Draft piece below for the Yorkshire Post about the role of the Foreign Secretary in UK government and politics. It's to coincide with the launch of the book 'British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect' edited by Graham Ziegner. Christopher Hill and I wrote the concluding chapter on New Labour.
The Crowded World of the Foreign Secretary
Heading Britain’s foreign policy sounds a powerful and glamorous job. The international travel, the meetings with world leaders, the elaborate state dinners with accompanying pomp and circumstance; all point to importance and purpose. Yet the diplomatic circus hides a job that is one of the most frustrating and ambiguous in government. What is the point of a foreign secretary in a globalised world where all levels of UK government and politics have links to the international affairs which were once the preserve of the diplomats at the Foreign Office?
As current Foreign Secretary Margaret Becket recently noted herself, the UK needs ‘360 degree diplomacy’ to tackle the new challenges globalisation presents. The same can be said of her own job, which is increasingly about managing bureaucracy, public diplomacy and domestic demands as it is about traditional statecraft.
It is a far cry from the simpler world of 1948 when Sir Winston Churchill set out three interlocking circles representing Britain’s place in the world: Empire/Commonwealth; USA; Europe. Churchill’s was a world where foreign secretaries and the rest of government knew the difference between the foreign and the domestic, if only because of the long time it took to communicate with or travel by steamship to foreign postings.
Today the empire and steamships are no more, and the Commonwealth no longer stands at the centre of Britain’s outlook. Yet the UK’s connection to ‘the global’ continues to grow, demonstrated in the open nature of the UK’s economy, increased ease of travel and communication, Britain’s demographic and historical links with large parts of the world, and its leading membership of international organisations.
The threat of terrorism long ago blurred the border between the domestic and foreign. Its heightened nature today requires cooperation from Yorkshire to Afghanistan, London to Cairo. Combating this and other urgent issues such as environmental problems or international development requires cooperation across UK government.
With the Department for International Development leading in Africa, the Home Office taking the lead on internal and external security, the Treasury pushing forward on environmental issues and the Scottish Executive taking an interest in EU energy policy, one might wonder if the only growing demand for a foreign secretary’s services is in dealing with the increasing number of Brits abroad needing consular services.
It is in Europe that we see this problem at its starkest. The Europe Britain joined in the 1970s was a foreign policy issue; since then European integration – whether for good or bad – has bound the UK into a union that is now daily domestic politics. Whether in economic or social policy, defence or local government, no area of British government goes without some connection with Brussels and other EU states. The foreign secretary has become one amongst many members of the government deal with the EU, and who make policy through Europe that shapes the UK and the UK’s relations beyond Europe.
And while the European constitution and the success of the Euro might have stalled, the EU is determined to push forward cooperation on defence and foreign policy. The unpleasant memory of Europe’s inability to deal with the former Yugoslavia remains vivid; and challenges such as the Middle East or an increasingly assertive Russia will continue to compel European cooperation.
The UK and future foreign secretaries will remain at the heart of this, irrespective of their party’s view on the EU. No UK government or foreign secretary can abandon cooperation with the EU; even during the Iraq War, which severely strained relations with several EU partners, the UK and the EU pushed forward with cooperation on issues ranging from Iran to Russia, international environmental cooperation to defence cooperation.
The key problem for a foreign secretary is that cooperation through Europe or across the Atlantic means managing relations with the rest of UK government to ensure joined up foreign policy. So it was that a few years ago the Foreign Office ran a ‘stakeholder survey’ to consult with those across UK government and politics about how it might better perform its job. But joining up policy or working with stakeholders is not the same as setting the direction. In Europe and Britain’s other key relationship, with the United States, the foreign secretary has consistently played second fiddle to the Prime Minister. Rarely do foreign secretaries articulate new visions of British interests in Europe or the USA; here lies a role for the PM alone.
But we must be cautious. The imagery and rhetoric that accompanies prime ministers in foreign affairs feeds the perception that the office has become presidential; but the substance is often much less. Examples such as Iraq or the Falklands, or close relations with George Bush or Mikhail Gorbachev can distract us from the daily grind of diplomatic and government work that makes the world go around. The managing of international affairs cannot soundly be based on peripatetic prime ministers getting to know fellow leaders on a first-name basis, any more than successful domestic government can rely on micromanagement from Number 10.
But neither can any foreign secretary believe that they run the show on foreign affairs. Every foreign secretary has been acutely aware that their jobs carries the risk of becoming merely the Prime Minister’s errand boy, or else the minister who deals only with states outside the EU, NATO, the G8 and Africa. The present degree of reflection and self-analysis – with talk of ‘360-degree diplomacy’, ‘joined up foreign policy’ and ‘stakeholder surveys’ – serves to illustrate the shifting sands on which the traditional ‘head office’ of British diplomacy finds itself, and the challenging nature of the job facing any Foreign Secretary seeking to lead it into the future.