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Protecting the UK’s ability to defend its values: Introduction

Article by Adam Hug

September 29, 2020

Protecting the UK’s ability to defend its values: Introduction

This second publication in the FPC’s new ‘Finding Britain’s role in a changing world’ series examines the UK’s current capabilities and strengths both inside and outside government to deliver an effective foreign policy and to protect the values it wishes to promote in the world. At a time of great political change, it is essential to look at what strengths need to be preserved and built on as the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy evolves under the Johnson Government.


Machinery of Government

One of the key challenges for government is how to protect its operational capacity and capabilities as it grapples with the ongoing public health and economic challenges of COVID-19, whilst making structural changes through the new FCDO and significant modifications to the Cabinet Office.


When the Prime Minister set out his objectives for the new FCDO, he said “we are going to use this powerful new Whitehall Department…to give the UK extra throw weight and megawattage. It is absolutely vital that, in the new Department, people are multi-skilled and, as I said just now to the House, that people in the Department for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (sic) understand how development can be a fantastic tool for the promotion not just of human rights and the tackling of poverty around the world but of the values and interests of this country at the same time.”[1]


This publication explores how the culture and structures of the new FCDO should develop to help deliver a more integrated international approach for the Government. As Mark White points out the new department will be managing a fusion of cultures between the more politically focused and adaptive approach of the FCO, where diplomats would move between a range of different roles (albeit with somewhat greater scope to build regional specialisms than perhaps in years past), with staff from DFID, a department that prioritised development, thematic and subject expertise. White argues that this previously made DFID better at long-term planning, while the FCO’s approach enabled it to react quicker and more effectively to events.


In this context there may be some tension between, in the PM’s words, the need for people in the new department to be ‘multi-skilled’ and the Chancellor of the Duty of Lancaster’s desire, outlined in his Ditchley Annual Lecture, to increase the amount of specialist knowledge in government so it is worth assessing where the FCDO now stands.[2] The goal surely is to get the best of both operational cultures, getting a balance within teams of those with an adaptive, crosscutting outlook and those who have been able to build subject matter expertise, whether geographic or thematic, helping give the new teams as a whole an integrated outlook on foreign policy and the Government’s objectives.


In truth over the years both the FCO and DFID have become somewhat more normal government departments than they may once had been, with staff coming in more frequently from other government departments. Senior diplomats have also been able to take mid-career breaks and secondments to gain expertise in business and other relevant fields. One area the UK could do more on, particularly post-Brexit, is to encourage secondment to international organisations such as the OSCE to improve both skills and institutional knowledge in the FCDO and to improve British global influence.[3]


In the former FCO the Research Analysts division, the core of specialists who acted as the department’s essential repository of country and regional knowledge, has been taking academics from Universities around the UK on secondment. This helped to broaden the range of perspectives heard within the FCO, whilst increasing understanding within academia about the operation of Government to help future policy development. Such an approach can help to address concerns around the lack of specialist country knowledge and understanding, for example highlighted in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s review of Libya and in concerns around the lack of knowledge within Government on key countries such as India and China.[4] Research analysists play a vital challenge function for colleagues to help ensure the development of evidence based policymaking, something that needs to be retained and strengthened in the new FCDO. It is to be hoped that the infusion of subject expertise from DFID can be integrated, nurtured and harnessed effectively. This includes, particularly in the context of a data focused Government, retaining its statistical expertise, both to inform policy and retain transparency as discussed below.[5]


As Harpinder Collacott argues in her essay making the merger a success is likely to rely on the ‘four ‘C’s – Culture, Coherence, Coordination and Collaboration:

  • Culture of transparency – maintain the strong commitment within the department itself and with the partners FCDO works with
  • Coherence – strengthen the coherence of policy nationally, internationally, and with the SDG agenda
  • Coordination – facilitate cooperative working across Whitehall on critical agendas including trade and climate
  • Collaboration – work in close partnership with stakeholders and strengthen local ownership of development


Such an approach could enable the new department to breakdown silos that may have still existed between the FCO and DFID, despite prior efforts to create interdepartmental teams (such as the Good Governance Fund) and the presence of ‘double-hatted’ ministers for both departments. Improving coordination within the new FCDO does not remove the need for continuing efforts to refine broader interdepartmental cooperation across Whitehall through the National Security Council and other crosscutting structures via a potentially expanded Cabinet Office. This will be needed to avoid falling back onto ad hoc deals between ministers that may lead to disjointed policymaking. However there may be scope for the ‘extra throw weight and megawattage’ of the FCDO to more clearly lead and shape the discussions on international issues particularly given the current Foreign Secretary’s role as First Secretary of State, helping to deliver on the whole of Government strategic blueprint laid out by the Integrated Review. While yet more departmental reorganisation is probably unwise in the short-medium term, further thought needs to be given to the relationship between the FCDO and the Department for International Trade (DIT), considering that at a country level DIT officials are reporting to UK Ambassadors and the importance of integrating trade relationships with other aspects of the UK’s foreign policy, both bilaterally and strategically.


Given that the UK often relied on working collaboratively with EU partners in-country around intelligence sharing and other joint working there is a need, as and when scarce resources become available at this difficult time, to invest in new British diplomatic capacity.[6] Only so much can be achieved by rebadging and re-tasking former DFID officials in-country for the purposes of burden sharing, particularly to avoid development delivery suffering dramatically as a by-product. There would seem to be a need for additional support for UK Ambassadors who have now been made responsible for former DFID functions and as well as the work of DIT officials on trade. There may be scope to expand the use of UK Special Representatives, particularly former Ambassadors and subject experts, to support the work of the Ambassadors and the FCDO to address cross-cutting regional and thematic issues, with the South Caucasus and Western Balkans as areas of the world to consider.


Building shared strategies

As set out in the first publication in this series – The principles for Global Britain – having a clearly defined values statement and an overarching strategy for UK Foreign Policy is essential for the development of effective public policy.[7] That publication made clear there is an important role for public input in to the long-term development of foreign policy that combines both public education and the Government soliciting feedback and opinion.


One area that could be the subject of ongoing public and stakeholder engagement is around the development of the UK’s country strategies. The Prime Minister has announced that the ‘Foreign Secretary will be empowered to decide which countries receive – or cease to receive – British aid, while delivering a single UK strategy for each country, overseen by the National Security Council, which I chair.’[8] There may be scope to reconsider and open up the processes by which the UK develops these strategies with increased opportunities for domestic civil society, academic, diaspora and, where there is interest, citizen input into a process of producing publically available country strategy papers that set out the core objectives for UK engagement across all areas of activity, from diplomatic objectives to aid to trade to human rights and other values objectives.


As part of the process of leaving the EU, the UK has developed a series of new Partnership and Cooperation Agreements that somewhat mirror arrangements between the EU and those countries, hopefully in the future when there is time and political space to revisit and build on these new arrangements there will be scope for greater stakeholder and public engagements in their contents.[9] Similarly, the FCDO may well benefit from the development of new substantive and public cross-country Regional Strategies, created with stakeholder and citizen input, that can help give UK more strategic coherence to the UK’s international approach. There should be a role too for Parliamentary engagement and scrutiny with country and regional strategies, as well as in related trade agreements- a subject that was previously addressed in the Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Building a values-based foreign policy publication.[10]


Transparency and Accountability

As a number of authors in this collection point out there is huge importance in retaining and building on the current remit of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) and as well as strengthening Parliamentary scrutiny of aid spending through a standalone, crosscutting Official Development Assistance (ODA) Committee along the lines of the Environmental Audit Committee or the European Scrutiny Committee.[11] This is particularly relevant in helping ensure that best practice from DFID is not lost in the merger and providing reassurance to a sceptical development sector.


In the spirit of accountability, the Government should continue to report annually on aid levels across government. It should also retain the existing commitment to consider gender inequality impact ahead of allocating aid and other resources – perhaps as part of the ‘Global Britain values test’ policy evaluation mechanisms suggested in the ‘The principles for Global Britain’ publication.[12] Given the ongoing importance of climate and the UK’s leadership of the COP in 2021, the UK will also need to continue to build on its record integrating the principles of sustainable development throughout its aid programme. While the direction of travel to amend UK aid priorities to look at more areas beyond traditional poverty reduction has been set out by the Prime Minister, the Integrated Review can provide reassurance by again restating the Government’s commitment to existing ODA legislation and OECD DAC rules.[13]


As Joe Powell argues in his essay it is important that the UK actively supports open government and rule of law, including through coalition of governments to promote stronger institutions on these issues such as his own Open Government Partnership that the UK is a member of.[14] Similarly as Powell recommends, the UK should give ‘support for anti-corruption reforms that promote an international rules-based system in which UK businesses can engage, and which promote open markets and tackle money-laundering, terrorist financing and elite capture. Key anti-corruption themes include open contracting reforms for public procurement’. Ensuring transparency and accountability in procurement is particularly important given the fast pace at which decisions are being made in the UK and around the world to invest large amounts of public money to address the challenge of COVID-19.[15] As well as transparency the Government’s approach to procurement should incorporate the principles of social value and the values and ethical priorities underpinning the idea of Global Britain, as set out in the previous ‘The principles for Global Britain’ publication.[16]


As part of supporting the Government’s transparency objectives, it will be important to maintain UK leadership in global initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. There is also an important role to play in supporting independent civil society and media organisations that are able to hold governments to account in these difficult times, building on the joint work with Canada around the UK-Canada Media Freedom Summit of 2019 to produce clear deliverable outputs from the project commensurate with the level of political attention given to it.


A further area the UK could improve on is around financial transparency for lawmakers. As suggested by the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report, Members of the House of Lords should align their declarations of interests with the policies of the House of Commons so that all forms of employment generating more than £100 should be declared, rather than the current £500 level.[17] Many members of the House of Lords undertake considerable amounts of employment outside of their duties in the Upper House and their remuneration for their duties is attendance based, but just as local councillors who also have a similar mix of work and official duties have to declare such income, so should all those who make the country’s laws. Members of the House of Commons could also take steps to improve transparency about share ownership, requiring declarations of any potential conflicts of interest for assets held in trust if their contents are known. There is also scope to reduce other efforts by authoritarian states to influence Parliamentarians, including through All Party Parliamentary Groups, paid work, funded visits, and the actions of MPs and Peers in international forums.[18]


Soft power

When assessing the UK’s international assets that underpin UK foreign policy, as the Integrated Review is doing, it is important reiterate the importance of building upon the UK’s existing soft-power capabilities. This includes the role played by longstanding and important institutions such as the BBC (particularly but far from exclusively its crucial World Service) and the British Council.


Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council, makes an important contribution in this collection addressing his vision for the future of British soft power in his own words. However it is also worth saying, in the view of the editor of this collection, that the unique nature of the British Council is something to be protected and cherished. It could be to the detriment of British soft power if it was to lose some of the power of hybridity, the scope for (pre- and post-COVID) cross subsidy and freedom of action it currently has to integrate its cultural and English language promotion work in a space set somewhat apart from both Government and pure commercial pressures. Organisations that bring people into closer contact with the UK or create a deeper understanding of it, have a crucial role in helping people around the world form bonds of affinity with the UK that can underpin future economic, diplomatic or cultural engagement. So, when assessing the UK’s soft power assets it is important to remember not only the British Council but also the more narrowly targeted work by groups such as the John Smith Trust or the people-to-people work undertaken by many British NGOs.


Pre-pandemic serious questions were being asked about the future of the BBC, including if it was likely to continue in its current form as the result of the Government’s mid-term review of its charter.[19]Whatever decisions are taken domestically, it is important that they do not undermine the BBC’s ability to act as a beacon for Britain on the world stage. The BBC is one of the most globally recognised and trusted ‘brands’ in the world, helping shape global public understanding of the UK.[20] In 2020 the BBC’s output reached an average of 468.2m people outside the UK each week.[21] According to public opinion data, its news output is also the most trusted in the world.[22] The World Service, with a weekly audience of 292.1m, provides access to reliable news coverage in countries that are hard to reach due to either the lack of local capacity or the closure of local media environments by oppressive regimes. Its English language news outputs, BBC World Service English (radio and podcast) and BBC World News (the commercially funded television channel), reach 97m and 112m people per week respectively, including in developed economies and amongst the global business community where such soft power engagement can have a more commercial dimension. This outreach is buttressed by its BBC Studios creative output, whose influence reaches far beyond the BBC’s own channels, with international streaming services providing new viewers to shows that bring with them a UK perspective and often an insight into British culture from Dr Who to David Attenborough. Any further changes to the BBC as an institution need to be handled with extreme care, so as not to weaken the foundations on this soft power giant rests.


More broadly at a time where COVID has shut theatres, hampered film and TV production and forced sporting events to take place without fans the UK needs to not only consider the economic and domestic entertainment benefits provided by the UK’s cultural and sporting sectors, but their contribution to international awareness of and affection for the UK with fans of its films and football clubs spread across the globe. Future publications in this series will look at how to use this soft power in new ways, learning from the experience of the 2012 London Olympics, but the country’s creative capacity must be supported to enable it to thrive once more in a post-pandemic world. Failure to do this risks dimming the UK’s power of cultural attraction, a soft-power asset perhaps unmatched by all but the United States.


UK universities are also a central part of Britain’s soft power and again COVID-19 has put the sector at particular risk, threatening not only a major component of the economy but institutions that burnish the UK’s reputation and enhancing international understanding of our country through international students, research collaboration and leadership. However, as John Heathershaw, Saipira Furstenberg, and Tena Prelec write in the publication COVID is not the only worry around retaining that reputation for excellence. UK universities have faced a significant challenge to their reputations and academic freedom on campus as the result of authoritarian influences. Their essay identifies the need for an establishment of a code of conduct for Universities – on foreign donations and overseas campuses, on protecting expatriate students and faculty, and on training and support for fieldworkers – that should be backed both by academic leaders and by the Government to retain the credibility and vitality of this important resource.


UK civil society plays a vital role for Britain in the world by helping the UK develop policy, delivering services on its behalf and, beyond their relationship with Government, acting to enhance the prestige and intellectual leadership of the UK writ large. So, it is an important dimension of the UK’s soft power even beyond the work many groups do on the ground. However many civil society organisations are facing real challenges to survive in a giving and fundraising environment hugely impacted by COVID-19, the loss of access to EU-wide funding mechanisms and through the £2.9bn GNI related cut in UK aid funding.[23] It is imperative that the FCO-DFID merger does not lead to more unplanned process delays, as there is a clear need to get money out of the door quickly to avoid losing significant civil society capacity unnecessarily or by accident, and to stabilise the sector ahead of any major planned shifts in donor funding as a result of the priorities of the Integrated Review.


Protecting current UK strengths in promoting its values

As the UK assesses what it should focus on in the future it is important that it does not neglect areas where it has shown leadership in the past, a concern the closure of DFID has not helped to dispel.


It is to be hoped that the UK can sustain and build on its areas of longstanding international values leadership such as on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), women’s and  LGBTQ rights, media freedom and the abolition of the death penalty, working in partnership with UK civil society and local partners.


There is a strong case for the development of a cross Government Human Rights Strategy, made particularly clearly in the essay in this collection by Benjamin Ward. Having such clear human rights strategy could ensure greater policy coherence on human rights, democratic institutions and rule of law, across UK foreign policy. It could also help facilitate a common approach across Whitehall, including the FCDO, the National Security Council, Home Office, BEIS and Department for International Trade, provided it had the necessary level of political buy-in from No.10. Having a clear strategy to measure progress against could also improve democratic scrutiny of the UK’s human rights approach by Parliament. It could also help tackle the problem Ward identified in his essay around inconsistency in bilateral relations, helping to ensure that diplomats and politicians do not overlook rights abuses that take place in countries that have strategic ties and alliances with the UK.


A coherent overall strategy could help with the better integration of different parts of the Government’s values agenda. For example as part of a future rebalancing of the UK’s Aid priorities, as Joe Powell rightly recommends in his essay, the FCDO should explore ways to prioritise additional development support to countries in ‘moments of democratic transition’, or ‘where reform efforts are underway that could help lift countries out of low-income status onto the road to self-reliance’.


The potential for UK leadership on climate change as part of chairing the COP in 2021 will be addressed in more detail in the upcoming publication, ‘Projecting the UK’s values abroad’. However in order to strengthen the UK’s hand in the negotiations next year the UK has to be in a strong a place as possible in terms of its domestic position in tackling the climate crisis. One area of concern remains the uncertainty around the UK’s future link to the EU’s Emission Trading System (ETS), something as yet unresolved in the UK’s negotiations with the EU and seemingly far down the priority list. The Government has stated that the UK’s ETS credits will migrate to a new UK Emissions Trading System from 2021, but hopes that it will be able to be linked to the EU ETS in a way that allows for tradability.[24] In the event of no-deal an additional carbon tax of £16 per tonne of CO2 is due to be imposed but this is much lower than the current €30 per tonne EU ETS price.[25] Particularly given the current Government is likely to wish to actively promote market-led mechanisms for tackling climate change, the loss of international tradability would be a setback, given the lack of well-established national level cap and trade scheme elsewhere in the world that the UK could alternatively partner with.[26]


So given the testing international environment the UK finds itself facing, it is important that it builds from its existing strengths, protecting them from short-term impacts of COVID, budget cuts or sudden policy change, while improving its transparency, efficiency and accountability.[27]


Image by MOD under (CC).

[1] DFID, FCO, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street and the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons: 16 June 2020, Government, June 2020,; The Prime Minister (Boris Johnson), Global Britain, House of Commons Hansard, June 2020,

[2] Cabinet Office and The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, “The privilege of public service” given as the Ditchley Annual Lecture”, Government, July 2020,; James Forsyth, Mission impossible: Boris’s attempt to rewire the British government, The Spectator, July 2020,

[3] As professionals working in any international organisation they would follow the rules of that organisation but they would bring a British perspective to the shaping of proposals and policies that may help them evolve into positions the UK would prefer international organisations might take- a question of cultural influence rather than officials ‘batting for Britain’

[4] Foreign Affairs Committee, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options, House of Commons, September 2016,

[5] Ian Plewis, DfID was one of the government’s most data savvy departments. Preserving these skills will be a test of Whitehall reform, Civil Service World, September 2020,

[6] Some have understandably written about hypothecating money previously spent on international objectives being reallocated to support the development of the UK’s diplomatic reach, albeit that demand for any available spending in government is high.

[7] Adam Hug (ed.), Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: The principles for Global Britain, Foreign Policy Centre, September 2020,

[8] DFID, FCO, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street and the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons: 16 June 2020, Government, June 2020,

[9] For example see: FCO, UK/Georgia: Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement [CS Georgia No.1/2019], Government, November 2019,; and, FCO, UK/Uzbekistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement [CS Uzbekistan No.1/2019], Government, December 2019,

[10] FPC and Oxfam, Finding Britain’s role in a changing world, March 2020,

[11] ICAI website:; Government confirmed the continuation of ICAI’s existence but it is important that its role scrutinising ODA is retained as part of any reform process that comes out of the Government’s Review that is due to report in late 2020, Theo Clarke, Twitter Post, Twitter, August 2020,; The Prime Minister gave have his backing to Parliament being able to create a new ODA committee in his evidence to the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs on September 16th 2020, BBC Parliament,

[12] Amy Dodd, Anna Hope and Rob Tew, Merging DFID and the FCO: Implications for UK aid, Development Initiatives, June 2020,; FPC, Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: The principles for Global Britain, September 2020,

[13] Official development assistance – definition and coverage, Definition of ODA,; The Government has so far committed to maintaining the ODA requirements for aid within the 0.7%.

[14] United Kingdom, Member Since 2011, Action Plan 4, Current Action Plan – 2019-2021, Open Government Partnership, June 2019,

[15] This essay by OGP Chief Executive Sanjay Pradhan gives a number of examples of effective pandemic procurement practices, Sanjay Pradhan, Making Trillion Dollar Stimulus and Safety Nets Work for All: The Essential Steps We Can Take Now, Open Government Partnership, July 2020,

[16] Adam Hug (ed.), Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: The principles for Global Britain, Foreign Policy Centre, September 2020,

[17] Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Russia, House of Commons, July 2020,; Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords, Authority of the House of Lords, July 2020,

[18] This was documented in  Adam Hug (ed.), Institutionally Blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, February 2016, Foreign Policy Centre,

[19] Lizzy Buchan, Attacking BBC and licence fee will ‘weaken’ UK, Johnson warned, Independent, February 2020,

[20] 2017 Global CSR RepTrak: Reputation and Corporate Social Responsibility, Reputation Institute, September 2017,,%20Reputation%20Institute.pdf

[21] Tony Hall: UK must “unleash the full global potential of the BBC” – as new all time record global audience is announced, BBC, July 2020,’s%20global%20reach%20increased,53%25%20in%20BBC%20News%20users; Charlotte Tobitt, BBC reaches record global audience of 468.2m people every week, PressGazette, July 2020,

[22] News media consumption, Global Web Index,; Reuters Institute study finds BBC News is America’s most trusted news brand, BBC, June 2020,,from%20MediaPost%20and%20Brand%20Keys.&text=Reuters%20Institute%202020%20Digital%20News%20Report%20surveyed%202%2C055%20respondents%20in,news%20in%20the%20past%20month; Nic Newman, Richard Fletcher, Anne Schulz, Singe Andi, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, June 2020, Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, Reuters Institute and University of Oxford,

[23] The FPC does not receive UK aid funding.

[24] The future of UK carbon pricing, UK Government and Devolved Administrations’ response, June 2020,

[25] Josh Burke, Baran Doda, Luca Taschini and Linus Mattauch, The future of carbon pricing: Consultation response, LSE policy publication, August 2019,

[26] Senned Research, Replacement for the EU Emissions Trading, Scheme (EU ETS) – Part 1

Research Briefing

[27] Set out in more detail: FPC, Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: The principles for Global Britain, September 2020,

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