In this study of selected foreign secretaries during the last 200 years, Lord Hurd has written a fascinating and thought-provoking book. Indeed, he is better placed to write it in some ways than a professional historian for he has the immeasurable advantage of having been the UK Foreign Secretary – one of the four great offices of state – for six years, between 1989 and 1995. This stint included the fall of the Soviet empire, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the invasion of Kuwait.

First-hand knowledge of “abroad” is coupled with close analysis and a dry, witty prose style, such as the remark that “Britain did not have official diplomatic relations with China. This was because the Emperor of China knew that he was the ruler of the world.” His study has been helped by a bright young history graduate and collaborator, Edward Young. It is not quite clear how much actual writing the latter undertook; he is obviously more than a mere researcher of the kind employed, for example, by Churchill in his written histories, and Hurd generously often refers to “we” when discussing matters of historical debate.

Hurd’s study includes the careers (and brief, entertaining personal biographies) of eleven of his predecessors during the high point of the British Empire, between 1807, soon after the victory at Trafalgar, and 1956, the debacle of Suez. Sometimes contrasting two contemporaries, such as Canning and Lord Castlereagh, Lords Aberdeen and Palmerston, Ernest Bevin and Anthony Eden, he also includes other colourful or intriguing personalities, such as Lord Derby, Lord Salisbury, Sir Edward Grey, Ramsay MacDonald and Austen Chamberlain.

In part, his book is written as a serious addition to the conduct of foreign affairs. He believes ignorance of history is “foolishness” and reminds us that Castlereagh was influenced by William Pitt’s earlier memoranda, just as Henry Kissinger thoroughly acquainted himself with Castelreagh’s own dispatches.

Naturally, given the subject, his book raises perennial questions: should you intervene by force in the affairs of another country? How important is national prestige? What should be the balance between the interests of a nation and the ideals which its leaders profess? All the men considered in these pages wrestled with these moral conundrums and came up with different answers, reflecting their own temperaments.

Castlereagh was pessimistic about human nature; Canning, in contrast, believed mankind was perfectible. Principles of foreign conduct often had to be decided after short rather than long reflection, such as Canning’s statement of 1807 in relation to Napoleon: “We shall proceed upon the principle that any nation of Europe that starts up to oppose a power…becomes instantly our essential ally”, or Castlereagh’s dispatch to all British diplomats in 1815 after the victory at Waterloo: what mattered above all else was “to preserve the peace which [we] have won.”

Lord Aberdeen, like Castlereagh, was cautious; he believed “the English people know little and care little” about foreign relations and he fought to maintain peace and stability. Palmerston saw man as a “fighting and quarreling animal”; England’s rulers had the “wisdom to discover that the selfish interests and political influence of England were best promoted by the extension of liberty and civilization.” This could and did lead to foreign intervention with unfortunate results, such as the messy and inconclusive Crimean War, over which he mordantly remarked to Aberdeen, who deplored it, “There are many things more valuable than peace and many things much worse than war.” Hurd compares Aberdeen to Neville Chamberlain in a later century; neither wanted war but both were reluctantly dragged into it.

Lord Derby, like Aberdeen, had a deep dislike of war; his maxim was that “if foreigners can settle their affairs without us, why should we intervene?” He looked askance at Disraeli, always ready to deploy extravagant gestures – such as making Queen Victoria Empress of India – for the sake of his country’s (and his own)prestige.

Hurd’s own preference among this disparate group seems to be Lord Salisbury, telling us with seeming approval, “Irony was his natural idiom. He felt no passion for office when out of government, or for popularity when a Minister.” Hurd, an old Etonian, a landowner’s son and foreign secretary during the premiership of John Major, the son of a man who manufactured garden gnomes, must have felt instinctive affinities with Salisbury’s stated outlook: “My definition of foreign policy is that we ought to behave as any gentleman would – who wishes to get on with his neighbours.”

Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary for ten years until 1916, who made the celebrated remark at the outset of the Great War, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”, receives some serious criticism from the author. Hurd believes that neither Salisbury nor Bismarck would have allowed the situation up to and before 1914 to deteriorate into open war; but they were geniuses in the art of bluff, counterbluff, compromise and counterbalance – and “there were no geniuses around in the first decade of the twentieth century.” He also lost two uncles in World War I; like Castlereagh and Aberdeen, he is naturally averse to the carnage and suffering war entails.

Much has changed during the period under scrutiny: in Lord Salisbury’s time, there were nine ambassadors; in 1997, there were 149. Premiers today are much better informed and more widely travelled than their predecessors and thus much more likely to take a personal initiative in international affairs. Hurd himself is pragmatic and prudent, recognising that negotiating with a bad ruler “is usually an act not of surrender but of good sense.” In his Epilogue he throws more light on his stance, which is a mixture of pessimism about current foreign policy – “drifting, feeble, incoherent” – and optimism about the future: “In moments of despair or difficulty, our society has a habit of throwing forward new leaders…who put forward a generous and imaginative vision of a more decent and orderly world.”

In the light of the notorious, recently leaked memo from the Foreign Office concerning the forthcoming visit of the Pope to these shores which, written by a supposedly well-educated young graduate, is a shameful mixture of rudeness, vulgarity and sheer shallowness, I am not so sure. One thing is certain: Lord Salisbury would not have thought it gentlemanly.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.