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Refocusing the Foreign Office

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

March 16, 2011

It is probably unfair to judge the Foreign Office solely on its response to crises. Like many big institutions, it finds it hard to re-allocate resources swiftly from one priority to another; and in the past month there have been multiple crises — Libya, Japan, Yemen, and Bahrain. There is still a lot of work to do in Egypt and Tunisia. In most of these cases it involves both a consular and a political response. And there are slow-burning crises like Afghanistan.

The FCO could improve its ability to respond to multiple crises by relaxing its rules on hiring temporary staff, and setting up a roster of security-cleared contractors for such situations. That’s especially useful if they have necessary skills (consular experience, specific language skills, etc.) Also, maybe it should be bringing in people from Whitehall rather than just Foreign Office staff for emergencies.

The bigger question on the Libyan crisis, and Egypt and Tunisia as well, is whether the FCO was well enough prepared for this contingency. My feeling is that on Egypt, it did better than many other countries — David Cameron was right to say ‘there is no stability in Egypt’ when other world leaders were still saying Mubarak was necessary for stability. That reflects well on the team on the ground.

In Libya, it was up against some prodigious obstacles. Diplomats who have served there say it’s one of the hardest countries in the world to find out what’s going on. We still hardly know what’s going on there, even with the world’s journalists trying to find out.

So I think the criticism aimed at the Foreign Office and William Hague over the infamous botched attempt to establish contact with the rebels, was at least partly unfair. It would be worse for the Foreign Office to avoid all risks, in the hope that it would never be exposed to criticism when the risks don’t come off.

But there is a broader issue raised by events in the Middle East, which Hague himself highlighted when he became Foreign Secretary. The core skill of the FCO is its knowledge of foreign countries and ability to use that knowledge to Britain’s benefit. For this, it needs more people that are fluent in foreign languages — a traditional strength, but which has been under threat particularly since its own in-house language school was cut a few years ago.

It also needs its people to get out more. The FCO is great at information-sharing. But the need to consult, confer and deliberate focusses people inwards. There need to be incentives to rebalance this. At the moment, meetings with external contacts are much less visible to those in the organization; even if they win allies for Britain, that is relatively hard to measure. Making friends with ordinary Egyptians or Tunisians, put bluntly, does not often help diplomats to write their reports for London. It is very useful, though, for predicting revolutions.

This extends to London, too. Even if Libyans in Libya can’t talk much, those in the UK can do. The FCO has a great opportunity in London, which is just about the capital of world dissidents, to engage with emigres and learn from them what we can’t find out on the ground.

There is a way to turn this around. There should be a metric to measure diplomatic effect. For a start, MPs should ask the Foreign Secretary annually roughly what proportion of their time his staff spent meeting foreigners — including people from outside the ruling elites; and for some examples of diplomatic success stories that have resulted.

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