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Pistols at dawn: In 1809, two early Foreign Secretaries, Viscount Castlereagh (left) and George Canning, fought a duel over on Putney Heath. Castlereagh wounded Canning, but in 1822 Castlereagh cut his own throat and it was Canning who later became Prime Minister 

If only they would leave it to the experts. There must be many a Foreign Office mandarin who has entertained such thoughts over the last decade. Indeed, against the backdrop of Iraq, the tut-tutting, headshaking senior diplomat frowning at the hot-headed idealists playing sorcerer's apprentice with international statecraft has become one of the defining political images of the moment.

In that sense, the time was perhaps ripe for a good, old-fashioned exercise in Foreign Office nostalgia. Enter Douglas Hurd, or to give him his full title, Baron Hurd of Westwell CH, CBE, PC — the latter, I hasten to add, denoting membership of the Privy Council rather than being a statement about his Lordship's views on international affairs.

His entertaining new book, Choose Your Weapons, looks at the lives and impact of British Foreign Secretaries from Canning and Castlereagh in the first decades of the 19th century to Eden and Bevin in the middle of the 20th, introducing his readers to a world of British foreign policy-making. One could almost forgive a man who began his career as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher for lamenting its passing.

Quite early on, in 1814, just after Napoleon's exile to Elba and in the long run-up to the great Congress of Vienna, which foreshadowed in embryonic form the League of Nations, the United Nations and the system of international diplomacy that governs the world today, Viscount Castlereagh is in Paris. Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, is in London, but he might just as well have been on the moon. For such was the latitude granted to the Foreign Secretary of the day, that his PM was all but reduced to begging simply to get a sense of what he was up to.

Hurd illustrates the point well, quoting a letter from the PM to the Viscount Castlereagh:

"We have heard nothing from you since the 5th, but I conclude you are too hard at work to have much time to write...As YOUR treaty is to be definitive, there would be some advantage if it were possible that we could see it (to guard against minor errors) before it was actually agreed." 

If Tony Blair ever wrote letters like that to Jack Straw before the invasion of Iraq, both men have been keeping quiet about it. As Hurd notes, Castlereagh's dominance over the formulation of foreign policy was such that his Prime Minister and the cabinet had been reduced to the status of proof-readers.

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