Daniel Korski

Diplomatic faux pas

Diplomatic faux pas
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There is now much talk of the need to grow the army or build more ships, even in times of economic distress, lest Britain slip down the scales of international importance. Britain is – and will remain – a world power. Not a superpower, of course, but one of three major powers in Europe, and one of only two with a military and diplomatic reach to complement economic and ideological clout. Britain will need to have military capability, including a nuclear capability, to remain powerful. But the one thing Britain will need above all else, especially if defense expenditures are set to fall and our military is loosing esteem in the eyes of the US, is a world-beating diplomatic presence.

Unfortunately, there is little discussion about boosting the Foreign Office under a new government. In fact, there is little sense that the Shadow Cabinet have given much thought to what its problems are and how to address them; I disagree with Will Inboden that the Tories’ talk of a National Security Council represents a serious administrative reform plan.

Meanwhile, the FCO has been cutting staff and the FCO lost much of its economic expertise just when it needed it most. In many embassies, the development representative was assumed to cover economic issues. But with DfiD’s focus on its poverty-alleviation programmes, this did not happen. Economic reporting has accordingly been scant. The conceit, however, allowed DfiD to assume control of Britain’s Africa policy and the International Development Secretary chairs the cabinet’s sub-committee on Africa.

Paradoxically, the FCO’s drive to swap geographical expertise for functional know-how created the greatest self-inflicted wound. Because politicians prefer to focus on thematic, campaigning issues that resonate with constituents — like conflict prevention or climate change — departments that deal with these policy areas have grown at the expense of specific country expertise. Today, you are more likely to find Britain’s real experts on a particular country at the London School of Economics or Chatham House than at their former employer, the FCO.

Looking to the US, however, it is clear in which direction the FCO needs to go. It needs to expand its staff considerably – perhaps by 20 percent - and rediscover what it used to do best: being a world-beating source of geographical expertise. To cover other policy areas, the FCO needs to bring more outside experts into the office on short-term secondments or expose all its London-based jobs to outside competition. Today, experts are the exception rather than the rule, even though the financial crisis shows that contemporary policy-making requires too much detailed knowledge about too many specialist subjects for generalists, however smart, to handle.

Then the FCO needs to look to Europe. The Lisbon treaty, which Irish voters look likely to approve, establishes a new European diplomatic corps. The FCO should take a lead in determining the organisation’s structure and remit, seconding top-flight diplomats to secure Britain’s influence in the start-up phase (if the Lisbon Treaty is passed). Closer to home, the FCO should then re-establish its policy primacy vis-à-vis other government departments, especially in Africa.

Finally, Britain’s diplomats need a strategic lodestar. Though these may be tough times for Britain, a new government must develop a coherent and unchanging narrative from which its emissaries can draw. Without such a narrative - or, worse, a constantly shifting set of strategic priorities - British foreign policy risks becoming a series of unconnected representations. Here a new foreign secretary should look to Mrs Clinton who has imbued the State Department with purpose and renewed self-respect. There would be no greater diplomatic faux pas than to let the Rolls Royce of diplomatic services — the FCO — decline just when Britain needs it.