The Foreign Office must be the engine of our foreign policy once again
Stripped of its responsibility for aid and trade, and having lost out in a tug-of-war with the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office hasn’t been in charge of foreign policy for many years. With new threats emerging and the old international order creaking, we urgently need a revolution at the heart of government, writes Tom Tugendhat
Recent events have shown that we face an unprecedented threat from Russia. Having “probably approved” the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 using an extraordinarily toxic radioactive poison, Putin’s Russia has gone on to invade Georgia and Crimea.
Investigators believe that the missile which shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing hundreds, came from a Russian brigade. And the country has intervened decisively in Syria, using its veto in the security council to protect Bashar al-Assad, so that it can carve itself a key, and potentially vexatious, role in that ravaged country in the aftermath of its civil war.
Russia is simultaneously probing our defences and attacking our allies with repeated cyber forays. In this new cold war, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Simultaneously it is waging an information war, spreading disinformation that is designed to befuddle us so that we do nothing to confront Russian aggression, and using social media to divide and polarise our society, and corrupt our most precious asset and advantage – democracy.
Most galling of all, this campaign is partly handled by us. Putin distributes the wealth he has stolen from his people to oligarchs, who launder it, and raise more funds, in places like London.
We face this threat at what is already a critical moment for this country. As we leave the European Union we have a choice. Either we can try to shape events, or we wait for them to shape us. Neither option is without risk, but I think we should take the first.
We start from a strong position. With insight from our world-class diplomatic and intelligence services, the influence we wield through our media, sporting success, and use of development aid, our financial and trading relationships and our alliances as well, we have crucial assets we can use to shape our future. But if they are to work effectively together, we need a revolution at the heart of government.
The work that the Foreign Affairs Committee, which I chair, has done since the beginning of this parliament has shown how urgent this is. Asked what its slogan ‘Global Britain’ meant in practice, the Foreign Office’s response was disappointing. And we are still waiting to hear what the government will do to stop the Russian state using the City to raise money.
The crux of the problem in both these cases is the same – the Foreign Office is no longer setting the strategic vision for other departments to follow. Indeed, stripped of its responsibility for aid and trade, and having lost out in a tug-of-war with the Cabinet Office, it hasn’t been in charge of foreign policy for many years.
To ensure that the money we already spend on foreign policy goes as far as possible, and to ensure that there is a strategy to what we do, we need to make the Foreign Office the engine of our foreign policy again. We need to give it strategic oversight of a budget that recognises that foreign policy is integral to the work of several government departments. And charge of the pen that writes the strategy that orchestrates our assets to shape the world to favour us.
With Brexit barely six months away, this task is urgent. But the signs of what is happening around us make it even more so. The old order is creaking, as institutions like NATO and the UN show their age.