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With the international scene changing at breakneck speed, Britain cannot afford to be left behind

4 min read

Britain’s outdated diplomatic structures must adapt to meet the demands of an uncertain world, writes David Howell

Few would question that the international scene has been changing dramatically in the 21st century, and continues to do so. With America looking inwards, Russia more aggressive, China reaching out across the planet, populism on the march, Middle East chaos, unprecedented migrant movements and the world digitalising and globalising at breakneck speed, not only must priorities be adjusted but foreign policy-makers have been confronted by completely new conditions.

The International Relations Committee has been thinking how it can usefully contribute and bring some pattern to the now swirling debate of what we do next and how we equip ourselves to do it. Obviously, we cannot cover every region of the world. Our focus will be more on the impact of these immense changes on Britain’s international priorities and on our resources and organisational capacities to handle them.

Other countries are re-appraising their structures, priorities and agencies for addressing the new milieu, as are many existing international bodies. Britain, overwhelmingly an open trading nation, cannot afford for one moment to be left behind.

As far as possible we shall look beyond immediate Brexit issues. But paradoxes and complexities further ahead abound. Withdrawal from the EU will leave Britain simultaneously more alone and yet also more interconnected and woven into the 21st century’s new international networks than ever. Linkages must be forged with new world organisations, such as ASEAN Mark Two, the modern Commonwealth, the Shanghai Cooperation Forum, the Pacific Alliance, and even the Trans-Pacific Partnership (deserted by the Americans). Yet these new features of global reach will have to rub along with stronger demands than ever for decentralisation, local control and independence.

Is Whitehall ready for such a break with the past? Almost all departments of central government, as well as devolved administrations and cities will be involved. The challenging task will be to meld together the conventional instruments of hard power deployment – namely the armed forces – with the new instruments of ‘soft power’ persuasion and influence which the digital age demands, combining them in a mix of smart and agile policy. Causes such as human rights, gender-equality, entrenching and upholding the rule of law become as much part of the defence and security agenda as aircraft carriers.

The present structure to achieve all this looks dated and unbalanced. The FCO maintains the diplomatic spearhead on a miniscule budget, while the MoD struggles to meet the ballooning costs of high technology and all-purpose defence forces, and to plan for a world of hybrid wars and terrorist penetration. Over at DfID a large and rising budget finances a different agenda, although DFID and the FCO have very recently begun to share tasks more closely (as once they did in the past). The trade and business departments, when not wrestling with Brexit, are adjusting to the evolving pattern of global supply chains, an age of everything made everywhere, and data and services taking centre stage in world commerce. Exports will have to be pushed up dramatically, mobilising the whole of industry, large firms and small.

At the centre of it all sits the National Security Council, piecing together the new strategy for a new world. Will it be able cope? No predictions are safe. Preparation for uncertainty is the uninviting but only realistic course.

Perhaps the one feature of the future that seems fairly certain is that diplomacy will be a growth industry. A web of hundreds of new links will require to be staffed, as connectivity intensifies and every state, large or small, ties into the high-speed net. Diplomacy will have to address much bigger, and also more varied, audiences.

Its aims and messages will need to be transmitted through activities far outside the traditional area, such as through science, the universities, medicine, the arts and creative industries, and open and welcoming systems for students and visas. Expertise in numerous different cultures and language skills will be essential, despite English being the ‘protocol’ language of the planet – a place it will have to fight for through vigorous and well-resourced cultural diplomacy.

Does this kind of emerging picture call for a doubling of our diplomatic resources? Who knows? That’s what the inquiry will examine. Meanwhile there’s a thought to raise a hopeful cheer in Britain’s diplomatic ranks and in our tight-budgeted embassies ‘just managing’ round the world!


Lord Howell of Guildford is a Conservative peer and chair of the Lords International Relations Committee

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Howell - Lords Diary: Lord Howell


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