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Book Review: And Then What – Dispatches from the Heart of 21st Century Diplomacy by Catherine Ashton

By Canon Mike D Williams

Behind international conflict you find diplomats seeking solutions. Catherine Ashton was the first European Union (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security from 2009-14. She was the Labour party’s Leader of the Lords, anticipating a new term of Parliament, when she found herself rushing to Brussels to replace Peter Mandelson as the EU Commissioner for Trade. She held that post for a year and then found herself appointed to be the top diplomat for the EU and straight into the trouble spots of the world.

Crisis and conflicts can suddenly erupt. Others are slow burning without any apparent solution. Ashton describes in some detail the quiet, hard and often thankless task of diplomats as they work to resolve conflict or help with disasters. Endless debates and haggling over the meaning of words in a text that might form the basis of an agreement. The egos of leaders, the sensitivity of national politics, the reality of implementing an agreed action all must be considered.

Published in 2023 the book looks back at the Somalia Pirates, the natural disasters in Haiti and Japan before an extended section on the Arab Spring. Balancing the role of the EU with the actions of individual nations, such as the UK and France in Libya, whilst considering NATO and the USA added to the complexity. Conflict resolution is a team effort and what Ashton provides is an insight into the hard yards that are put in behind the scenes.

Summits are held and press statements made. The Serbia and Kosovo dialogue illustrates just how difficult the task is to get agreement on even the smallest shift towards normality. Deep suspicions and lack of trust are not easily overcome.

In building relationships with Iran, Ashton had a lead role as chair of the international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme. This was a role mandated by the UN Security Council with France, Germany and the UK, later joined by Russia, China and the USA all involved. It is fascinating to read about the ebbs and flows over time and how in the end personal relationships make a difference. John Kerry, as the US Secretary of State, had a pivotal role, alongside Baroness Ashton, in achieving the deal.

The final chapter on Ukraine gives some background to the events leading up to the Russian take over in Crimea in 2014. The government and people in Ukraine were divided – torn between looking east to Russia or west to the EU. President Putin and his Foreign Minister, who were cooperative on the Iran deal, took a very different attitude towards Ukraine and its desire to sign an agreement on trade with the EU. Sadly, we know how that story developed.

As Catherine Ashton says herself, the book is only a small selection of the many stories that she could have told. It has been well crafted. Some may wish for more depth but overall, it gives a flavour of the hours spent in meeting rooms trying to find words that express the outcome of hard negotiation. The world needs diplomats who are willing to have frank conversations to help avoid armed conflict and bring assistance to people in need.