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  • Jakob Reid

The Future of the Foreign Office

By Jakob Reid

The Foreign Office has housed some of the most successful politicians in the UK’s history. From Lord Castlereagh in the nineteenth century, who was instrumental in the Congress of Vienna that constructed Europe as we know it today, to Ernest Bevin, who signed the UK into NATO in 1949, and Robin Cook, whose “ethical foreign policy” still influences leaders across the West in their interventions abroad. Many would argue our current Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, has made a good impression on the international stage already, leading the UK’s response to the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, the war in Ukraine, and the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. 

However, whilst the office of Foreign Secretary is both well-known and well-respected, it does hold colonial baggage. Be that the paintings illustrating a bygone age of Pax Britannica, or the Foreign Office building itself, located in Westminster and built in the second half of the nineteenth century to house the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and India Office concurrently. Whilst the ornate Grand Staircase is a sight to behold, many wonder whether this Italianate architectural interior merely serves as a representation of the outdated functions of one of the Great Offices of State. 

This is the argument being put forward in a recently published report by the UCL Policy Lab. The report, titled “The World in 2040” has had a wide range of contributors, including former Director-General at the FCDO, Moazzam Malik, and the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Mark Sedwill. With all of this experience combined, the report argues for a “renewed vision of UK foreign affairs”, calling on government officials to rethink the way both the Foreign Office, but also the government more widely, conducts foreign policy in a globalised twenty-first century. 

The report argues that we are quickly moving away from a stable world order, with geopolitical power shifting eastward, creating what they call an “a la carte” world of increased insecurity and unpredictability. In addition to this, the report sets out the transnational issues the world is facing, notably pandemics, climate change, the threat of conflict, and claims governments are stagnating in attempts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals

With regards to Britain in particular, the report claims as a “mid-sized nation” Britain is one dependent on trade and external activities, as opposed to internal trade as a source of growth. This poses a problem as currently the UK’s departmental structure is fragmented, with no official hierarchy. The report’s central recommendation, therefore, is for the creation of a new “Department of International Affairs”. This department would bring in elements of trade, aid policy, climate change policy, and other areas of government business into a joined-up department, that recognises the increased interconnectedness of not just the world, but global issues. Such a department would also include close workings with external stakeholders like development banks, that could spread UK economic development globally and facilitate greater cooperation with developing countries. 

However, as mentioned previously, in addition to the practical issues of efficiency and productivity, the question of image is also targeted by the report. “Somewhat elitist and rooted in the past” is how the report styles it, claiming modernisation is the way to go. However, such calls for modernisation appear disjointed when reading only pages before in the report that the foreign policy of the UK, should be “rooted in our national identity and narrative”. For me, these two statements can’t both appear in the same report. Surely the one thing that is central to the UK’s “national identity” and “narrative” is a story of colonial expansion. Even the phrase “British Values”, another concept central to “British identity”, makes me shake. My objection to the phrase can be summarised when LBC presenter James O’Brien asked, “what makes British values any different from French values?” The answer to the question is seemingly obvious – there isn’t a difference, at least on the issues of morality and ethics. This teaches us a crucial lesson, even the concepts of “value” are deeply politicised, and like the buildings themselves, that impose on anyone, a sense of inferiority on their part, serve to reinforce an age-old myth of British exceptionalism.

So, whilst I share the report’s calls for a need to reconsider and reform the practical role and functions of the Foreign Office, largely for the purpose of efficiency, I would suggest that wider cultural change is necessary. In particular, a considerably larger discussion over the notion of "British identity" and Britain's place in the world is needed, in order to really change not just how UK foreign policy is conducted but the values it is based upon. Perhaps then, we can achieve what Robin Cook famously called an “ethical foreign policy”.

Image: Flickr / Foreign & Commonwealth Office



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