Lord Patten Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Let me step back a moment and look at the landscape, drawing on your experience in all these different positions. Is foreign policy harder to do than domestic politics, and if so, why?
Aha. I think prime ministers, heads of government, after a while find it easier, partly because they confuse foreign policy with being nice to foreigners. But I think it's every bit as difficult as domestic policy, if you take a cerebral approach to it. The trouble is that too often foreign policy can turn into a sort of intellect-free zone, and people will simply react from meeting to meeting rather than having a consistent line of policy which they develop. A lot of leaders of governments delude themselves that they can somehow persuade their opposite number to redefine his or her idea of the national interest of that country through charm and diplomatic pizzazz, and it's simply not true. Foreign policy deserves more critical intellectual attention than it gets, but it becomes for a lot of heads of government a resort to which they can return again and again when the opinion polls on domestic policy are looking awkward.
What about personality in politics? How important is the individual leader in making a difference? It obviously made a difference for Britain that Tony Blair was Prime Minister at the time of the Iraq war. It obviously made a difference that President Bush was in power after 9/11.
I think that what George Bernard called the "Cleopatra's nose" [view] of history still has a great deal to be said for it. People do make a difference. I think it would've made a difference if President Chirac hadn't been President of France, if President Bush hadn't been President of the United States. It would plainly have been a different America if Senator Gore had won in 2000. I didn't say whether it would've been better or not, though I have my own views on that, but it would certainly have been different. So, I think people do make a difference and sometimes that is for the better and sometimes it is for the worse.
In your last chapter [of your book Cousins and Strangers] you take us back to the Peloponnesian War and you talk about the Athenian articulation of its policies and beliefs to the people of Melos before that place was defeated, and quote the Greeks as saying that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept. What can transform that equation? Do we have to wait for power to balance power, or can the power of ideas and of advocacy do something about the inequality of power?
It was part of America's wisdom, it was an essential part of America's soft power, that for years it understood that it couldn't behave as though it could simply throw its weight around, get its own way, and if people didn't like it, tough luck. I was drawn to the analogy with the Peloponnesian wars for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that since I was a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old I've been reading Thucydides, first of all as a classics student at school and more recently because of the lessons one learns. The Peloponnesian wars, as you may remember, destroyed Athens and Athenian power, and during the course of those wars -- fought unnecessarily and with extravagant expectations of protecting Athenian maritime trade -- the Athenians ganged up on smaller states, like Melos. [They] went to Melos and said (Thucydides has a wonderful account of this), "Get real. You guys are small. You've got to leave the Spartan league and join us." The Melians, to their credit, though it led to disaster, said, "No, we're not going to do that," and the Athenians pillaged and sacked Melos, and then lost the war.
One of the reasons why they lost the war, which is implied, indeed more than that, explicitly stated in Thucydides, is because of the abuse of power, because they forgot what Pericles said in his spectacular funeral oration which is in every book of great speeches, at the beginning of the war: that Athens had been an education to the whole of Greece.
Well, throughout my lifetime America's been an education to the world. It's represented the values which the rest of the world aspires to. It's been the country which most other people around the world want to get a green ticket to live in, or an awful lot of them. And it would be very sad if we saw that "weapon of mass attraction " abandoned, because it's been a terribly important protection for America against the world's anger and jealousy and dread.
One final question. Lord Patten, if students were to watch this program, how would you advise them to prepare for the future?
I would say to them something which people often think is pathetic and doesn't reflect the real world. I would say that they can make a difference to the world they live in, and that it is a terrible surrender not to try to make that world better. After all, it's made worse by people through acts of commission and omission, so why not try to make it better, both by the sort of profession that you choose, by the interest you take in the world around you, by your commitment to voluntary action, as well as to action through your own profession? I'd also say, which is related to that, that -- and it's a point I sometimes make at school prize givings, not always making me popular with head teachers -- I think the world has been made better by people who were difficult customers, by people who make a fuss. I think we need more awkward customers rather than smooth and successful financial service employees.
On that note, Lord Patten, before I thank you for your visit, I want to show your book, which I recommend very highly, called Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain and Europe in a New Century, and I want to thank you very much for making this your third appearance on our program. Thank you very much for being here.
Have I survived to do a fourth?
[laughs] Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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