talks, conducted beyond the public gaze, are often overlooked because the historical record tends to focus on the main actors at the front of the world stage. It is only natural that those not in the spotlight should want some recognition when their endeavors have secured outcomes for which others, perhaps in their eyes less worthy, receive the applause.
However, no matter the motives, seeking a place in history entails risks. Even when career diplomats try to present their experiences and insights as a contribution to the historical record and as a means to avoid future mistakes and even when they show a modicum of deference or respect for their political masters, their accounts remain susceptible to the charge of being “kiss and tell” or ego driven. The adverse responses to the published memoirs of Christopher Meyer, DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain’s Ambassador to the U.S. at the Time of 9/11 and the Iraq War (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005) well illustrate the risks confronting civil servants who want to make their voices heard in the public domain. Meyer’s defenders insisted that his memoirs were in the public interest; whereas his detractors contended that he had broken a professional contract. One irate critic—Brendan [End Page 156] O’Neill in “Christopher Meyer: What a Creep,” Spiked Politics, 18 November 2005—referred to Meyer as “the political equivalent of those blonde girls who fuck footballers and then tell all to the tabloids.”
Meyer, of course, contravened the diplomatic code prohibiting high-ranking officials from revealing confidential material about controversial current affairs while their erstwhile political masters are still in power. The code, or perhaps rule is the correct term, remains strong, as Sir Jeremy Greenstock discovered when he was refused permission by the Foreign Office to publish a memoir of his time at the United Nations. Although Meyer can be charged with disloyalty, with betraying the trust and confidence required of career diplomats, the fact remains that his contribution and others of its ilk are essential for the fullest possible picture of the jigsaw that is history, even if they are “chattily indiscreet.” Although the latter description does not apply to the elegantly written and carefully worded recollections of Sir Michael Alexander, he shares with Meyer the same failure to abide by the eternal anonymity preferred by those who head the United Kingdom’s diplomatic corps. He also shares with Meyer a favorable view of the British diplomatic service and a much less favorable one of politicians, including the respective prime ministers they served. Interestingly, it is precisely because Alexander was a loyal servant and an admirer of Margaret Thatcher that his portrayal of the “Iron Lady” exposes her weaknesses far more effectively than do any of her many critics.
Alexander provides significant and insightful assessments into a range of crucial issues and events during a crucial period in the Cold War. As well as lessons about Cold War diplomacy and the nature of superpower rivalry, he reveals the cold reality of the...