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The Foreign Office needs to be re-empowered for the Brexit age

4 min read

The FCO is being short-changed. We must restore its value as the hub of British foreign policy and bring trade and aid under its control, writes Tom Tugendhat MP

Three years talking about nothing but Brexit has made it easy to miss the fact that we’re not alone in facing political turbulence. Look overseas and there are plenty of other examples. President Trump is proving less and less reliable an ally. Russia continues to behave deliberately provocatively. China is increasingly assertive. And together their approach is pulling at the threads of international cooperation we have worked so hard to build. The result? Both free speech and the rule of law are under threat.

Despite a strong desire to get through the current turmoil, there is no end in sight. Political leaders across the world are being pummelled by the effects of powerful forces, including rapid technological, demographic and climate change, and a return of economic power eastwards. 

The health of the international rules-based system is in question, and globalisation has seen a return of economic nationalism, even among the great trading powers, putting the future of the WTO in jeopardy. 

As what we’re witnessing is a sea-change, not just a passing squall, we need to rethink the way we do foreign policy, the ways we navigate this changed world, so we’re not sunk by the storms we encounter. 

The good news is that we have the tools at our disposal. Our diplomatic service, intelligence agencies and development work give us extraordinary insight. 

We have long-standing institutions – including a legal system and a free media – that people around the world trust; schools and universities that educate the world’s elite, and our aid, sports and trade networks give us far-reaching influence. And our last resort, our armed forces, are respected – or feared – worldwide. 

We have the assets; what’s missing is the strategy to make them sing. We’ve lost the habit of thinking through the consequences of our actions and, more than three years after the UK took the decision to leave the EU, we still need to chart the course our nation must take.

The Foreign Office, once one of the great offices of state, is a Potemkin ministry, having ceded control over key areas of policy and management of our foreign affairs. Today, Europe, aid, trade, and national security all fall to others and aren’t brought together except at No 10. The consequence is confusion; a reality the Brexit negotiations have ruthlessly exposed.

That’s why I want to see the Foreign Office re-empowered. What we need today is a strategic engine behind foreign policy, giving the foreign secretary the leverage to oversee influence and action by shaping defence, intelligence, aid and trade. 

The Foreign Office needs to question our most basic assumptions, refocus on our interests, and set out a grand strategy to advance them in a fast-changing world. 

Second, we need the cash behind it. Setting aside the global challenges we face, we spend about half what the French do on diplomacy and, once we have left the EU, we will be dealing bilaterally with our European counterparts. That won’t come cheap. Each embassy in Europe will shape the actions of a government that could undermine our interests in the EU. We need to treat them all appropriately. 

To translate the prime minister’s vision of a Global Britain into reality, we need to do a lot more. This isn’t just an upgrade, it’s a new operating system to switch from an analogue world. 

To seize the opportunities that will emerge, we urgently need to know what we want and be clear how we get them. To achieve that, we need a plan and the resources behind it. We need a Foreign Office ready to deliver. 

Tom Tugendhat is Conservative MP for Tonbridge & Malling and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee

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