UK influence abroad depends on diplomats more than armed forces or aid – Foreign policy experts

Wednesday, 17 November 2010 00:11 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A report on the future of the UK’s foreign policy published yesterday warns that the Foreign Office must not be starved of resources because it offers the best way of upholding the nation’s declining global influence.  

The authors, who include Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Powell of Bayswater and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, argue that it is crucial to invest in Britain’s diplomatic power to strengthen its interests abroad and, in many cases, question whether the money allocated to overseas development and defence has the same effect in a world that is increasingly globalised and complex.  

The report, The Future of UK Foreign Policy, is published by the international affairs think tank LSE IDEAS, the centre for International Affairs, Strategy and Diplomacy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Its other authors are Sir Mark Allen, Sir Rodric Braithwaite and Sir Richard Mottram.   

While each of the foreign policy experts has contributed a separate essay to the report, they collectively examine the UK’s foreign policy in the light of the new National Security Strategy, the Strategic Defence and Security Review and the Comprehensive Spending Review.  

The Government is commended for trying to set out a strategic foreign and security policy, and for its largely successful attempt to rank the threats that the United Kingdom faces, but the report argues that such a strategy cannot be truly coherent or responsive to new global realities while it is hampered by the bureaucratic ‘tribalism,’ particularly over defence spending, and political commitments such as those made on overseas aid.  

Sir Roderic Braithwaite, a former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, writes that this has led to an unnecessary commitment to aircraft carriers instead of smaller and more responsive naval vessels: “We want aircraft carriers and submarines… not because these things are essential, but because they feed our historical sense of national greatness… It is a posture driven by testosterone, not cold analysis.”

Sir Richard Mottram, who was Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, also highlights how the Government is “hemmed in by a commitment to international development expressed as a share of national income… and a legacy of over-commitment in the Ministry of Defence.” He concludes that: “The focus now needs to move towards what we are getting for the considerable provision made.”

Lord Powell, former diplomat and Private Secretary to two Prime Ministers, agrees that the budget of the Department for International Development should be re-examined, saying the Government should have “diverted a portion of its funding to other forms of external action more directly in line with our other national interests and priorities.”

He argues that: “The Foreign Office budget has been absurdly skimped in recent times even though it is miniscule in relation to other areas of government spending. The Foreign Office needs to be out in the field and that is where our diplomatic energy should be directed.”

His argument is echoed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind who says the UK should “aggressively defend its privileged position in international affairs.” Sir Malcolm, a former Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary, also believes it is the Foreign Office’s presence in other countries, especially embassies and consulates, which offers the most cost effective way of boosting UK influence.

He writes: “Everything must be done to protect this network, including its smaller missions, which provide tremendous value for money. Closing them would send the erroneous signal that the UK is pursuing a policy of disengagement.”

Dr. Nicholas Kitchen, who edited the report and is Philippe Roman Fellow in International Affairs at LSE IDEAS, said: “The importance of refocusing UK foreign policy at a time of economic crisis and after 15 years of activism across the globe can hardly be understated. Each of the authors draws on their foreign policy experience to give very different perspectives on what should be done.   “But they also agree on many things, especially the importance of economic recovery to effective foreign policy and investment in the UK’s diplomatic capacity. For the government got their strategic assessment right but their strategic response wrong; strategic thinking has been undermined by factional interests and political priorities.”

As a first step to addressing the poverty of strategic thinking within government identified earlier this month by the Public Administration Committee and confirmed by this report, LSE IDEAS is launching a new course, Strategy in the Age of Global Risk, to encourage and develop strategic thinking.

This Executive Masters programme is aimed at high-flyers in international affairs, business, finance and defence and will be formally launched in December with the first participants beginning the course in September 2011.