Sir Simon McDonald on Delivering UK Foreign Policy

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A lecture by Sir Simon McDonald KCMG KCVO, Permanent Under Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

In his lecture, Sir Simon discussed post-Brexit UK foreign policy, including promoting the influence of global Britain, strengthening our partnerships and supporting good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights.

On the record transcript

We, in the United Kingdom, are a big country. We have a formidable global footprint with an array of assets comparable to any country of similar size. We are a global, free trading nation. The world's fifth largest economy. Fifth biggest exporter. Top destination for inward investment in Europe, and second only to the US globally. Ranked one of the best places to do business in the world. We are the fifth largest diplomatic network in the world. Unique in being a member of the P5, Nato, Commonwealth, G7 and G20. We have 15000 staff - UK and locally engaged - across 169 countries and territories in 274 posts. We are the only P5 country to spend both 2 percent on defence and 0.7 percent of GNI on development. We are the third largest contributor to development in the world. You might wonder why I start with these facts but they are the essential background to everything else I will say and I believe too often they are overlooked. The United Kingdom is a principled, responsible global actor. We support the rules-based order and multilateral architecture we helped create. In the Security Council we are penholders on some of the most difficult intractable issues: Somalia, Yemen, Burma. Just last week our new U.N. permanent representative, Karen Pierce, led the Security Council to Bangladesh to see the plight of the Rohingya refugees for themselves. We are leaders on multilateral campaigns that have changed law practice and lives around the world with campaigns on issues like Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, modern slavery, and now girls education and the illegal wildlife trade. On modern slavery alone the call to action launched by the Prime Minister at UNGA last September now has over 50 endorsements from countries around the world. As we are committed to in 2015 SDSR, the UK has now doubled our peacekeeping deployment and we are leading on the peacekeeping smart pledging and wider reform agendas in the U.N. supporting the reform efforts of Secretary General Gutierrez. We are proud to be a responsible and morally accountable actor with a press, Parliament and public that rightly scrutinise our actions. And this open and creative economy and society and accountable political system is a model for others. We have formidable soft power assets: from the Premier League to Paddington too. We are ranked second globally in terms of soft power. Fourth, in terms of global presence, at the forefront of science, tech, education, media and creative industries. One in seven countries has a head of state educated in the UK are Chevening scholarships have awarded a British masters to almost fifty thousand of the world's best and brightest since 1983. London remains the world's leading financial center offering a still unbeatable combination of size and international appeal. We are the largest centre for cross-border banking. English common law is the most widespread legal system in the world, covering 30 per cent of the world's population. We remain one of the world's most attractive places for people to live, work, invest, study and visit. Almost 40 million tourists visit the UK each year. The British Museum attracts more visitors a year than 10 European countries put together. So we have a lot to be proud of and I'm proud of the way the FCO has played its part in delivering for the whole of government. In the past six months alone we've led the UK response to Hurricane Irma, one of our largest ever consular crises affecting up to half a million British nationals and some of our most vulnerable overseas territories and we've led the unprecedented international response to the Sailsbury attack. But we of course face challenges in how we continue to project our influence and values and promote the UK national interest in a changing world. I'd like to touch on three particular questions facing the Foreign Office which affect how we deliver a foreign policy in the national interest as we leave the European Union. The first is how working with allies and partners will change with our EU exit. As an outward-facing, confident, activist country, we have always had an independent sovereign foreign policy and the will and capability to act globally. We have never defined our global outlook just through our EU membership or a collective European foreign policy. After EU exit, we will strengthen old and renew bilateral relationships. Our relationship with the U.S. will of course remain the cornerstone of our security and defence through NATO and a key economic partner underpinned by deep shared interests values and history. But we dont take any of our relationships for granted. The UK-France summit in January agreed an ambitious new foreign policy and development compact. We are intensifying the mechanisms for foreign policy dialogue with Germany, Poland and other EU member states, as well as other important allies like Japan. We are working with the rising powers of Asia, India and China to position ourselves as key partners. But we will also do more collectively with small groups of countries willing and able to tackle particular foreign policy challenges. For example, in just the last couple of months, we've issued quad -- E3 plus U.S. and G7 -- statements on Russia; seen coordinated expulsions of Russian embassy officials by 27 countries in response to the use of a military grade nerve agent in Sailsbury; agreed E3 proposals for sanctions on North Korea; seen P3 action on Syria and launched a new G7 group on hostile interference in our democracies. And while we are leaving one organisation, we will remain a committed, connected member of over 60 others. Just last month, the Commonwealth summit, covering almost one third of the world's population and a billion of its youth, demonstrated our convening power making we believe a real difference on issues that matter to peoples lives like girls education, the eradication of malaria, cyber resilience and action to tackle plastic waste and protect our oceans. When we exit the EU, we will be well-placed to use this wider international architecture to deliver a foreign policy in the British interests. But the UK and EU will of course still face the same challenges. We will still share the same values. As the prime minister has said, our commitment to the security and prosperity of the European continent is absolute. So while it's hard to prejudge the outcome of the exits negotiations, we believe it is inevitable that the outcome will remain a close partnership. We bring a foreign security and defence policy heft which compliments the assets of our European partners, including 20 per cent of European defence spending and 25 per cent of the aid budget. Since the Brexit vote, we have remained clearly aligned with European partners on a number of key policy issues. I would highlight particularly the Paris Climate Accord and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action with Iran, and the location of embassies to the state of Israel. In fact, it's worth remembering that the JCPOA started as an initiative between the political directors of the UK, France and Germany in the early 2000s. 12 years of painstaking collective diplomacy finally delivered the deal in 2015 to limit Iran's nuclear capability. The joint statement of the Prime Minister, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel this week, and the statement of the Foreign Secretary to the House, underlined our commitment to this deal and a continued joint approach. In brief, post EU exit the structures for delivering foreign policy are there for us to use and develop, if we and our partners have the political will, energy and imagination to do so. But there is also perhaps wider questions we should examine sharpened by Brexit but not created by it about Britain's place in the world. What kind of power do we want to be? What kind of influence do we want to have? What do we care about? As the recent National Security Capability Review underlined once again, power in this century is increasingly diffuse and contested. We are witnessing a shift in the economic centre of gravity from west to east with the continuing economic political and military rise of China and India. Along with a profound demographic shift which will see over half the world's population in Asia and a quarter in Africa by 2050. Populations have never been so urban, wealthy, healthy, mobile and well-connected. By the end of 2018 almost one third of the globe will own a smartphone. These changes bring great opportunities. Over the next 30 years, Asia is predicted to generate more than half the world's economic output. India is on course to become the world's third largest economy by 2030. By that date China will have 220 cities with a population greater than 1 million compared with just 35 in Europe. By 2060, Africa will have over a billion in its middle class. But we also face formidable formidable range of old and new state and non-state based threats to our security and interests. A resurgent Russia is undermining the global order it claims to support. Until just a few weeks ago the regime in North Korea had brought the prospect of nuclear war back into the public consciousness. The integrity of arms control regimes from nuclear to chemical to conventional is at risk. Cyber attacks whether politically motivated or simply for criminal gain are reaching deeper into our politics and our critical infrastructure, as we saw with the NotPetya attack last summer. Daesh like so many other terrorist movements before it has risen and fallen as an armed force. But extremist ideology endures. Attacks and threats across the arc of instability in the Middle East and South Asia against our allies and partners and against our citizens in our own streets remains high. And climate change and extreme weather, a different category of threat, is increasing the vulnerability of some of the world's least resilient countries. As demonstrated by hurricanes and Maria, which devastated 1000 square miles of the Caribbean and USA. In the face of these opportunities and threats I can say with certainty that we are committed to being more, not less, global. Britain has always been internationalist and will remain so. The development of the National Security Council over the past eight years has built a culture of common purpose across Whitehall departments on foreign security and defence policy. The FCO has a central role in providing the platform, the deep regional expertise and the agility to support shape and lead the delivery of the NSC's whole-of-government objectives overseas, working together with colleagues on our platform from over 30 government departments and agencies. So the second question for the FCO at the moment, is how to make sure that we are right-sized, with the right people in the right places to continue to deliver NSC objectives and lead a joined-up, whole-of-government approach. We have been funded in recent years for an era of benign co-operation. We have retained a broad network, but over half of our posts have only one or two FCO diplomats or our locally staffed. We have to look to multilaterals including the EU to do the heavy lifting in many places. Over the past few years we have rigorously modernised the way we work and made hard choices about our priorities. We have become leaner and more efficient. Savings have come from centralising and localising back office functions like finance and HR in driving more efficient and accessible services in areas like visas passports and consular support and shifting resources into the emerging economies. But has recently announced by the Foreign Secretary, we are now in a position to start investing in what is probably the most significant expansion of our diplomatic service and global footprint since the collapse of the Soviet Union to work out what rightsize looks like in a rapidly changing world. As a first step it means at least 250 new diplomatic roles will be created overseas and uplift in our presence of almost 15 per cent. This will enable us to open at least 10 new sovereign missions many in Commonwealth countries where we haven't been represented for years. It also means we can put political resource back into European capitals and working together with DFID, we have refreshed the UK's long term strategic vision and footprint for Africa to make sure that our political muscle is better able to support the £4.5 billion a year we spend there in aid. Competition for influence across the world is becoming more intense. We need to make sure that countries large and small have opportunity to hear our voice and be listened to in turn, and I should say that sometimes even our smallest posts have great impact. Staff in small posts are also increasingly taking on regional roles, acting as influence multipliers. A couple of examples: in Botswana our High Commission is doing great things helping to protect elephants from the illegal wildlife trade and in Uzbekistan. Our small embassy and the British Council office are supporting a new president in developing an ambitious programme of reform, including as the main partner working in Uzbeskistan's higher education sector. The third key challenge for the FCO is our increasing delivery of foreign policy through programme funds. UK overseas development aid, ODA, spend last year came to over £13 billion. We have been scaling up rapidly and now lead on delivering programmes of close to £1 billion using both ODA and non-ODA funds guided by the priorities the Prime Minister and NSC tell us are most important, and by a rigorous process of cross Whitehall scrutiny and governance. This means we work in close partnership with DFID and other government departments in designing and delivering programmes. We focus on areas where the FCO can best add value and expertise. We compliment DFID's mandate by delivering ODA in over 110 countries, including in some middle income countries where some 70 per cent of the world's poor now live. We focus on areas where there are political risks and sensitivities. For example, following conflicts or political transition where we are testing options for improving economic or political governance or human rights or access to justice for vulnerable groups or where a rapid response is necessary following a crisis. A few examples: through the crossed government conflict stability and security funds. The FCO has provided the rapid whole of government response to Hurricane One which devastated the Caribbean last year. Support to the Colombia peace process and its implementation through the cross government prosperity fund. In Brazil, we have supported work on public health policy and to improve primary care, in Mexico we have piloted financial education through mobile phones for 60000 economically disadvantaged women, and we have helped South Africa look at ways to improve its energy supply and reduce its operational costs and carbon footprint. Finally through the FCO's bilateral fund we have worked with the Democratic Republic of Congo to prevent sexual violence in conflict afflicted communities in the DRC and build local capacity for criminal accountability and Victim Support. Our approach to delivering through programmes aims to be innovative and agile. The essence of good foreign policy. Modernising the use of programs in this way puts us at the operational cutting edge of our foreign ministry peers around the world. As the FCO, we work for the government and its interests. The FCO plays a central leadership role in reflecting the breadth of those interests overseas. The UK will intensify its international engagement not retreat into itself. Through our extended network. We will be more present, in more places, both in Europe and the wider world. Our aim is to continue to be active in all policy discussions that matter. We will help pursue global peace and security protect our people and remain a steadfast partner for our allies. We will stand up for the increasingly contested rules-based international system. We will continue to project our values championed human rights, democracy and the rule of law. And we will be a leading advocate for free trade, global prosperity and poverty reduction including through ambitious free trade agreements and the 0.7 per cent commitment delivering ODA in innovative adaptive ways. This agenda is both in the global interest making the world a better place and unequivocally in our national interest. It is on abashedly ambitious as a safe secure and prosperous global environment underpins security and prosperity at home. Thank you very much.

Sir Simon McDonald KCMG KCVO joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1982 and has served in Berlin, Jeddah, Riyadh, Bonn, Washington and Tel Aviv, and in a wide range of jobs in London. Before taking up his current role, Sir Simon served as the British Ambassador to Berlin from 2010 to 2015. He was the Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser and Head of Foreign and Defence Policy in the Cabinet Office from 2007 to 2010. From 2003 to 2006 he was British Ambassador to Israel. He was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George in 2014.


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