Four weeks into the new government and the National Security Council machinery is still
being put in place and ministers are still getting read into their briefs. The visit by William Hague, Andrew Mitchell and Liam Fox to Afghanistan was important, despite the brouhaha over the
Defence Secretary’s comments. Such a visit was simply not imaginable under the Brown government.
On the other hand, insiders say there is no real difference yet from the NSID committee that Gordon Brown created and the National Security Council that David Cameron has convened - except that the
latter meets weekly, producing a torrent of tasks for officials. Permanent Secretaries are meeting regularly to support the NSC, but the subordinate structures are still not in place.
Behind the scenes, Sir Peter Ricketts, the National Security Adviser, is developing options for the NSC structure he will lead. His blueprint will determine whether the Conservative-Liberal
government genuinely intends to re-organise the way the government works on security issues, or just rename a few bodies. But he has a lot on his plate besides giving day-to-day advice – the
talk among officials is of a third edition of the National Security Strategy being finalised by the end of July and the whole Strategic Defence Review wrapped up by October or November.
What has changed already is the Foreign Office’s role, which – by dint of both William Hague’s power and the fact that Sir Peter is a career diplomat – has grown
vis-à-vis the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. The line in the coalition agreement that the UK would “work to intensify our cultural, educational,
commercial and diplomatic links with many nations beyond Europe and North America” should probably be read as statement of how broadly the new Foreign Secretary sees his remit. He is not just
the FCO’s boss, but in charge of all UK overseas engagement, whether it is carried out by diplomats or the Metropolitan Police. This makes sense, as foreign relations today, for example with
China, is less about traditional diplomacy and more about trade and energy and a range of others areas handles by other government departments.
But like James Bond trying on a new gadget produced by Q, the diplomats in King Charles Street haven’t figured out how use their new-found power and have too readily taken to bullying
colleagues from other departments. After so many years of decline, as power went to No 10, policy to the MoD and money to DFID, it is not hard to understand the FCO’s eagerness to re-assert
itself. But the initial couple of weeks do not bode well so well. There are grumblings across Whitehall that a recent paper to the Prime Minister on India did not seek sufficient in-put from other
departments like the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Much will depend on who replaces Peter Ricketts as the FCOs chief mandarin. My money is on Anne Pringle, the ambassador in Moscow. Smart and respected across Whitehall, her appointment as the first
woman head of the Foreign Office would be a female-friendly PR coup for a government that suffers from a serious gender imbalance. It would also help William Hague to re-adjust UK-Russian
relations. A lesser-known but equally important appointment will be that of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, a post Tony Blair kept in No 10 but Gordon Brown moved to the Cabinet
Office and which David Cameron is set to reinstate. There are apparently four candidates for the job, all FCO high-fliers. Finally, there is the undefined role of Nick Clegg, who is also looking
for a foreign policy adviser. He will be crucial in solving problems between the Conservatives and the Liberals on issues such UK policy towards Iran, the NPT agreement, and Israel.
The other change that is becoming apparent, even if it is not a matter of policy, has been a renewed focus on trade promotion. As an official remarked to me, new Foreign Office ministers are asking
their civil servants what the trade relationships are with the countries they cover – something Labour ministers never really did. What this will mean for UKTI and how ambassadors conceive of
their role is still unclear. Business promotion is till a second order concern in many UK embassies, unlike the case in American or even French missions, where it is a top priority.
It is early days and far too early to judge the government’s foreign policy approach. But if Labour had to check its tendency towards hubris, for all their reformist zeal domestically, the
Conservative-Liberal government may have to check its tendency towards foreign policy stasis. Shaking up the way the government organises its national security apparatus will be key to ensure a
novel approach to some of the big national security issues.