Pity the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Once supreme in Whitehall, King Charles Street is now a frail and damaged place, bleeding power and purpose from multiple wounds. It is emasculated by the interference of No. 10 and the drift towards a common EU foreign and security policy while the sun sets on our time as a first-rank power-projecting country. All this leaves the FCO seeking a raison d’être. But in climate change, it may have found one.
The political orthodoxy on the environment has now been woven into the very purpose of the Foreign Office. In the peculiar dialect of management-speak employed in Whitehall, its work is defined and directed by eight ‘departmental strategic objectives’. One of them now commits British diplomacy to ‘promote a low-carbon, high-growth global economy’.
Those are not just words. In bureaucratic terms, the smaller Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) appears to be succeeding in a remarkable takeover of the Foreign Office. Look on the Foreign Office website and you’ll find a section entitled ‘Foreign policy explained & discussed’. Click on the link referring to the Copenhagen summit and you’re whisked away to the Act on Copenhagen site run by the Department for Energy and Climate Change. It is deferring to what is, in fact, its Whitehall superior.
The slow capture of the FCO by the climate change department does not stop there. Officials from DECC now sit on the Foreign Office ‘programme board’ overseeing its climate change agenda, and on the board of the Strategic Programme Fund, the pot of Foreign Office cash available to embassies to fund local projects and policies in keeping with UK interests. The fund’s spending on climate change is growing sharply, from £4.7 million the year before last to £21 million next year. How many other bits of Whitehall are enjoying a fourfold rise in spending?
And it’s not just money. You have heard Gordon Brown promising to ‘create green jobs’. Well, the Foreign Office has taken the Prime Minister at his word. Earlier this year, another £6.5 million of the Foreign Office budget was quietly diverted from elsewhere to employ dozens of staff ‘working to deliver climate change and energy objectives’. There are 19 new jobs in London, another 32 diplomatic postings oversees and 73 locally engaged staff.
This reflects a steady change in emphasis. At the same time as ‘creating’ those jobs, the Foreign Office has been getting out of old-fashioned diplomacy. The money for climate change was found by cutting the FCO’s Conflict Prevention Pool, which funds attempts to stop war, insurgency and organised crime. Or used to: soon the pool will cease to operate in Latin America and the Caribbean, whose regional tensions, paramilitary groups and drug cartels now concern Her Majesty’s Government less than, say, the Polish biomass market.
The Foreign Office says it is ‘too early to provide a full assessment’ of the impact of the cuts. No such assessment, it seems, was conducted before the decision was taken. There are strategic costs, too. By shifting its focus to the environment, the Foreign Office risks neglecting other issues, some that a few people rather unfashionably feel are more pressing. At senior levels of the MoD, there is a feeling that the FCO just isn’t that interested in Afghanistan these days: more bothered about Copenhagen than Kabul.
That cuts little ice at the FCO. Unabashed, some ministers talk proudly about how the Foreign Office has worked with environmental activists behind the backs of governments which they want to influence. It is regarded as a new diplomacy; or, at the very least, a means of protecting one’s budget in a world where climate change is the latest boom industry. Personalities, of course, count here. The Foreign Office’s push into the climate business has accelerated under David Miliband, who is both a former environment secretary and brother to Ed, who runs DECC. Would the realist William Hague take a similar approach? It seems unlikely, but the Tories are hardly critical of the green agenda. And even if Foreign Secretary Hague were to seek serious change, all that bureaucratic re-engineering will be hard to unpick: many officials’ jobs now depend on climate change remaining central to British foreign policy.
Implicit in the FCO’s green mission is the fact that climate change is a British concern — but not something Britain, as a country, can do much to change directly. In increasingly hysterical publicity campaigns, our government beseeches us to drive less, heat less, consume less, all in the name of climate change. Yet the FCO can only justify its shift by accepting that the US, China and India and their vast emissions are the real issue here. So can ministers go on telling the British people that unless we turn off the kitchen lights, we will be personally culpable for drowning our children in boiling mud?
Perhaps those who doubt the new climate orthodoxy should welcome the Foreign Office’s new green mission to the world. However unwittingly, it may just bring a much-needed sense of perspective to the debate at home.
James Kirkup is political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 5, 2009