Catherine Ashton begins this memoir of her five-year stint as the EU’s first foreign policy “tsar” and chief diplomat – her formal title was high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy and first vice‑president of the European Commission (HRVP) – with two unexpected admissions.
One is that she disliked the job. “It was relentless,” she writes. “I visited some of the worst places on Earth … and wondered at our capacity for evil. I saw acts of bravery and kindness in unlikely places … I did everything I could to help, knowing it was never going to be enough, and worried that a better person than I could have done much more.”
Her second frank admission is that one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, she was appointed was because she is a woman. She describes meeting José Manuel Barroso, then commission president, who told her: “For the HRVP job we need a Brit and a woman from left-of-centre politics.” Elevated to the peerage in 1999 by Tony Blair and subsequently leader of the House of Lords, Ashton fitted the bill. She thinks Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor as prime minister, would have preferred Peter Mandelson.
Would a man be so candid? The anecdote is typical of Ashton’s self-effacing approach to her job, which she held until 2014, and to this memoir, her first account of that period. She admits she lacked qualifications for the post and was unknown to those in power around the world. Insights into her personal feelings are few and limited. Some readers may be disappointed by a paucity of tittle-tattle and score-settling.
Yet Ashton’s modesty is misleading. Again and again, her methods, quietly employing personal contacts, tact, determination and fine judgment, inch negotiations forward through the building of connections, coalitions and collaborations. This approach carries lessons for a diplomatic world too often dominated by ego and testosterone.
That said, her engagement with the big issues of the day – Iran, the Balkans, Libya, Ukraine – rarely results in a breakthrough, let alone lasting success. As she points out, this is normal. Diplomacy is never-ending. In further mitigation, she describes the period 2009-2014 as “one of the most turbulent in living memory”.
Yet since then have come Donald Trump, the pandemic and an all-out war on European soil. Problems thrown up by Tehran’s nuclear programme, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, the Arab spring, disasters in Haiti and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea have festered or grown hugely worse – partly due to diplomatic failures on her watch.
As Ashton indicates, she often found herself in an all but impossible position. The post of HRVP is essentially powerless. Ultimate decision-making authority lies with the leaders of the 27 (formerly 28) EU member states. Any deal she makes must be unanimously agreed by all. Yet her interlocutors inevitably expect more from her. Too often she is reduced to the plaintive formula, “I’m here to help.”
The excruciating subordination of the EU – with its aspirations to be a big global foreign-policy player – to the US comes across in Ashton’s descriptions of her tentative dealings with successive American secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Ashton is overawed when she visits the White House to discuss Crimea. To her surprise and excitement, Barack Obama makes an unscheduled appearance. When he leaves, she sounds breathless: “With a hug, he said goodbye. I sat down hard in a slight state of shock … I had longer with the president that day than most heads of state ever had.”
For a brief period, Ashton was an interested, thoughtful actor with a walk-on role on the world stage – and her memoir provides a useful record. Yet nothing fundamentally changed. And her account of that time produces no big revelations. Her titular question is “and then what?”, but her readers may pose their own: “And so what?”
• And Then What? Inside Stories of 21st-Century Diplomacy is published by Elliott & Thompson (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.