The Foreign Secretary seeks to reinvigorate British diplomacy but you won’t achieve that with gimmicksby Peter Ricketts / November 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Jeremy Hunt got his headline by announcing in his first major speech as Foreign Secretary on 31st October that he was opening up some ambassador jobs to business figures. The pity was that he didn’t need this gimmick to draw attention to what was a thoughtful survey of Britain’s future options, backed up by a sure-footed first appearance in front of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
To pump up the publicity in advance, Hunt mused on the Today programme about bringing in one or two Chief Executives of FTSE companies. In his speech he was a bit more restrained, referring to “experienced, multi-lingual people.” But the chance of multi-lingual CEOs of FTSE companies submitting themselves to civil service selection procedures, and accepting a public service salary must be about the same as senior diplomats being appointed to top CEO jobs. The idea has been tried before, and has never worked. Successful businessmen who come in to the public sector tend to find the constraints irksome: they can’t fire everyone and bring in their own people; they have to toe the government line on everything, and to declare every 50p of their expenses. The reality is that the cultures and skills are very different, and don’t transplant well.
Certainly the Foreign Office needs to become more diverse. The way to do that is by redoubling existing efforts to attract a wider range at the recruitment stage, and by bringing in talent at mid-career so that by the time people reach the top they have all the tools for the job.
Britain needs a strong, effective and well-funded Foreign Office whatever the outcome of Brexit, given far-reaching changes and multiplying threats in the world. It is good news that after years of cuts under Labour and Tory governments, Hunt was able to announce that he now has the funds to recruit another 1,000 staff, open some new embassies and increase language training. And he has hoisted in the need to put the Foreign Office back in charge of “orchestrating” Britain’s international engagement, currently atomised over too many Whitehall departments.
It is also welcome that the speech began to ask the right questions about how Britain should respond to the changing balance of power in the world, and the erosion of the rules-based international order which has brought us such benefits since the post-war years. This is the key strategic issue for the coming years. There are not yet any answers beyond some high-level aspirations. Hunt rightly believes in strengthening our alliances and networks and promoting our values. But he does not yet recognise that if we leave the EU, our influence in the world will inevitably diminish, and we will have to choose our priorities carefully, and strike a new balance between our European neighbours with whom we agree on so much (climate policy, trade policy, and Iran for starters) and our vital security partnership with Washington.
The new slogan is “we must become an invisible chain linking the world’s democracies.” That has to be a runner for the prize of Most Bizarre Metaphor of the Year. Apart from that, it signals a values-based foreign policy, which is an admirable ambition, but as Sir Humphrey would have said, a courageous one. It will always jostle with the fact that countries also have hard-headed interests to defend. Hunt’s uncomfortable five minutes explaining his Saudi Arabia policy to the Foreign Affairs Committee illustrated the problem. The Hunt Doctrine seems to be to play up the values, while pursuing the interests. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the gap doesn’t get too wide.
Hunt proclaimed the goal of reinvigorating British diplomacy. The way to do that is to drop the gesture politics about business ambassadors and settle in for a period of steady political leadership at the top of an organisation which responds brilliantly to clear and confident direction. It is a common lament among our allies and friends that Britain has been largely absent from the big foreign policy issues of recent years. The endless Brexit issue has gobbled up all the time and energy in British politics and left us divided and inward-looking.
Whitehall’s national security team responded brilliantly to the Skripal crisis and showed we can still mobilise wide support for an important cause. Our skills on counter-terrorism and cyber security are world-renowned. But there have been precious few British foreign policy initiatives on the big issues in recent years. We had little input into the negotiations led by France and Germany to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis, or the US-led diplomacy on North Korea. We played a secondary, though important, role in the campaign against Islamic State. Just in the last week, we were absent from the France/Germany/Russia/Turkey talks on Syria. And we seem to have been caught unawares by the US decision to put its weight behind the call by the UN Special Envoy for a ceasefire in Yemen and negotiations within 30 days.
Jeremy Hunt now needs to forget the gimmicks, and show that he is putting in the hard graft to restore respect for the British foreign secretary around the world. The world order we helped to create in the 1940s is adapting and Britain has a contribution to make.
Peter Ricketts was Ambassador to France and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. He is now a cross-bench Peer