15 May 1987 - 17 May 1987

A New Generation, Old Institutions and a Middle-Aged Alliance: Is There Room for Innovation in Trans-Atlantic Relationships?

Chair: Mr Simon Jenkins

The tendency in the past conference year for occasional conferences to be a little out of the ordinary continued in mid-May, on the weekend 15-17 May. The conference title was orthodox enough, "A new generation, old institutions and a middle-aged alliance: is there room for innovation in trans-Atlantic relationships?". The unusual element was that an upper age-limit of 45 was set for the participants (the lower limit being 25). This was the "successor" generation reviewing the trans-Atlantic scene in the bicentenary year of the American Constitution. The chair was taken by Mr Simon Jenkins, now of the Sunday Times but previously political editor of the Economist, who has had much experience of Ditchley conferences but nevertheless could just slip under the age limit. The British and US participants covered a wide range of professional interests. There was a strong French group of four. Unfortunately the effort to recruit Germans ended by producing only one. There were two Australians, one Canadian, one Japanese, and one official from the international staff of the North Atlantic Assembly. It was interesting to see that there were more women round the table than is usual at Ditchley conferences: women are much more active in public and professional positions in the "successor" generation than they are in the older generations which still occupy the heights of public life. The start of the British general election campaign took away two or three British participants at the last moment and there were one or two other defections, but the conference was well-cushioned in numbers and could stand the losses.

The conference had a very large canvas to cover: the internal political changes on both sides of the Atlantic which may diminish trans-Atlantic understanding, the increase in regional solidarity in Europe and the pull of the specific interests of European countries in dealing with the Soviet Union, and the economic, military and political happenings in the rest of the world on which US and European perspectives tend to diverge. The analysis made by the "successor" generation on all of these topics was un-radical. It differed little from the analyses which have been made at Ditchley by their parents on many occasions. There was a certain amount of semantic confusion in that it often appeared to be supposed that the question being asked was whether innovation was needed in the Atlantic Alliance, whereas the real question was whether anything new was needed in trans-Atlantic relations, in which the Alliance plays a key part but is by no means the only component.

As the weekend wore on it seemed to be accepted that, whether or not there was thought to be room for innovation in trans-Atlantic relationships, innovation might soon be coming - driven by external and not by internal forces. If Mr Gorbachev remained in power and continued his reforms and initiatives, the uncomplicated confrontation with an easily identified enemy or 'threat', which had provided the Alliance and NATO with a unifying force for thirty years, would lose some, or even much, of its potency, depending on the boldness and apparent meaningfulness of Soviet moves. Forces could be released in Europe which had been pent up since the war, particularly in Germany but also, partly directly and partly by a knock-on effect from the evolution of German attitudes, in France and elsewhere.

One of the surprising features of the conference to a member of the older generation (and also to the French and German participants) was the tendency among the US and British participants to take the existence of something called Europe for granted and to be enthusiastic for it, and yet to overlook or ignore or not take account of the factors of division and instability which have dominated the policies of Europe since the war. There was an insistence that there had been a post-war settlement in Europe and a reluctance to admit that the division imposed by the Soviet Union might be open to question. At this point it would have been good to have more German participants who could have explained more fully the pre-occupations and interests which flow from the division of Germany and the wider, and in the long term unacceptable, division of Europe. The nature of French preoccupations would then have been thrown into clearer relief. The German participant made an excellent contribution but she could have done with some reinforcements.

After a good deal of discussion it was accepted that there were various initiatives which the western European countries could and ought to take in order to 'get their act together', as the vague expression puts it. But no-one seemed to believe that these initiatives would be taken or would need to be pressed unless some sort of crisis or upheaval were to occur. In this, the members of the "successor" generation differed from their elders only in being less anxious and not at all inclined to wring their hands about the state of the world. It was difficult to guess whether Mr Gorbachev would be more impressed by the confidence and sang-froid of the Americans and British or by their unreadiness for surprises. It would have been good to have attempted a profounder analysis of the reasons for German and French uneasiness; but this would have required a different conference composition and a different agenda.

There was inconclusive discussion about the chances of crisis being precipitated from the American side by financial and economic pressures leading to a reduction of US military commitments in Europe. There were several warnings from some American participants, but these tended to be cancelled by more optimistic statements from others. There was very little debate about the latest scholasticisms of the nuclear arms control experts - the zero, double-zero and triple-zero options, which were attracting attention in the press at the time. One interesting question which was raised, no doubt with memories of the Chernobyl accident still fresh, was the possible effect on US and European opinion of the use of a nuclear weapon by one of the countries which are suspected of trying secretly to develop nuclear weapons. It was even suggested that this was the way in which Europe's calm (or complacency) was most likely one day to be shaken and riven. The argument appeared to be that popular revulsion in the western world from the spectacle of actual nuclear devastation somewhere in the third world would trigger off emotional reactions in the west, and probably also in the Soviet Union, which would make it impossible to continue with deterrence policies which relied avowedly on the principle of mutual assured destruction.

On a less apocalyptic note, the conference agreed on the need for the leading countries of the world to coordinate policy better in the economic sphere, for example through the summits of the Seven; but there were no suggestions for major institutional innovation, only for better use of existing institutions.

The message of the "successor" generation seemed to be that continuity is fully assured. It is difficult to say whether this should be regarded as gratifying.      

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Mr Simon Jenkins
Journalist, The Sunday Times; Member, British Railways Board


Mr D J Markwell

Fellow and Tutor in Politics, Merton College, Oxford
Mr Geoffrey Wiseman
Foreign Affairs Officer; Postgraduate Scholar in International Relations, St Antony’s College, Oxford

Dr Caroline Anstey

Producer, Talks and Documentaries, BBC Radio
Mr Martin Ceadel
Fellow and Tutor in Politics, New College, Oxford
Mr Roger Jackling CBE
Principal, The Civil Service College
Mr Daniel Johnson
Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph
Mr Dennis Lavelle
Principal, Winstanley College, Wigan
Mr Alan Leaman
Member, Policy Committee of the Liberal Party with special concern for defence and foreign affairs, and for education
Mrs Mariot Leslie
First Secretary, Planning Staff, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Simon May
Director of Business Development, Northern Telecom Europe Ltd
Mr Charles Moore
Editor, The Spectator
Dr David Reynolds
Fellow, and Director of Studies in History, Christ’s College, Cambridge
Dr Andrew Shennan
Research Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Miss Mary Ann Sieghart
Political Correspondent, The Economist

Dr Fen Hampson

Research Associate, Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security; Assistant Professor, Patterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

Monsieur Gilles Andr
Sous-Direction des Affaires Stratégiques, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris
Monsieur Yves Boyer
Research Associate, Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), Paris; Professor at the Military Academy, St Cyr; Maître de Conferences, Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris; Member, Franco-British Council
Monsieur François Goldblatt
Graduate Student, Ecole Nationale d’Administration, Paris
Monsieur Carlos de Sarego
Strategic Affairs and East-West Relations Correspondent, Libération’, Director, L’Etat du Monde (geopolitical and economic yearbook)

 Dr Angelika Voile

Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, Bonn

Professor Akihiko Tanaka

Associate Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo

Mr Martin McCusker

Director of the Military Committee, International Secretariat, North Atlantic Assembly, Brussels

Dr Richard T Arndt

Diplomat in Residence, Department of Government and Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Ms Carol Brookins
President and Chairman, World Perspectives Inc, Washington, DC
Dr Jerry Hough
J B Duke Professor of Political Science, Duke University, North Carolina; Member of Staff, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC
Ms Karen E House
Foreign Editor, Wall Street Journal;  Member, Advisory Council, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Professor David E Kaiser
Department of History, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mr Michael Kinsley
Editor, The New Republic
Mr Ian Lesser
Deputy Director, Political-Military Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Dr Elizabeth Sherwood
Chief Foreign Affairs and Defense Policy Advisor to Senator Joseph R Biden Jr
Mr Arthur Sulzberger Jr
Assistant Publisher, The New York Times; Group Manager, National Advertising Department, The New York Times
Mr Richard J Tofel
Associate, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher (Attorneys), New York
Mr William L Ury
Associate Director of the Avoiding Nuclear War Project, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mr Daniel K Whitehurst
President, Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, Fresno, California; Fellow, Institute of Politics, Harvard University.
Dr Heather A Wilson
Office of Plans and Negotiations, HQ Third Air Force, United States Air Force, RAF Mildenhall
Mr Casimir A Yost
Executive Director, World Affairs Council of Northern California, San Francisco