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Since 1st March, 1999
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- A book that assesses the US's place in the world today

British politicians are widely regarded as the wittiest and best read in the world. Their learning and humour are manifest in parliamentary debate and, on occasion, in publications intended for a wider audience. There is a long line of politician-authors, hailing from each of the major parties. In the 19th century, they included the Whig John Morley (who wrote both a big life of his leader Gladstone and a classic little essay on the art of political compromise) and the Tory Benjamin Disraeli (author of several best-selling novels). More recently, the Labour leader, Michael Foot, has written major works of biography and literary criticism, while the Tory grandee, Ian Gilmour, is the author of some superb historical studies.

Earlier this month, in a London bookshop, I picked up two books published last year by British politicians. Both authors are now retired, and both once rested on the left-wing of their respective parties. The first is Tony Benn, whose memoir, Dare to be a Daniel, I look forward to reading. The second is Chris Patten, whose book, Not Quite the Diplomat: Home Truths About World Affairs, is the subject of this column.

Born in a middle-class Catholic home, Patten studied in Balliol College, Oxford, before joining and in time heading the research department of the Conservative Party. He then enjoyed several terms as a member of parliament, and served as a cabinet minister under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He moved on to become the last colonial governor of Hong Kong and, after that, a commissioner of the European Union. He is now chancellor of Oxford University.

Not Quite the Diplomat is a wide-ranging book that touches on all aspects of Patten's professional experience. He writes here of the dilemmas of his Conservative Party ' seeking to return to power after ten years out of it, of Britain's ambiguous relationship with the EU, of the coming rise of India and especially of China.

However, the book's most important and relevant pages relate to the place of America in the world. Patten first visited the United States of America as an undergraduate, and remains a great admirer of American culture and American values. He singles out three contributions of the US to the modern world. First, the US supported national self-determination in Asia and Africa, and nudged and urged the Europeans to leave their colonies. Second, the Americans consistently promoted constitutionalism and the rule of law, and played a critical role in the framing of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Third, American scholars and politicians have encouraged open trade and free markets, and hence also economic growth. Of course (as Patten implicitly rather than explicitly acknowledges), in practice, the US has often gone back on all three aims ' by supping with dictators, by promoting protectionism, and by becoming an imperial power itself.

Patten rightly disparages the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of the intellectual left. He dismisses Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, who in post-war France claimed that the Americans were more imperialist than the Soviets, as 'those political fatheads'. But he has no time either for the aristocratic disdain of the high-born Englishman, as embodied in Harold Nicolson's remark that America was a 'giant with the limbs of an undergraduate, the emotions of a spinster, and the brains of a peahen'.

To his credit, Patten has no time for right-wing crony capitalism as well. 'It is offensive,' he writes, 'that senior figures in political life find it so easy to confuse making their own private fortune with the public good; the names of Vice President Cheney and Haliburton come to mind without much intellectual strain'. 'What sense,' he asks, 'can it make to believe that wealthy corporations should be able to lean on government but that everyone else should stand on their own feet'

Unlike some other British intellectuals ' for example Christopher Hitchens and Niall Ferguson ' Patten is less than enthusiastic about America's imperial role. He quotes three prescient statesmen, writing at very different times about more-or-less the same question. Here is Edmund Burke, writing at the moment of Britain's own imperial expansion: 'I dread our own power and our own ambition: I dread our being too much dreaded...We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and unheard of power. But every other nation will think that we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this stage of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.'

And here now is a passage from Winston Churchill's book, My Early Life, which speaks directly to the war currently being waged in Iraq: 'Never, never, never believe that any war will be smooth or easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.'

Finally, here is an American president writing in 1998 about why, after the first Gulf War, he did not order the invasion of Iraq: 'Trying to eliminate Saddam [wrote George Bush senior] would have incurred incalculable human and political costs...We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq...There was no viable 'exit strategy' we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations' mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish.'

Although I am running them consecutively, in the book, these warnings are discreetly spaced out, with a hundred or so pages between each ' a diplomatic strategy that is perhaps at odds with the title of the book. Patten also quotes them in reverse order: first the elder Bush, then Churchill, and last of all, Burke.

Patten's book has just been published in the US. It will be interesting to see what the American elite make of it. I hope it is read widely and taken seriously. It is the work of a deeply intelligent man, who, his criticisms notwithstanding, retains his admiration of America and Americans. Indeed, the last paragraph of Patten's book is a ringing salute to what the US once meant to the rest of us, and what ' if its leadership displays a capacity for self-criticism and course-correction ' it can still mean again. 'For much of my lifetime', writes Patten, 'America has been an education to the world ' to every nation, every continent and every civilization. It has been a living lesson, a paradigm to which others could aspire, an example for others to follow. I hope that Europe can help America to be that again. When it is, it will not be America that triumphs but the ideas that, until recently, America has unequivocally represented. Then the century ahead will not be America's as was the last one. It would belong to mankind. It would be a century dominated by the values that American history enshrines and that American leadership at its best embodies and defends without bragging and bluster: democracy, pluralism, enterprise, and the rule of law.'

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