Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Mr Leonard, director of the Foreign Policy Centre, may I welcome you warmly on behalf of the Committee? You know that the Committee is currently examining the Departmental Report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we shall be meeting Sir John Kerr and his FCO team this afternoon. The Committee thought it would be of help to us to gain perspective, to sharpen our own views, to meet outsiders, although since you are part of a think tank or a task force within the FCO even you may have been grasped to the bosom of the FCO a little. To begin, it would be helpful if you would give us your own broad critique of the FCO which will assist us in our examination of that report. What is your line? Where do you come from in examining the FCO?
  (Mr Leonard) Thank you very much for inviting me here. Maybe, before I start, I should just explain very briefly who I am and what the centre is. The centre was set up in 1998 to explore Britain's role in the world, the impact of globalisation, to try and look at the issues which cut across departments and which cut across frontiers. We are not a traditional foreign policy think tank that looks at Britain's relationship with every single part of the world and focuses on bilateral issues. We are more there to explore some of the issues which may have been neglected in the past by traditional foreign policy think tanks or ones which are coming up on the agenda. One of the big projects which we are working on at the moment is a project on the whole idea of public diplomacy, looking at new audiences that the Foreign Office and other foreign services and their partners need to reach. If you do not mind, maybe I can talk a bit about that because it may be a good way of framing broader discussions about the role of the Foreign Office. The first thing to recognise is that we are operating in a different environment, where many of the threats to security are not from aggression from other countries; they are cross-border issues, where we need new networks to deal with them which cannot just consist of our relationships with other governments. Many of the issues which have been most problematic and which are the most interesting in the report, I found, were some of those issues where new partnerships were being created and new tools within multilateral institutions. Also, a focus on working with democracies, so governments boxed in by public opinion or boxed in by domestic campaigns, and societies which are very porous where you have lots of different sources of information. If we take that as our starting point, I think it is quite a dramatic, gradual shift for the whole notion of foreign services. In our work on public diplomacy, we looked a bit at what it means to shift from communicating mainly with small, government elites to wider audiences. The most important challenge behind scaling up is, first of all, to have a much clearer sense of who the decision makers are within different countries and relate that to the foreign policy objectives of Britain and of the service and to start developing a much broader array of tools to get to them, so segmenting audiences much more intelligently, building up communities of interest which cut across those borders, working with NGOs, as the Foreign Office has done, on conflict diamonds and on other issues and with companies as well; also, seeing how one can maybe shift resources from bricks and mortar and from buildings into work which has a broader impact. That is as true for the Foreign Office as for other agencies. I hope the recent review of the British Council's work is an example of how that can work. Secondly, we need a much closer link between traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy, not just because of the range of issues where public diplomacy is important on everything from maintaining international coalitions on Kosovo and other areas to the recent work on foot and mouth and British beef etc. There are a whole series of issues where you have a cross over between traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy. What we have looked at is how one can include this public diplomacy element much more clearly within the formulation of traditional diplomacy, for the Foreign Office to be clear about what it has the resources and expertise to do itself and where it must enlist the support of others and, when it works with others, what rules should govern those relationships. I think there is a very interesting agenda on the rights and responsibilities of NGOs to make sure that the public interest is guarded when one works with NGOs, but equally when one works with the private sector to make sure that there are very clear rules of engagement and transparency there. Sometimes, as with conflict diamonds for instance, where there is a very important top line byproduct, sometimes there are byproducts such as helping people reinforce natural monopolies which may be worth doing if one takes the public interest into account. I think transparency is very important. I also think that there has to be more strategic planning of what we are trying to do in particular market places. I know that in most areas there are now public diplomacy committees on the ground and that they are a useful forum to make sure that activities are coordinated. They are increasingly trying to think more strategically, but it is really important for us to have a much more detailed idea of what we are trying to do in particular countries; and also to make sure that we have the skills in place to do that. I know that the public diplomacy section has been putting a lot of thinking into training staff and appointing secondees from outside government, but I think it is as much about the skills that we value in people that we are recruiting to work in different agencies, both within government and outside government and also what counts when their performance is being reviewed. That has to be coupled with much clearer attempts to track perceptions, to set targets, to benchmark. That whole notion of moving from doing everything to facilitating foreign policy is one of the most important challenges for government. If we look at all the sorts of issues that we are talking about, they are issues where there are many organisations within Britain who may be best placed to lead public opinion on the ground in other countries.

  2. Are you suggesting that you supplant traditional diplomacy in some way?
  (Mr Leonard) Traditional diplomacy is as important as it has ever been. It is something which this country has been very good at and where there are great strengths to build on. What I am suggesting is that that should be supplemented with a whole new tier of diplomacy. Some of the most interesting questions are ones where we have had almost a hybrid diplomacy of traditional diplomats working with NGOs, working with businesses, around issues which often cut across frontiers which are often multilateral.

  3. What are the specific implications of what you are saying for management of the FCO in terms of personnel, recruitment for particular skills and in terms of the plant, the assets, which the FCO has overseas?
  (Mr Leonard) In terms of management and personnel, first of all, I think we need to make sure that we need to make sure that we have a broader range of skills. That is something which is already happening and there is a lot of work being done both to bring people in from outside the Foreign Office on secondments and also entering at higher levels and also Foreign Office people moving outside the office on secondment to other organisations. That is something which needs to continue and it has been quite successful in all sorts of different ways, if we look at specific examples where people have brought entirely different skills sets and degrees of knowledge into that. Secondly, we need to carry on monitoring the work that is being done on recruitment. There has been a lot of progress to make sure the Foreign Office becomes more representative of British society but there is still a long way to go on that. Thirdly, in terms of the sorts of performance measures we are looking at and the skills that we value in staff, there has to be a much clearer recognition of communication skills, of other sorts of knowledge. Some of the public diplomacy indicators need to be worked at a lot because they are quite new indicators and sometimes are not as well thought through.

  4. And implications for the plant, for traditional embassies?
  (Mr Leonard) That is something which is happening as well. First of all, people are looking at how one manages the front of house of these sorts of organisations. You have the whole notion of one stop shops, where resources are being saved by all sorts of different organisations which are related to Britain coming together in a building which embodies British values and something positive about Britain. Secondly, if we do think really strategically about it, there may be creation of regional hubs in some parts of the world and having virtual embassies around, not necessarily having no presence on the ground at all but carrying on the practice which we have built up of having different sorts of presences. Increasingly, we are finding we need completely different operations in different countries which should be much more attuned towards the local objectives. One of the positive things about recent years has been the growth in the use of locally engaged staff who give you a real opportunity to do these sorts of things because they know the ground very well. They speak the languages. They have a very good sense of what the priorities are. Maybe one of the other things I would like to see is for us to lift the glass ceiling which stops locally engaged staff getting higher than being a press counsellor in an embassy, particularly locally engaged people, who have had some experience in the United Kingdom, who have lived here and who know the country well. They could help to build better relationships. The other thing is the sorts of activities which are undertaken. If you look at Germany, for instance, the role of foundations like the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in promoting party to party links, that is an incredibly useful tool for influencing countries. If you get very strong links between political parties, I need hardly tell people here how much help that can be.

Mr Rowlands

  5. In making your case, you took as an illustration Seattle. You said that Seattle showed how well organised elements could wreck the agenda for governments, even in international summits. If your arrangements for public diplomacy were in place, how would they effectively counter a determined effort of that kind? Tell me how it would have been different.
  (Mr Leonard) The purpose is not to stop people organising on a global level. It is to put arguments across at that level. I think there are lots of lessons from Seattle. I think everyone agreed that the main reason Seattle failed was not because of the protesters; it was because the governments could not come to an agreement. For me, the key lesson was first of all that there are better ways of engaging Non-Government Organisations than were found at Seattle. There are ways of channelling energies in a more productive way so that they do not erupt onto the streets. If one creates a clear framework for involving NGOs, one sets up a series of responsibilities for them to adhere to that matches that with a set of structures to have dialogue with them. That can be very useful. Secondly, I think the work on conflict diamonds and on other issues shows that one can build a community of interest which cuts across borders, for instance on land mines. There are a whole series of issues where this has been done very effectively—on debt as well—where one can bring together a coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations, companies and governments. Governments can play a very important role both in supplying information, in lobbying for these things in multilateral organisations, in lobbying their partners, but also not trying to do all the work themselves. What NGOs have shown very effectively at Seattle and at other places is how good they can be at creating a public debate around issues and raising the salience of an issue within a political debate to a level which would have been impossible without their presence. That sort of strategic partnership with NGOs and other could be a very powerful way of getting messages across. There are limits to how much governments can do on their own to change public opinion within this country and also abroad.

  6. That implies that NGOs should become almost an extension of the FCO. That surely endangers their independence?
  (Mr Leonard) The metaphor that we use when we are thinking about public diplomacy is chains of public diplomacy, where you have lots of different links who have their own objectives, their own criteria for success, but who work together towards a greater goal. It is absolutely essential for the functioning of most NGOs that they maintain that independence, they maintain their edge and stick to their missions. Equally, it is absolutely essential for the World Service to have its independence and the British Council, all in different ways. There is an area where there is a synergy between people's interests, where they can work together and where agendas can be hammered out and pursued within the public debate and within multilateral organisations. The challenge is to have those sorts of antennae to be able to find those partners and the skills to build these new coalitions. It is something that is already starting to happen but I am sure there is going to be much more of it in the future.

  7. It seems you are quite heavily dependent on this new public diplomacy. There are basically the internet, IT systems, information, accessible information through the internet. That is right, is it? Your main instrument would be information through the internet?
  (Mr Leonard) That is one of the other really interesting challenges for the Foreign Office which has traditionally had a culture of trading information rather than sharing information. There are obviously a lot of papers within the Foreign Office which cannot be released for all sorts of different reasons. I think it does require a cultural change if one wants to shape public opinion, if one wants to change the way an issue is discussed at an international level. One needs to set out an agenda; one needs to supply information for the people who are trying to put that case together. That is something which NGOs have been very good at, getting information to large groups of people who are interested in a particular issue around the world. What the internet can do which I think mass communications cannot is have these large communities of interest who cut across boundaries and who, within any individual country, would be quite a small group of people but, because one is linking up with different groups around the world, one can get momentum on those sorts of issues. That is also one of the dangers of public debate being distorted and the public interest being lost. That is why one has to be very clear about—

  8. Occasionally, I have gone to the internet on a subject I know something about and I have often found what is on the internet on that subject to be pretty facile and simplistic. If you depend on public diplomacy based on the internet, you are going to have a very simplistic and rather facile, superficial way of dealing with issues and problems.
  (Mr Leonard) The internet is a medium like radio, television and newspapers. It is a way of sharing information and getting messages across. It is only a small part of that. Like all those other media, there are some things on it which are very good, positive and well researched; there are other things which are completely misleading. The big difference is that a lot of people can put information on it. What I am suggesting is to try and link up all of those different tools that we have, to have a more entrepreneurial foreign service which is actually interested in building campaigns on issues and behaving in a different way to the way that it maybe did 15 or 20 years ago. It is something which is starting to happen organically within not just this foreign service but a lot of foreign services around the world. Traditionally, it was something which was done more by countries like Canada or the Nordic countries in Scandinavia.

  9. If you were looking for the best practice of your kind of approach, where would you look?
  (Mr Leonard) There are pockets of excellence in different countries. Some of the things which are going on in this country are really very good examples of good practice, like conflict diamonds, but I think there is a hell of a long way to go. In Canada, the government has been very good at engaging domestic public opinion on these sorts of issues and building coalitions within the country. There is also a lot of very interesting work being done in Sweden about getting information out to different people and their use of IT, which is very interesting.

Dr Starkey

  10. You spoke about building campaigns. Where does this shade into interfering in the domestic and political affairs of other countries? For example, the big issue about greater integration within Europe. Would not other European Member States be a bit miffed if a government started to actively be a player in an internal domestic campaign about whether a given country should or should not be more closely integrated within the European Union?
  (Mr Leonard) That is where these issues become very interesting and contentious because traditionally we have had this notion of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs. Now, increasingly, there are norms which are being developed at a global level which different countries sign up to and if they fail to live up to the rules which they themselves have signed up to there are ways of interfering with that.

  11. Such as what?
  (Mr Leonard) The International Criminal Court on human rights issues and the WTO on trade issues. Increasingly, we are finding that our interests as a nation are not just determined by other governments but by citizens in other countries. There are large grey areas but the work that has been done recently in trying to persuade tourists to come to Britain and to show that foot and mouth has not closed the country down is one example of interfering in other countries' domestic affairs, not interfering in the same way that it would be to campaign in Denmark in their referendum campaign, but it is an example of the merging of what our agenda is as a country and what our national interest is and the patterns of behaviour in other countries, their perceptions of us. That is why I think these coalitions are particularly important because it would be inappropriate for the British government, for instance, to campaign within another democracy against what the government is trying to do. If you have NGOs organised on a global level which are supporting things which are interests of the British people which we support—for example, on climate change, on land mines, on human rights or on other sorts of issues—I do not think it is improper for the government to talk to them, to collaborate with them, to offer them assistance. We need to have a much clearer debate about what the limits of that should be, what is right and proper, and how we manage all of those relationships. That is the sort of debate which is starting to happen now. We need to make sure that we do it in a very subtle way.

  12. Taking a specific example of land mines, which I suspect will be relatively non-contentious around here, what would be the relative role as you would see it of, say, the Foreign Office and the British Council and the World Service?
  (Mr Leonard) It is an important political issue so the World Service's role within that would be to cover it in an objective and open way. They certainly should not be broadcasting propaganda or doing anything at the behest of government, but it is a legitimate issue for them to talk about. I am sure that it is an issue which the World Service has covered in all sorts of different ways in its news programmes in documentary format. It is important that the World Service should determine its editorial agenda but, for example, if the World Service were to make a programme or a series about land mines which was factual, which had all the different points of view in the debate shown, it might be possible for the British Council to use some of that material when it was teaching English to people in particular countries or teaching English to diplomats in particular countries or to use that as some kind of teaching aid. It depends what countries and if it is a country where you do not have large access to radio or to the internet to broadcast it within its buildings. What should the role of the British Council be? The British Council, through its work on human rights and good governance, can promote these issues, can educate people, can work with NGOs on the ground and help them build capacity. I am sure DFID can have a role in that. The Foreign Office, for instance, has a role lobbying governments who will make the decision ultimately for themselves and within multilateral organisations but also can have a role in communicating with public opinion domestically and through speeches and through their actions ministers can actually put the issue on the agenda in different fora. I do not think it is illegitimate for these issues to be raised in other countries. That is why one has to be quite subtle about the range of issues because there is obviously a big difference between land mines and an issue which is very clearly about the internal interests of a Member State, such as whether Denmark joins the euro or not. There is a very big difference between those sorts of issues and one needs to make sure one has the right criteria to make those choices.

Mr Maples

  13. Quite a lot of what you are suggesting is happening already, is it not? We have mentioned the British Council and the BBC World Service, but also with regional development agencies which have offices abroad and large companies which have public relations and public affairs programmes of their own in other countries and trade organisations. Do you think that quite a lot of this is happening and you are simply saying it is not structured or brought together in any way or are you saying not enough of it is happening at all?
  (Mr Leonard) I am saying, first of all, there is a lot of this happening. Increasingly, there will be more of it happening. The issues which arise on the agenda are issues which need these sorts of coalitions because they are no longer within the power even of national governments, let alone of a single national government, and that is why NGOs and businesses and governments are increasingly having to work together. There will be much more of it and there needs to be more of it. If we look at what the strategic goals of this country are, those are the sorts of tools which we are going to have. That is why there is a very active debate going on with all foreign services about what kind of skills they need, what kind of management structures they need, how they define their relationships with others and with the rest of their domestic governance as well.

  14. It is presumably much easier in democracies than in closed societies. Presumably, the sort of thing you are talking about is much more useful in Australia, the United States or Canada than it would be in Belarus or China?
  (Mr Leonard) Again, one is trying to do very different things but one of the major events of last year was in Serbia, for instance, where a lot of these agencies have been very active in trying to promote a culture of democracy, trying to get these sorts of issues discussed and on the agenda. It is incredibly important, particularly in countries where the relationship with the government is quite difficult, but we need to maintain a relationship with the people of the country. Public diplomacy gives you a way forward. Obviously, it is much more difficult to do in a country like Iraq which is very closed and where there are not many partners that one can work with on the ground because the society has been closed down so much. In a way, that makes it more important if one is going to have a smooth transition. Also, if one is intervening militarily in a lot of these countries, it is absolutely essential that they understand why Britain has a presence there if troops on the ground are going to be able to operate and be seen as friendly forces.

  15. In your world, would the ambassador to a particular country have a responsibility to try to coordinate these things in the country to which he is an ambassador or do you see this happening at a Whitehall level?
  (Mr Leonard) I think at all levels. Increasingly, the permanent agencies are working together much more effectively now than they have ever done before. I remember when I started work on rebranding Britain in 1996, a lot of the people in different agencies had barely met each other, let alone worked together and made strategic plans together. I think that is going to happen increasingly. Secondly, we will have units being formed for particular purposes, whether it is land mines or conflict diamonds or other issues, within the Foreign Office, which will try and bring these issues together within Whitehall. On the ground, I think you will get increasing coalitions which are coming together around issues which matter in those particular countries. There will also increasingly not just be British organisations; there will be multilateral coalitions coming together. In many of the countries that we are talking about on many issues, apart from the commercial issues, we have very similar interests to a lot of our EU partners in the US, Australia and other countries which are like minded. That is why this whole notion of changing the way the foreign service operates here should be seen within a broader context. If we can create structures that allow us to mesh more effectively with foreign services in other countries as they change and develop, that will be very helpful.

Mr Chidgey

  16. I can follow the logic of NGOs and the like being coordinated in the interests of a particular country but the Department mission statement of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to promote the national interests of the United Kingdom. I want to take you back to some of your opening remarks, where you compared public diplomacy with traditional diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy, in particular in this country, is to promote the interests of the United Kingdom through the Foreign Office which is accountable to Parliament, which is in turn accountable to the people of the country through a democratic process. Do you not find there is a contradiction between that role, which is very specific and very clear, and a rather ephemeral public diplomacy which is drawn from a naturally selecting body who happen to have access to the internet, who may be or may not be in democratically elected countries? Is it not the case though, therefore, that the traditional form of diplomacy has a very clear, specific role and there is no compatibility in those strategic areas between this public diplomacy which is rather indefinable?
  (Mr Leonard) You have put your finger on the rub of the issue which is that there is a very clear framework for government to government diplomacy and there is a very clear framework for accountability. Unfortunately, the world around that is becoming more and more complex. Many of the things we want to achieve cannot be achieved simply within those frameworks because all our societies are becoming much more diverse. There are not any clear rules for this new world. I do not think they are incompatible. We have no option but to use these new tools if we are going to live up to the Foreign Office's mission statement. The challenge is to create a way of making sure that these new relationships are transparent, are open and accountable, that what the Foreign Office does and what the British government does is appropriate, that there are channels to make sure that they do defend the public interest and that they are accountable to Parliament and to the people of the country through the ballot box and through other means. We need to make sure that everybody is aware of the new agenda and that all the different tools of accountability and democracy are deployed to make sure that the public interest is protected because the trouble with not embracing this new agenda and not trying to set out these new rules for governing relationships between NGOs and governments, between business and governments, is that these relationships will go on in an unregulated, untransparent manner and the public interest is much more likely to be undermined. That is why a lot of the work we have done within the centre has been to try and set up some of these frameworks.

Mr Rowlands

  17. How do you regulate them?
  (Mr Leonard) It is not necessarily regulation through legislation. There are all sorts of different ways of having regulation through codes of conduct, regulation and transparency. Public debate around issues can be a way of regulating behaviour as well.


  18. You have seen the document on which we shall be examining Sir John Kerr this afternoon. Do you recognise your new agenda in this document and its projections to 2005?
  (Mr Leonard) One of the exciting things about the document is that there are some excellent examples of that new agenda in action. Conflict diamonds is the most dramatic one. There is also a lot of work which needs to be done on precisely answering Mr Chidgey's point, which is setting out these new rules which have not really been fully worked through within the system and which are not understood by the public either. Unless the public understands what is right and what is wrong and has a clear set of benchmarks against which to judge the behaviour of the government, the behaviour of companies and the behaviour of NGOs, we are going to find it very difficult to move forward. We will find, as we did over child labour and other issues for instance, that public opinion can be an unguided missile which sometimes has unintended consequences. Sometimes, it can even set back agendas which it is trying to advance.

Mr Rowlands

  19. That is because maybe some of these agendas are minority agendas and are not supported by the majority.
  (Mr Leonard) That may very well be true.

  Chairman: Mr Leonard, thank you very much on behalf of the Committee.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 10 May 2001