Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

At the Helm of a New Commonwealth Diplomatic Network: In the United Kingdom's Interest?

By Jan Gaspers.

When the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada, David Cameron and Stephen Harper, met in September 2011 to sign a joint declaration for renewed bilateral engagement, expectations were low that the document's lofty words would ever translate into actual policies. Yet, in September 2012, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs endorsed an ambitious Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on diplomatic cooperation, which promotes the co-location of embassies, the joint provision of consular services, and common crisis response.

The unexpected genesis of the MoU and its far-reaching scope are the most significant evidence to date of the determination of Conservative government members to align UK foreign policy and diplomacy with an idealism that invokes political rhetoric from the past and impedes the attainment of British interests in the future.

Economic Pragmatism…

The last few weeks have seen William Hague sell UK-Canada diplomatic cooperation in mostly pragmatic terms. While steering clear of precise numbers, the UK Foreign Secretary touted the co-location of diplomatic sites and the joint provision of consular services as commonsensical measures to save the British taxpayers' money. However, even the most superficial survey of British and Canadian diplomatic resources gives enough reason to suspect that, for the UK at least, cooperation will yield rather modest budgetary benefits.

Made up of 180 diplomatic offices, staffed with about 7800 employees, Canada's diplomatic network is significantly smaller than the UK's, which boasts around 270 representations with 8800 employees and a much denser network of consular service points. Over the next years, the gap between both countries' diplomatic resources is set to grow even wider, as the Harper administration is determined to further downsize Canada's diplomatic operations and personnel.

The FCO can still expect to generate sizeable savings from offering embassy and consulate space to Canadian diplomats. However, opportunities for outsourcing the consular protection of UK nationals to Canadian foreign affairs workers will be limited. Instead, particularly in Europe and Africa, FCO diplomats will face an increased workload from providing consular assistance to Canadian citizens who have no representation of their own government to turn to. Instead of reducing its human resources budget, the FCO might therefore be forced to spend more on staff, severely diminishing if not negating the savings generated by sharing diplomatic premises.

… is Trumped by Anachronistic Idealism

The doubtful prospects of savings suggest that, rather than being the product of pragmatic considerations, UK-Canada diplomatic cooperation is driven by an anachronistic idealism, which has gained influence across Whitehall since the coalition government first came to power in 2010. Formed by the Foreign Secretary and his Conservative government peers, this idealism nourishes the idea that the UK's global interests are most effectively realised at the helm of a new Commonwealth diplomatic network.

In the FCO's strategic planning, the MoU with Canada is thus only the first of several diplomatic cooperation agreements with and among what William Hague has labelled "first cousin" countries. Accordingly, UK diplomats in Canberra and Wellington have already sounded out the possibility of Australia and New Zealand becoming the next 'relatives' to join diplomatic forces with the UK.

However, contrary to what the Foreign Secretary's family analogy implies, the three partners of choice neither share the FCO's enthusiasm for politically driven diplomatic cooperation nor are they likely to support the UK's foreign policy interests by default. In Canada, the announcement of diplomatic cooperation with the UK has provoked widespread public concern about a creeping erosion of Ottawa's independence in foreign affairs and an outcry among leading foreign policy experts about the incompatibility of British and Canadian foreign policy agendas. Although the discourse has so far been more nuanced in Australia and New Zealand, foreign affairs officials of both countries have already made clear that their governments are primarily interested in the financial aspects of diplomatic cooperation.

London's Declining Influence in European Union Foreign Affairs

While the economic expectations and political aspirations Conservative government members have vested in a new Commonwealth diplomatic network are virtually certain to be disappointed, FCO support for the project is unlikely to falter any time soon. The promotion of an antidote to an increasingly assertive European Union (EU) in international diplomacy has bestowed Eurosceptic Conservatives' unanimous favour on William Hague. To keep this favour, the Foreign Secretary seems even prepared to risk a further downgrading of London's already weakened credibility and influence in EU foreign affairs.

Indeed, in most EU capitals, the promotion of a new Commonwealth diplomatic network is seen as yet another strong indicator of the UK's waning interest in taking a lead in EU foreign affairs. Thus, the endeavour to pool diplomatic resources with Commonwealth partners not only marks a sharp departure from past FCO efforts to conclude embassy co-location agreements with European partners, but it also fits the more general picture of a creeping British retreat from shaping EU foreign policy. Thus, over the last two years, UK diplomats have often been content with simply blocking common EU foreign policy statements in Brussels or obstructing long-established procedures of speaking with one EU voice in international organisations when they could have pursued British interests through EU diplomacy instead.

A Missed Opportunity

The Foreign Secretary's squander of London's influence in EU foreign affairs should not disguise the fact that deeper EU diplomatic cooperation provides one of the most promising avenues for cutting the FCO's budget. In fact, the promotion of common EU consular posts figured prominently on the agenda of the British EU Presidency in 2005, because the UK's initiation of several EU member state embassy co-location projects has produced significant savings.

Likewise, it should be clear that even a network of some of the most potent Commonwealth countries cannot compete with the EU as a platform for effectively promoting the UK's global interests. Despite the Eurozone crisis, the EU remains a formidable force in international affairs, both as a trade power and as an entrepreneur of international norms. Much of the UK's appeal to partners beyond Europe is a result of London's membership and leverage in the EU.

Ironically, while unexploited by the coalition government, the UK's potential for successfully shaping EU foreign policy and diplomacy has never been better. As Berlin and Paris are consumed with questions of deeper economic and fiscal integration, the UK is currently the only country that has the necessary political clout and resources to determine the grand design of EU foreign policy. London's Commissioner in Brussels, Catherine Ashton, is not only in charge of the EU's foreign affairs portfolio but also in desperate need of strategic input for making the EU's diplomatic service a success. In most international organisations and third states, native command of the English language puts UK diplomats at a distinct advantage when it comes to negotiating common EU positions.

Foreign Policy Rhetoric from the Past

However, instead of seizing the unique opportunity to shape EU diplomacy in order to promote British interests, William Hague prefers to invoke a 60 year old foreign policy rhetoric that has failed the UK before.

In January 1952, Hague's predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, declared that the UK would never become part of closer European cooperation "For Britain's story and her interests lie far beyond the continent of Europe. Our thoughts move across the seas to the many communities in which our people play their part, in every corner of the world. These are our family ties."

Less than a decade after Eden's speech, the UK pledged its first (unsuccessful) bid to join the European Economic Community. Could-shouldering Europe to remain at the helm of a declining Commonwealth had become unviable, both economically and politically. Could-shouldering Europe once again to be at the helm of a new Commonwealth diplomatic will turn out to be just as unviable.

November 2012

Jan Gaspers is a Gates Scholar at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and currently engaged in a doctoral research project on EU member state diplomatic cooperation within the OSCE and NATO. In the past, Jan has worked inter alia with the OSCE, the EU Delegation to the International Organisations in Vienna, the EU Institute for Security Studies, and the European Centre for Development Policy Management. His wider research interests include UK foreign policy and diplomacy, the European External Action Service, and the evolution of European and transatlantic security and defence cooperation.