Better Britain: The decline of the Foreign Office must be reversed
Author: Theo Clarke
Britain has always commanded huge respect in the international arena; we punch well above our weight despite our size as an island nation. Today, the UK sits on the G7, G20, Five Eyes and the United Nations Security Council. We are one of the few countries to have hit the 2% target for NATO. And we are a global leader in development, committing to the 0.7% overseas aid budget to ensure the UK helps spread prosperity around the world.
But now both the UK and the international community find themselves at a historical crossroads. Whatever your views on Brexit, the UK is being forced to re-examine its position in the world. While overseas, the balance of power is shifting towards the East and traditional forms of diplomacy have been discarded.
This makes it all the more important that the UK plays an active role in projecting our interests and values overseas, and demonstrating that we remain a trustworthy and respected global power. However, these efforts are being hamstrung by cuts in the Foreign Office budget which have left one of the great offices of state a shadow of its former self.
As the report by the British Foreign Policy Group published this week demonstrates, the steady decline of the Foreign Office in the past few decades can no longer be ignored. Core diplomatic spending is set to be at its lowest in 20 years, while FCO staff in both the UK and overseas have seen their numbers fall dramatically. As the report makes clear, there is a distinct correlation between the deterioration of Foreign Office resources and the decline of British influence abroad. The diplomatic network is essential to opening up international markets, increasing inbound foreign investments, promoting cultural exchange and protecting citizens at home and abroad. Our Embassies fly the flag for Britain around the globe, working alongside our soft power assets from world leading cultural institutions to life-changing aid programmes. As such, they must be properly resourced.
I believe that diplomacy and development should be seen through the same prism. Foreign aid helps to build up goodwill towards Britain at the grassroots level – our Union Jack proudly marks rice bags, tents and other vital aid supplies throughout the world. Meanwhile, British diplomats cultivate strong relationships with the most influential figures in global politics. Indeed, the relationships, trust and strong reputation we foster abroad through UK aid is an investment into our own future, as well as into the futures of developing countries. The next Conservative leader and Prime Minister should keep in mind that the recipients of our aid today may likely be our trading partners of tomorrow. It would be unwise to forget that what are now developing countries could quickly become economic powerhouses.
Therefore as we leave the EU and look to redouble our efforts in strengthening relationships overseas, the challenges facing the Foreign Office warrant a coherent and conscientious response, not a quick-fix solution. Some have suggested folding the Department for International Development, along with its 0.7% overseas aid budget, into the Foreign Office. However, such a move would harm both the FCO and DFID, and strike a heavy blow to British foreign policy.
The Department for International Development is praised globally for its expertise in aid work, and ranks the third most transparent aid donor in the world. It’s therefore paramount that DFID remains an independent department. The UK’s leadership in development aid plays a vital role in projecting soft power abroad and in bolstering our prestige on the world stage. UK aid sends a clear message about British values by showing that we are an outward-facing, tolerant, compassionate country that respects democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I have seen first hand the positive impact the work of DFID has around the world, from meeting frontline workers in Sierra Leone who worked tirelessly to defeat ebola to the British teachers at Malala’s school in Lebanon supporting Syrian refugees. We should be proud that UK aid is helping to make the world safer, healthier and better off.
If DFID were to be subsumed by the Foreign Office, much of its overseas aid budget would likely be reallocated to help the day-to-day running of strained diplomatic posts. Any misuse of the overseas aid budget by the FCO would harm the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, whom we as a country have pledged to protect. That the British Prime Minister can pick up the phone on the morning of an earthquake, tsunami, or the outbreak of a deadly virus, and instantly volunteer British assistance, is a feat we should all celebrate.
Indeed, this interaction between diplomacy and development demonstrates how closely intertwined the two are, and that DFID and the Foreign Office are two sides of the same diplomatic coin. For this reason, while remaining independent of one another, these departments should strive for closer collaboration. Rather than competing over limited funding in the pursuit of independent agendas, they should complement each other in contributing to the UK’s foreign policy initiatives.
The Foreign Office is no longer the only player when it comes to the UK’s diplomatic engagement abroad. It must now work alongside other Whitehall departments such as DFID, the Ministry of Defence, intelligence agencies and the new Department for International Trade, which together form a ‘diplomatic umbrella’. To ensure Britain has the best chance at succeeding in post-Brexit diplomacy, these departments must coordinate an overarching foreign policy strategy – bolstered by a properly resourced Foreign Office – and provide a sustainable framework for the UK to continue championing our values and interests around the world.
This article was originally published in Reaction on 24th June 2019.