The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written submission from Carne Ross

I am a former British diplomat who resigned after giving evidence to the Butler Inquiry in 2004 (my last posting had been as Britain’s Middle East and particularly Iraq specialist at the UN Security Council in New York).  I then founded and now head Independent Diplomat, the non-profit diplomatic advisory group, based in five offices around the world, which advises various countries and governments, and other political groups, on diplomatic strategy.  Our clients include the Government of South Sudan, various island states (whom we advise on the climate change negotiations), Eastern European states (on their relations with the EU), the POLISARIO Front of the Western Sahara and Somaliland.  In our work around the world, my staff and I encounter the work of British embassies as well as the FCO in London.  We also hear the views of foreign diplomats and others who deal with the FCO both in London and overseas.  The views below are my personal views, but also reflect informal impressions gathered by my colleagues in Independent Diplomat.

The impressions are these:

- The FCO has made significant progress in loosening promotion and career progression, including by promoting talent quickly to senior posts.  For instance, the new High Commissioner in Nigeria is a (very able) forty-something who began in the FCO as a filing clerk at sixteen.  The "buggins’ turn" culture has ended, although there is still a sense that some overseas heads of missions are in place thanks more to the longevity of their service than other qualifications.  The FCO is still lucky to enjoy in general a high quality of individuals in its staff, who are widely esteemed within the diplomatic profession internationally.  (This however is a virtue that should not be taken for granted.)

- However, the promotion of younger staff has had the knock-on effect of blocking career progression for many, with a growing "log-jam" in promotions across the board.  Combined with the budget-driven downgrading of many slots, including overseas, it has noticeable effects opportunities for staff and therefore morale.  A number of FCO staff have approached Independent Diplomat for work, or for advice about leaving the FCO, if that is any indicator. This is on top of the wave of staff who left in 2006-8, taking with them considerable accumulated experience.

- More seriously however, something seems to have happened to the "brain" of the FCO in recent years.  I am not alone in noticing that the quality of UK foreign policy thinking seems to have declined.  In a number of cases, UK policy-makers seem overly content to stick to superficial generalities, rather than the more deeply-considered strategies for getting from the current situation to the desired end-state.

- For instance, Independent Diplomat has followed the diplomacy on Sudan very closely, in particular the North-South issue and the just-passed referendum on Southern self-determination.  I have observed closely the work of the US State Department on this question and have been struck by its thoroughness and openness to outside thinking.  The relevant offices of the State Department have for instance organised weekend brainstorming sessions to "game out" different scenarios in the North-South process; they also regularly invite outside experts to their offices to discuss policy ideas with great frankness and openness (I have been present for such discussions) - above all these discussions are characterised by an atmosphere of invitation to criticism and ideas.  By contrast, despite the evident abilities of the UK officials involved, the UK has not played a significant role in this diplomatic process.  At the State Department, the UK is talked of in the same way as Norway, the other of the three-member "Troika" on Sudan - helpful but not terribly significant.

- Of course, the American thoroughness is a function of the very intensive role the US is playing on this issue - itself a function of US power and influence - but of course the one reflects the other: in other words, influence is partly a function of preparation and deep strategy - and indeed the less influential a country is, the more essential deep preparation of policy to secure influence is.  Another more provocative example illustrates the same point: When I first attended UK-US bilateral discussions on Iraq and the Middle East, the UK delegation would bring its own agenda, and on each point its own developed ideas on the way forward.  This was in 1998.  By the time I left the UK Mission in 2002, the UK delegation no longer brought its own agenda but simply worked off and responded to US suggestions. 

- This last example may help explain what is going on.  When I first joined the FCO in 1989, there was a real sense within the "Office" that the FCO should look at the world, decide its objectives and design strategy to reach those objectives, while seeking to persuade others of those goals.  These days, the British diplomatic machine appears more reactive: responding rather than shaping.  And there is no doubt that the gross failures of policy over the years since 9/11, and the subordination of UK foreign policy to that of the US, have exacerbated a trend that post-imperial decline was already evoking.

- To be frank, this is less a deficit of officials than a failure of leadership and political vision, shared by both major political parties.  Officials reflect the ambitions of their political masters.  But this is also a vicious circle into which, I’m afraid, the FCO has clearly sunk.  With little political imagination or willingness for risk at the top, officials are discouraged from ambition and creativity, but also the hard grind necessary for the thorough preparation of detailed strategy.  I watched my seniors carefully in the FCO during my years there, and realised, as others have, that the quality most essential to promotion was not risk-taking or creativity, but caution and an exquisite ability to tune one’s own views to the prevailing mood of the day (though there were and are some notable exceptions to this generality).  The relative decline of the UK as an international power, inevitable with the rise of China, India and the rest, should not provoke a parallel decline in the ambition or strategic thinking of the FCO, rather the opposite: indeed there are manifold opportunities for exciting strategies and initiatives on myriad issues from disarmament to democratization.  But the self-confidence, imagination and dedication required need to be rekindled, and deliberately built into the structures and practices of the FCO.  Independent Diplomat would be happy to provide ideas if requested (we often advise governments on the structure of their diplomatic system, and are skilled in "building-in" practices that encourage innovation).

- There is a final issue, which applies to every government and not only the FCO.  The world is becoming rapidly more complicated - more a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard, and even a Pollock is inadequate to convey the multitudinous, dynamic nature of the flows that are shaping events today.  On any particular issue, an extraordinary cast of players is on the stage, many with growing influence.  In Sudan, again it was clear to Independent Diplomat that new actors have become more significant than ever.  One philanthropic foundation has supported huge numbers of important NGOs in the South, some wielding considerable political influence, often un-noticed; a film star has been more often quoted on the conduct of the referendum than Jimmy Carter or Thabo Mbeki - ostensibly in charge of the international process.  Major oil companies have been an important behind-the-scenes influence in Khartoum and Juba, as has a telecoms billionaire.  That same film star, supported by a highly media-savvy coterie of activists, has influenced the White House to emphasise the issue of Abyei over other North-South issues in the coming negotiations before the new state will be established.  Governments that concentrate their energies mainly on other governments risk missing the big picture (did the Embassy in Cairo predict the current turmoil?  What are their contacts with the emerging new class of Egyptian leaders and youth activists - or the Muslim Brothers?).

- This fragmented, globalised world of multiple actors (where in fact few of them are states) is immensely difficult for conventional structures to respond to: indeed ultimately this world suggests a fundamental challenge to centralised decision-making.  I am increasingly convinced that it is no longer possible to sit in an office (particularly a closed one) in Whitehall and produce credible analyses of what might happen in Egypt - or China - or terrorism.  The world is simply too complex.  But to respond, qualities like transparency, openness to new thinking (and outside advice), and cutting-edge technological aptitude are clearly necessary.  From the frustration I hear from the ranks, the declining esteem in which British strategic thinking is held, but above all the nature of the world today, it is important that the Foreign Office very deliberately review its structure and culture to ensure that these qualities are the most manifest in British diplomacy in the 21 st Century.

8 February 2011