What the UK Foreign Office can learn from the State Department

The following article appeared in Civil Service World:


The Foreign Office has lost its way, says former diplomat Carne Ross, and could learn much from the US State Department

Something seems to have happened to the ‘brain’ of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (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 have seemed overly content to stick to superficial generalities, rather than more deeply-considered strategies for getting from the current situation to the desired end-state.

For instance, my organisation Independent Diplomat has followed the diplomacy on Sudan very closely. Here, I have observed the work of the US State Department and been struck by its thoroughness and openness to outside thinking. The relevant offices of the State Department have organised weekend brainstorming sessions to ‘game out’ different scenarios; they also regularly invite outside experts to their offices to discuss policy ideas with great frankness and openness. 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 third in the three-member “Troika” on Sudan – helpful but not terribly significant.

Of course, 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 the one reflects the other. In other words: influence is partly a function of preparation and deep strategy – and the less influential a country, the more essential that it prepare its policies carefully to secure its influence. 

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 of post-imperial decline.

This is less a deficit of officials than a failure of leadership and political vision, shared by the major political parties. With little political imagination or appetite for risk, officials are discouraged from ambition and creativity, as well as the hard grind necessary for the thorough preparation of detailed strategy. 

The relative decline of the UK as an international power – inevitable, given the rise of China, India and the rest – should not provoke a decline in the ambition or strategic thinking of the FCO, but the opposite. Indeed, there are manifold opportunities for exciting strategies 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. 

There is a final issue, which applies to every government. The world is becoming rapidly more complicated – more a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard. On any particular issue an extraordinary cast of players is on the stage, many with growing influence. 

In Sudan, it was clear 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; a film star has been more often quoted on the conduct of the referendum than Thabo Mbeki – ostensibly in charge of the international process – and has, I am told, significant influence in the White House. Major oil companies have been an important behind-the-scenes influence in Khartoum and Juba, as has a telecoms billionaire. Governments that concentrate their energies mainly on other governments risk missing the big picture.

This fragmented, globalised world of multiple actors (few of them are states) is immensely difficult for conventional structures to respond to; indeed, it represents a fundamental challenge to centralised decision-making. I am increasingly convinced that it is no longer possible to sit in an office in Whitehall and produce credible analyses of what might happen in Egypt, or China, or terrorism. The world is simply too complex. We need qualities such as transparency, openness to new thinking (and outside advice), and cutting-edge technological aptitude. 

From the frustration I hear in 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 manifest in British diplomacy. 

Carne Ross is a former diplomat at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and now heads the non-profit group Independent Diplomat


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