UK Diplomacy and National Survival in the Global Turmoil of 2024

Diplomacy in action: UK Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron pictured during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv in November 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

The world teeters on the edge of a wider conflict in both Ukraine and the Middle East. In Gaza, Kharkiv and Khartoum, life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Modern British diplomacy is not suited to the chaotic and dangerous world of which Thomas Hobbes warned. What needs to change?

Last week, three top former diplomats published a report entitled ‘The world in 2040. Renewing the UK’s approach to international affairs’. This was intended to stimulate a debate prior to the election of a new government later this year.

It is a pity that the report by Lord Mark Sedwill, Tom Fletcher and Moazzam Malik fell foul of the culture wars thanks to a national press which focused almost entirely on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) grand buildings, colonial furnishings and supposedly elite status. Most foreign ministries in the world have grand buildings with portraits celebrating national heroes who would fail the most basic human rights checklist. The problem here is not one of location but of performance.

The three core contributors provide an interesting cross-section. Anyone who read Tom Fletcher’s weekly blog when he was Ambassador to Lebanon will know that he is a talented proponent of soft power. Mark Sedwill, by contrast, is an effective advocate of realpolitik, while Moazzam Malik is a seasoned development expert.

However, even though the trio ‘convened a group of former Ministers, National Security Advisers, Permanent Secretaries, Ambassadors and senior officials’, there is no avoiding the fact that this is an analysis conducted by insiders. Although a few academics were involved, it was surely a mistake not to bring in a wider circle of opinion – from industry, finance, the military and particularly from the world of technology.

A more diverse perspective would have spotted some of the report’s more unfortunate observations. ‘There should be efficient ways of involving civil society, think tanks, academics and business in meaningful ways.’ That this does not happen already is lamentable, but not as astonishing as the suggestion that ‘we will need to build up deep thematic and regional expertise to help the UK navigate wicked, complex challenges in a shifting geopolitical landscape’. Surely this has been a fundamental requirement of the erstwhile Foreign Office since its inception in 1782.

Many would share the authors’ view that ‘our post-Brexit, post-pandemic government machine has deteriorated and is not fit for purpose for the second quarter of the 21st century’. This decline in policy delivery was first identified by the Blair government around 2001, when the world became more fraught in the wake of 9/11. The Blair, Brown and Cameron governments all complained about poor delivery.

All three authors learnt their diplomatic skills during that magical period at the end of the Cold War when everything seemed to go smoothly: South Africa obtained majority rule, Eastern Europe wanted to join NATO and the EU, a two-state solution was agreed in Oslo between Israel and the Palestinians, China joined the wider global community and Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin agreed to nuclear arms reduction. That period of success was directly attributable to the West’s victory over the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, there is a direct correlation between economic, military and political success and foreign policy achievement.

But since 2001, a new Hobbesian era has dawned. Coercion has replaced cooperation, and UK diplomacy has been found wanting. With the UK economy shrinking, with the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan and a government struggling domestically, there can be little wonder that the UK delivers so little impact overseas. However, the erosion of military power has been even more striking, and Whitehall has ignored repeated US warnings that its capabilities have fallen far below critical levels.

With the UK economy shrinking, with the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan and a government struggling domestically, there can be little wonder that the UK delivers so little impact overseas

The new breed of hard men of world politics (and they are all men) – Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohamad bin Zayed, Mohamed bin Salman – have little respect for the UK, its political and economic weakness, its tendency to moralise and its waning military power.

So what needs to change?

The FCDO needs a reminder of its purpose. It is there to promote UK interests overseas. This means not only cooperation with partners, but also winning arguments and obtaining advantage. The French foreign ministry has never forgotten its purpose, and never misses the chance to win business in markets where the UK once felt secure, like India and the UAE.

Beneath any confusion over purpose is the culture of the FCDO. The standard FCDO reply to the previous paragraph would be that ‘diplomacy is not a zero-sum game. We can all be winners’. While that is sometimes true, it is not the mindset of Turkey when thinking about Kurdish groups in Syria, nor China’s ‘wolf warriors’ when contemplating islands in the South China Sea, nor is it Netanyahu’s first thought when planning for Gaza and Iran.

The FCDO has talented and dedicated staff and provides its ministers with good briefings, but this leaves little room for novel policy thinking. The shock and near paralysis of the FCDO after the Brexit vote was a sign of institutional rigidity, a lack of intellectual diversity and an absence of ambition.

Most FCDO staff may have regretted the decision to leave the EU, but which foreign policy expert would not relish the challenge of devising a completely new global strategy rather than merely aligning policy with EU partners, which had been the norm since 1973? And with the prospect of a second Trump administration in 2025, there is the monumental realisation that, for the first time since 1941, the US may no longer be the UK’s most reliable ally. This may not be welcome but it is surely demanding, even exciting.

This brings into question whether the FCDO recruits the right diplomats. Generalists – often straight from university – are not well equipped to deal with complex and fast-changing issues such as managing the urgent transition to net zero without unduly disadvantaging the domestic economy, or identifying the dangers of AI in (for example) the use of autonomous weapons while promoting a sector where the UK is likely to be a global leader. The FCDO has become more equal, ethnically diverse and inclusive, but suffers badly from groupthink. It needs an injection of broader expertise.

The private sector is the obvious place to find this expertise, and that argues for recruitment of diplomatic staff in their late 20s/early 30s with a proven track record of delivering tangible results. Former US President Barack Obama has recently remarked that he valued people who ‘just get stuff done’. There is also a case for extensive (rather than occasional, as present) secondments both into and out of government. A classic example is the vital cyber domain, where public-private partnership is already fundamental to the safety of the UK’s critical infrastructure.

It is time to recover the UK's self-belief that it is a force for good in the world, and that it has a foreign ministry with the skills and culture to deliver success

A rare recent case of effective foreign policy has been in Ukraine since 2022, but that has been led by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The FCDO has developed a mistaken notion that the MoD, with its ships, planes and soldiers, is the guardian of the UK’s hard power while the FCDO is the provider of soft power. Both departments need to do both. It was Robert Vansittart, the top diplomat at the FCDO, who ensured that a complacent Air Ministry in the 1930s monitored the build-up of the Nazi air force, and that the RAF was suitably enhanced. ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick’ was not the quote of some crazed despot, but of a committed democrat, Theodore Roosevelt.

Indeed, the FCDO would benefit from an increase in defence spending towards 2.5% or 3% and a new defence review which must learn from the experiences of Afghanistan and Ukraine and develop armed forces appropriate for the new age. This will require a radical review of defence and hard choices, but credible hard power would enhance the UK’s diplomacy and render unnecessary the report’s unrealistic ambition that 1% of gross national income should be ring-fenced for diplomacy.

As for soft power, the UK has masses already. Harry Potter, Adele, the BBC, the Rolling Stones, Manchester United, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Economist, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the James Bond franchise and Save the Children Fund (to mention only a few) all reflect well upon the UK and its freedoms. If the FCDO can leverage diplomatic advantage from them that is a bonus, but UK soft power does not need FCDO assistance.

The report also reveals a yearning for a long-term foreign policy, but this desire fails to understand the nature of the current age of global disruption. Long-term these days is measured in months, not years. If a small group like Hamas can overturn global politics in one day, how much more can China if it invades Taiwan, or Russia if it uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? What is needed is good intelligence and a capability to deliver nimble and effective responses to new and complex challenges. This requires agile and fertile minds backed up by economic, political and military credibility.

The report wants the FCDO to be renamed Global Affairs UK. That sounds more like a think tank than a department delivering advantage. A return to the original Foreign Office name would be best; the Commonwealth part is superfluous – none of the other 55 members have Commonwealth in the title of their foreign ministry. As for Development, the merger was a well-intentioned mistake. Getting (partial) control of aid money has not increased diplomatic leverage. Quite the contrary, it has brought even more soft-power ethos into a department which already had a surfeit.

On the question of slavery and the colonial legacy, Sedwill astutely remarked in his foreword: ‘For the past decade, we have been wrestling with our national identity, to the bewilderment of our allies and the glee of our adversaries’. The incoming government will need to reach an early decision on reparations and prevent the issue from becoming a running sore.

The oddest thing about the report is its title. Why 2040? The problem is right now. It is time to recover the UK's self-belief that it is a force for good in the world, and that it has a foreign ministry with the skills and culture to deliver success. A few months of Lord David Cameron’s experience and energy may help to restore the morale of a dispirited department, but the incoming government will provide the ideal moment to get started on reform.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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