Written evidence from Daniel Korski |
REVERSING DECLINE, REFORMING THE FCO
A HISTORY OF
Though the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
is full of high-calibre people who are recognised internationally
for their skills, and the department runs a top-tier overseas
network, the last 15 years have not been kind to the FCO. Power
over key issues has moved, probably permanently, to No 10. Resources
have been siphoned off to the Department for International Development
(DFID) and the Ministry of Defence. Even the Secret Intelligence
Service, which reports to the Foreign Secretary, is said to be
an ever more important source of foreign policy advice to the
Prime Minister. Meanwhile, every government department is engaged
in diplomacy of some form or other often without keeping the FCO
informed of their work.
Then there is the impact of summitryfrom European
Councils to NATO Summits and G20 meetingswhich has grown
in importance (with the FCO's role not always clear) while the
work of the UN Security Councila traditional FCO fortehas
become increasingly less important.
To a degree, the FCO has always had to fight for
its role. The first foreign secretary, Charles James Fox, was
forced from office in 1783 because he disagreed with King George
III over Britain's India policy. More than 200 years later, Robin
Cook resigned his position after falling out with Tony Blair over
the Iraq War. Between these two ministerial resignations, fights
between King Charles Street, the Palace and then Downing Street
have been legion. Leaders as diverse as Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd
George, Chamberlain, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair have shared
an "impatience with and distaste for the detailed niceties
of the Foreign Office",
to quote former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. Fights between
Lloyd George and Lord Curzon, or between Neville Chamberlain and
Anthony Eden, are famous. But even domestically-focused leaders
have often challenged the FCO's authority, as Clement Atlee did
over Middle East policy in 1947.
Nor is inter-departmental competition a new phenomenon.
Lord Hardinge, returning to the Foreign Office as Permanent Undersecretary
in June 1916, after an interval of six years spent as Viceroy
of India, was advised by the British Ambassador in Paris that
the Foreign Office had become "in great part a 'pass-on'
department", by which he meant it "issues instructions
at the instance of other offices", but had little idea of
what it wanted. Lord Hardinge's first years back in the FCO have
been described by a historian as a time when the department "had
little influence on the policy-making process".
The late 20th century was scarcely different, with Churchill,
Thatcher and Blair allowing other departments a greater diplomatic
But the kind of challenges the FCO faces today are
different and harder to deal with. The interaction of technological,
economic and social changes, the development of information and
communication technologies, the increasing ability of citizens
to access and use these technologies, and the rise of "new"
issues such as pandemic diseases or resource depletion are changing
the nature and scope of diplomacy. Very few of these issues can
be dealt with by one country alone, however powerful and rich.
At the same time, many "old" foreign policy challenges
remainlike the rise of China, the risk of inter-state warfare
in West Asia or the threat from Islamist terrorism. And it is
not clear that the FCO has adapted to the "new" challenges
while maintaining (and upgrading) its ability to deal with "old"
or re-occurring issues.
For example, the department faced the late-2000s
recession and the rise of the BRICstwo processes that are
fundamentally changing international relationswith limited
(geo)economic expertise. Though the FCO has recently taken steps
to remedy the situation, as one FCO official put it, "the
department has downgraded the very skill we now need most".
The FCO has in fact agonised in recent years over whether to invest
in functional or geographical skills. But it has often flitted
between the two and, in the end, probably undermined investment
in both. To this day, for example, there are no more than a handful
of Pastho speakers, despite the decade-long presence in Kabul.
The emphasis on developing "rounded" careerswhere
staff gain both policy-related and managerial expertisecoupled
with the move to a laissez-faire HR system, where each official
has to manage their own career have allowed the FCO to climb the
Investor in People rankings, but it seems to have come at the
expense of geographical knowledge.
Nor does the department have in-depth expertise in
many other functional areas, like geo-economics or health. This
might not be a problem if the FCO had an affiliated think-tank/university
(like its counterparts in the United States, Russia and the European
Union), which can inject subject-matter expertise into the department;
or even if it has a dedicated research fund, such as in DFiD,
for policy-relevant research. But it does not. And unlike the
US State Departmentwhere various forms of fellowships existthere
are few ways in which academics and experts can be brought into
the FCO except as permanent staff, Special Advisers (SPaDs) or
on temporary contracts as consultants. When outside experts are
brought into the FCO, as was the case at times under foreign secretaries
Cook, Straw and Miliband, the department proved wary of integrating
them into the policy process; most left after a short period.
The investment in functional and geographical skills
is not, as some would claim, a zero-sum choice. Knowing China
helps advance Britain's climate change agenda, which requires
negotiation with Beijing. Similarly, Britain's influence in NATO
is strengthened if its diplomats bring first-hand and deep-seated
knowledge about the theatres of operation, like Afghanistan and
the Balkans, to the organisation's myriad of committee meetings.
The functional and geographical skills, in other words, reinforce
each other. But a balanced investment in both is required, which
does not seem to have been the case.
The FCO should, of course, not aim to maintain in-house
expertise in all policy areas. But it should be able to lead HMG's
international engagementfashioning an over-all strategy,
grounding it in local realities and helping other departments
deploy their expertise. To undertake campaigns, in other words.
For a range of reasons, however, the FCO has still not been able
to assume such a role in the National Security Council process.
It remains one of, rather than the most important, member of the
The reasons the FCO has not asserted itself in the
NSC process are manifold. In part, questions still remain about
the respective roles of the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the
Foreign Office in the NSC process. Only when these have been resolved,
can the FCO play a key role. Second, other departmentshaving
asserted themselves overseasare now reluctant to follow
an FCO lead; they will follow an NSC direction, where they have
ministerial representation, but are uncomfortable following the
FCO alone. The creation of the Coalition Government, with its
need to agree policies among the Conservatives and the Liberal
Democrats in sub-NSC committeesor a de facto "Upper
Cabinet" of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Ministermay
have weakened rather than strengthened the FCO's claim to departmental
leadership, much as the post-World War II expansion of the Cabinet
committee system undermined the FCO's role half a century ago.
Finally, the FCO has failed to take on the role that
was envisaged for it in the NSC because, after years of marginalisation,
its staff do not necessarily posses the skills, training and incentives
to lead cross-departmental effortsor at least give other
departments the confidence that they have the requisite skills.
Unsurprisingly, a senior Home Office official noted: "We
would follow an FCO lead if we knew they would look after HMG
interests and not just FCO concerns". This view was echoed
in the findings of research undertaken by Richard Teuten and I,
which was published as a RUSI Whitehall Paper.
Based on fifty interviews with civil servants from across the
government and military officers the issue of the FCO's difficulties
with representing all departments, as opposed to itself, was highlighted
several times. One explanation may lie in the degradation of the
FCO's strategy functions, which are key if the department is to
play a lead policy role. The other reason may lie in cultural
and administrative boundaries that still exist between the Diplomatic
Service and the Home Civil Service.
In response to its predicament, the FCO has undergone
a steady stream of reforms, trying to implement a Cabinet Office
review, which urged the department to think "think radically
about its place in a changing world". Often, however, the
reforms have been skin-deep. As ex-ambassador Charles Crawford
noted: "The FCO absurdly went from seven to eight to nine
to (phew) 10 Strategic Priorities. It then gave up on Strategic
Priorities in favour of . . . four new Key Policy Goals".
To this list can now be added a return, under the Coalition Government,
to three Priorities.
Changing prioritiesfrom seven to nine then
10, four and now threehave not, however, lead to fundamental
reform of the FCO's structure. Oftentimes, existing work is retrofitted
into a new set of priorities. In this period staff are also focused
ever-more inwards, on targets and internal processes, rather than
outwards. The average senior official, for example a director,
spends more time inwards, managing processes than working on policy
or building senior-level links with counterparts either bilaterally
or multilaterally. Postings are now comparatively short, and so
in-depth regional expertise is limited, while the centrally-decreed
emphasis on having a rounded careerwhich takes in both
management and policy experienceshas arguably undermined
the FCO's first-rate policy skills. It is perhaps unsurprising
that the department has felt marginalised and begun to suffer
from what William Hague described as "timidity".
To deal with these problemssome of which are
structural, some policy-relatedthe FCO will need to consider
a number of reforms.
The first step is for the FCO to decide how it
will manage the balance between its prioritiescurrently
described as "Security", "Prosperity" and
"Consular Affairs"and the department's other
areas of work. Re-drafting to-level priorities, but squeezing
on-going activities into new headingssometimes retroactively
justifying their relevance in the light of the new prioritiesneeds
to end. Instead, the FCO should set up an Future FCO Task Force,
which can examine the department's structure, look at other organisations,
including other foreign ministries, and propose a new model. A
key part of any reform must upgrade the department's geo-economic
creating a new post of Director-General Geo-Economics, a sort
of second Political Director, who can oversee the Trade Team,
Global Economy Group, Climate Change and the Energy Group. This
would effectively split the Directorate-General for Globalisation
and the EU.
Third, the FCO needs to find new ways to bring
expertise into the department, and facilitate
access to outside assistance. On
the State Department model, the FCO should re-invigorate the Strategy
and Policy Unit, increasing its staff with at least half its personnel
recruited externally or from other government departments. Tied
to this, the FCO should establish a Visiting Fellows programme
to allow academics, businesspeople and subject-matter experts
into the Civil Service. It will also be necessary to create a
better-funded research programme, so the FCO to purchase research
and analysis externally. Finally, thought needs to be given to
re-shaping the Royal College of Defence Studies, part of the Defence
Academy, into a FCO-owned, civilian-led, Royal Academy of Diplomacy
and Security to serve as the department's academy/think-tank.
These reforms will help re-build the FCO's brainpowera
prerequisite for a lead role in the NSC process. But one additional
step should be considered. The
Foreign Secretary should establish a bi-annual Chevening Retreat,
which would aim to bring top-flight thinkers, and practitioners
together to discuss Britain's foreign policy. A sort of British
version of the Munich Security Conference, but smaller and more
exclusive, perhaps themed not on security, but on geo-economics.
Improving the FCO's policy
capacity will, in addition, require the development of security-related
and geo-economic expertise. The easiest way would be for the FCO
needs to lead the creation of a cross-departmental
National Security Cadre (like the European "Fast Stream")
of officials who specialise in security-related work. Similarly,
the FCO, Treasury
and DfiD should jointly create a cross-departmental Geo-Economics
different than the Economic Service (or a sub-grouping thereof)
for economists, political analysts, and businesspeople.
In addition, to improve
the quality of staff not only should the FCO begin to look outside
the department (and even outside the civil service) for ambassadorial
appointments, but will need to formalise a career-long learning
so that its personnel constantly renew their skills and improve
their competencies. Like for military officers, such a programme
should not be optional, but contain clear trajectory, including
an obligatory mid-career period in graduate-level education for
example at a university. Looking at how senior FCO staff, including
ambassadors, are chosen, trained, evaluated and given incentives
is also needed. Key must be involving other departments in the
selection and evaluation process of ambassadors.
Finally, the FCO needs
to look anew at its greatest assetthe overseas networkand,
most importantly, whether the department is maintaining (and,
in future, developing) the necessary in-country expertise. Here
a number of reforms should be considered. Postings could be divided
into short, medium and long-term categoriesdepending on
a number of criteria, such as the nature of the society, the difficulty
of the language, and the importance of the country to the UK.
In most countries, the usual postings systemthree years
with an option of a fourthcan continue. But in other countries,
this should be five to seven years, while in a few, high-priority
countries, postings should be seven years or longer or, alternatively,
careers should be structured around several postings in the same
The FCO then needs to overhaul its personnel system
and culture to embrace the reality of inter-departmental teamwork.
One way would be for the
Diplomatic Service and the externally-focused parts of the Home
Civil Service to be merged into an "HM External Relations
which will provide FCO, DFID, MoD and parts of the Home Office
and DECC on the same termsthus facilitating inter-change
and cooperation. All
this would require a change to the laissez-faire way in which
the FCO now manages the careers of its personnelboth diplomats
and other officialswith a more "managed" system
(and a greater role for the HR department) needed.
A key priority should be to re-examine the use
of programme funds. The inability of Posts to spend even small
amounts of funds, without a cross-departmental, and lengthy process
hampers their reach and influence. Thought needs to go into creating
a Strategic Investment
Fund for use by Posts. Under this heading
also comes the issue of commercial diplomacy. The state of Britain's
finances demands that the FCO scale-up its commercial activities.
After having been at the margins of the FCO's work, the Coalition
Government has already done much to prioritise trade and commercial
advancement while in the Cabinet Office reviewers singled out
UKTI as an effective delivery agent. But more can probably still
be done. This could be an area the Foreign Affairs Committee might
want to look in future.
The final set of reforms the FCO needs to consider
concern the changing nature of international relations, the role
of the BRICs and the gradual diminution of the Britain's traditional
strengthsbilateral relationships, military power, concomitant
membership in many international organisations and a permanent
Developing a detailed plan should be left to the
above-mentioned Future FCO Task Force, but consideration should
be given to a number of new initiatives, including the creating
China, Brazil and Nigeria. These would aim to improve societal
links, and the FCO's cultural diplomacy, replacing the role of
the British Council in these countries. In a similar vein, the
Task Force should examine the creation of a joint Gulf/Britain
School of Diplomacy and explore the possibility of hybrid
Posts eg in Liberia with Turkey. Similarly, thought needs
to be given to having more secondments from BRIC and sub-BRIC
nations including at embassies/posts, as is now the case with
European and US diplomats.
17 January 2011
A former Civil Servant and an adviser to the International
Development Secretary, Daniel Korski has worked in the FCO in
Washington, Basra and Kabul and now works for the European Council
on Foreign Relations as a Senior Policy Fellow.
22 Douglas Hurd, Choose Your Weapons: The British
Foreign Secretary: Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalities
(London: Orion Publishing Co, February 2010) Back
Roberta M Warman, "The Erosion of Foreign Office Influence
in the Making of Foreign Policy, 1916-1918", The Historical
Journal, 15: 133-159, 1972 Back
Interview with author, 17 December 2011. Back
The exception seems to be press work, which somehow is accepted
as being an area where the FCO has fewer skills and needs to recruit
Zara Steiner, "The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Resistance
and Adaptation to Changing Times" in Gaynor Johnson (ed.),
The Foreign Office and British diplomacy in the Twentieth Century
(London: Routledge, 2005) Back
Richard Teuten and Daniel Korski, Preparing For Peace: Britain's
Contribution and Capabilities, Whitehall Papers, No 74, 2010 Back
Charles Crawford, "How Labour dumbed down the Foreign Office",
17 May 2010, www.conservativehome.co.uk Back