The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written submission from Oliver Miles CMG

1. For reasons of geography and history as well as because of our trading economy, international factors weigh larger in Britain than in other countries of comparable wealth and size (excepting France, which is comparable with Britain). This rather than any political will to punch above our weight accounts for the traditional political clout of the Foreign Office within government, and for the development of a Diplomatic Service which outclasses those of other European states and is a match for those of larger nations such as the USA, Russia and China.

2. These assets are needed to minimise the negative consequences of international events which by their nature are outside our control, such as the development of Soviet power in the 20th century or of Islamic extremist violence in the 21st, and also to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Most of the foreign policy disasters of the last hundred years - Munich, Suez, Iraq - are exceptions that prove the rule: the Prime Ministers of the day deliberately bypassed the Foreign Office, and in the Iraq case we had not had  an embassy there since 1991. We were slow to grasp the opportunities created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that was mainly because the government, led by the Treasury, refused to accept that we could not do so without modest additional resources required to open posts in the "new" capitals. This was the background to the unhappy story of the Tashkent embassy seven or eight years ago.

3. The Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service have therefore a vital national and indeed international role, since most big international problems require us to work with allies. If our institutions are strong they can exercise a powerful influence within the British government and within our alliances. "Strong" in this context means that they must have deep understanding of the issues, and ability to formulate policy and negotiate effectively. In most of the international crises in which I was personally involved, Aden, Cyprus, Arab/Israel and Libya, the Foreign Office commanded confidence because of its professional understanding of the issues and knowledge of the personalities and history behind the events of the day.

4. The exception was Yugoslavia. For the first time, taking part in policy discussions at prime ministerial level, I felt that we were exposed by our lack of expertise. There were two reasons: first, the collapse of Yugoslavia was unexpected, and to understand it required knowledge of factors which had been largely invisible, though latent, for more than a generation. But this was made worse by our failure to mobilise such expertise as we did have. This can be attributed at least in part to concentration on process and management at the cost of neglect of our fundamental role.

5. By the time I retired from the service in 1996 I felt (and I said as much to the then head of the Diplomatic Service) that we had compromised our traditional position of strength by allowing deep understanding of the world outside Britain to be sacrificed in favour of peripheral objectives. A symbol and more than a symbol of this is the fact that in the region I know best, the Arab world, too many key positions at home and abroad are now occupied by non-Arabic speakers. This is sometimes unavoidable, but it is nonetheless deplorable. Nothing more clearly indicates the professionalism of our Diplomatic Service compared with others than our ability to work in "difficult" languages.

6. One problem is that performance measurement, which has been imported from the private sector into the civil service including the foreign service over the last 25 years, is not applicable to all the work of the FCO and the Diplomatic Service. Indeed the attempt to apply it can have a distorting effect. Money is measurable, passports, visas, prison visits, entertainment, trade are all measurable. But the value of an export promotion exercise cannot easily be measured, and much political work cannot be sensibly measured at all. How to count how many times diplomatic action has prevented or contributed to ending a war, perhaps the highest function of political diplomacy? Distortion arises because activities that can be measured come to be regarded as more important than those that cannot, often the reverse of the truth.

7. To me the most shocking piece of evidence given to the Iraq enquiry was the statement by Sir John Sawers that "Very few observers actually highlighted the scale of the violence that we could face. I think about the only person in my recollection who got it right was President Mubarak. " He described the level of violence that we encountered as " unprecedented " . These comments indicate a failure by the FCO in its most essential function: to convey to No. 10 and the Cabinet an appreciation of reality which was shared by pretty well everyone with knowledge of Iraq . As for " unprecedented " one has only to think of the extreme violence associated with the forty years of the British period in Iraq from World War I to the 1958 revolution from start to finish .

8. Radical reconsideration of objectives is required: less emphasis on presentation, image, process, diversity, management, more on the core strength of the FCO and the Diplomatic Service. Just one Alice in Wonderland example: the major functions of the consular and protocol departments are protection of British subjects and conduct of relations with foreign embassies in London, so why is the official who supervises them entitled "Director General of Change"? There should be more area and language studies, greater specialisation of some officers without detriment to careers, full use of research and analysis resources, continued or enhanced co-operation with outside bodies such as think tanks and universities. This is not to belittle the requirement, in the Diplomatic Service as in the Home Civil Service, for the experienced professional generalist.

9. The channel through which advice and information goes from the FCO and the Diplomatic Service to No. 10 and the Cabinet, and policy decisions and instructions come back, needs attention. Perhaps because of the Thatcher/Charles Powell phenomenon this function is now mainly performed by the private offices, which are essential and efficient but not robust enough to carry the weight. Papers for Cabinet may no longer be an adequate option, for reasons outside the remit of your committee; many with government service experience will regret the decline of collegiate government, with the Foreign Secretary and the FCO and Diplomatic Service playing a full part in policy making at the appropriate levels including Cabinet. Let us hope the National Security Council experiment will provide an answer.

10. Heads of mission are held strictly to account in some secondary areas, including in particular finance (where the formal requirements placed on them are unrealistic). More attention should be given to holding them to account on policy issues. For example, when WPC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered and I had to break off relations with Libya, apart from half an hour with the Prime Minister (when rather surprisingly she did most of the listening) I do not recall being asked difficult questions: did I foresee it? If not, why not? What did I do, or recommend London should do, to avoid it? What lessons could be learned? Dialogue between the FCO and heads of mission should routinely include re-examination of opportunities and threats.

11. Some British ambassadors were advised during the Blair years that it was not worth making recommendations which were contrary to established policy. This is a betrayal of the professionalism of the Diplomatic Service, with grave dangers for the national interest. The American foreign service has been widely praised for the quality of reporting revealed by WikiLeaks, but not much independence of mind has been in evidence. It is essential that heads of mission should feel free to submit reports and recommendations which are out of line with current policy. Political advisers and political appointments have a proper role, but they must not tarnish the political impartiality of the Diplomatic Service. It is galling when the mistakes of political implants, often highly paid, are attributed to the Service. An example is the drafting of the "dodgy dossier" on going to war in Iraq.

12. Support for British business, which the Prime Minister has emphasised, is part of a broader picture. To quote the 1969 Duncan report on overseas representation "The commercial work of the Diplomatic Service cannot have absolute priority, since the preservation of peace and security must clearly be an overriding aim" but "in our present circumstances [economic crises are always with us, 1969 no exception] ...export promotion is bound to become an even more crucial part of overseas representational work" Probably the most useful thing an ambassador can do for business is to advise how decisions are made and who makes them. Good advice, both to ministers and to businessmen, depends on getting to know and if possible understand the culture and motivation of the country or institution in which you work, what makes the people as well as their government tick. Modern communications and the ease of travel enable ministers to meet and get to know their foreign colleagues, and that can be invaluable, but such acquaintances and flying visits only scratch the surface of the knowledge of foreign countries.

27 December 2010