CGE Vol. 14 No.4 April 2008

“What is a Foreign Service for? Where should it focus its energies?” Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked last year. After an internal review, and outside consultation, our ministers have set a new Strategic Framework for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) activities.

If Foreign Services are expected “to serve the good of the country,” how is that to be understood? For many years, in Europe, this would have been considered a frivolous question. The sole and self-evident purpose of foreign policy was to pursue the national interest by maximizing power, prestige, wealth and territorial possession while maintaining the balance of power through shifting alliances.

Again and again, however, pursuit of the national interest proved destabilizing and ultimately self-defeating as a mainspring of foreign policy. For centuries, Europe was drenched in blood. As empires grew European rivalries played out across a wider and wider canvas, sucking in the whole world.

After the Second World War the project that became the European Union was launched. It was not to further any particular national interest, nor even the joint interests of its members in the old sense, but to develop the idea of common interests understood at a deeper level. These were to be expressed through shared institutions that would articulate and come to serve a sense of common destiny. A similar spirit animated the foundation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions. It has become increasingly clear that the major problems confronting the world cannot be resolved by nations acting alone: widespread poverty, lack of education, over-population, climate security, trans-national crime and disease, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, illegal migration, energy security, and food production and distribution. The “national interest” cannot even be defined – let alone pursued – nationally.

There has also been a breakdown of traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign affairs. At one time, the Foreign Office dealt with “abroad” (“Abroad is hell” one of our less enlightened monarchs supposedly remarked: “I know. I’ve been there.”) The Home Departments were responsible for everything else. Today, it is hard to think of a subject without an international dimension.

So, how should a Foreign Service define its objectives in this interconnected world? My ministers have established “Better World, Better Britain” as the overarching expression of the FCO’s mission. The global context and international responsibilities implied by striving for a “Better World” are our first concern. The national interest (a Better Britain) is expressed as a qualitative objective rather than one of power or greatness as this might once have been understood.

Under this rubric, our first and overriding task is to maintain a flexible Global Network serving the whole of the British Government.

We provide a chassis for the work of all government departments overseas. Much of the work of my High Commission is on behalf of other government departments keen to co-operate with Canada or to draw upon Canadian experience. We had a delegation from the Department of Work and Pensions here recently looking at Service Canada, to see what lessons they might learn from that impressive organization.

Last month I spent a fascinating few days aboard Canada’s Amundsen icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea. I was with members of the British Antarctic Survey and our Natural Environment Research Council in connection with an agreement to develop closer collaboration between Canadian research facilities in the Arctic, and British ones in the Antarctic.

Our network of posts is then tasked to offer three services:
1.     Support for the British economy (through trade and investment work). Our economic services are provided through UK Trade and Investment, which is now a separate entity with its own ring-fenced budget, shared between the FCO and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
2.     Support for British nationals abroad who expect more and more from their government when they run into difficulties abroad as a consequence of natural disasters or political crises.
3.     Managing migration (through visa services).

On this foundation our Ministers have been determined that the FCO’s own priorities should be kept to a strict minimum. To have too many priorities is to have none. They have decided on four:

1.     Terrorism, weapons proliferation and their causes. We cannot hope to eliminate threats from those determined to destroy our way of life: but we must manage the risks down. We seek: to prevent people becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism; to pursue perpetrators and disrupt their networks; to protect against attack by reducing our vulnerabilities; and to prepare for the consequences of further attacks.

2.     Prevention and resolution of conflict. This has been a priority since the First World War. One important recent development (for which Canada can claim particular credit) has been the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect,” extending the international interest to conflict within nations as well as between them.

3.     Promotion of a low carbon, high growth global economy. Once seen as merely an environmental issue, this is now understood as an international security challenge of the highest possible urgency and priority. It is already a growing source of tension, and could well become a major cause of future conflict if we do not get to grips with it. Action is required from the whole world community: but it is incumbent on the leading industrial powers to set the pace. We have to harness innovation and technology to solutions. If we seek to suppress economic activity we shall certainly fail.

4.     Development of effective international institutions, and above all the UN and the EU. This reflects Britain’s strong commitment to a rule-based international system, with mechanisms for determining and implementing common interests. The EU remains controversial in Britain, but I have no doubt that it has been an engine of stability in Europe. Whether its detractors like this or not, it has become the central platform for economic and political organization on the European continent. Our ministers accept that Britain’s interest, as a nation, is in the development of a strong and effective European Union, just as we support UN reform and the strengthening of that organization. My Prime Minister, indeed, has spoken of the need for a more general overhaul of the international institutional architecture to face up to the challenges of an interdependent world (to better marry, for example, international environmental and developmental goals).

In establishing our new Strategic Framework our ministers are not signalling their judgement of the importance of certain issues at the expense of others. Rather, they are seeking to focus our energies towards those challenges where the FCO can hope to make the greatest difference. International development and the elimination of world poverty is a central UK and global priority – but that effort is led, in Britain, by the Department for International Development. The fight against international crime is led by the Home Office. The FCO should not duplicate this policy work, even though we provide the network for its promotion abroad.

I am delighted that the new Strategic Framework accords so closely with the work of the British High Commission in Canada. T