UK diplomacy must maintain an edge in the face of competition

May 11, 2016

UK diplomacy must maintain an edge in the face of competition


Ambassadors need good language skills to be ready for a Paxman-like grilling, writes James Blitz

Jeremy Paxman


It is hard to think of any Whitehall department that spends as much time considering how it runs itself as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In the past five years, the FCO has been through much internal change, reconfiguring where it puts its biggest embassies, boosting its language school and holding lengthy seminars with outsiders as it strives to achieve what it calls “diplomatic excellence”. Now it has published yet another report on how it can boost “the FCO’s internal working, policymaking and impact”.

The analysis by Tom Fletcher, the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, has 36 recommendations on how the FCO can improve its modus operandi. He argues that the department’s IT system, the bane of many a diplomat’s life, needs a complete overhaul. Foreign Office staff need to spend longer at each embassy abroad — serving postings of four not three years — so that their expertise can be better harnessed. He recommends much stricter language requirements so that ambassadors can survive what he calls a Jeremy Paxman-like grilling from the local television anchor.

All this is an encouraging sign of how the FCO, instead of standing still, is thinking about what role it serves in the Whitehall firmament. Things are not as tricky for the FCO as they were in the Blair years, when Number 10 ran Iraq policy by itself. Under William Hague, the previous foreign secretary, the department regained a lot of its amour-propre. But when it comes to furthering UK diplomacy, it is competing in an increasingly crowded space.

 George Osborne, the chancellor, spearheads UK policy towards China; David Cameron’s decision to create the National Security Council has given considerable heft to the Cabinet Office; the Department for International Development has huge clout because of its considerable budget; and in the run-up to next month’s referendum on EU membership, the prime minister and chancellor have been in the lead in negotiations over Britain’s place in the EU.


Whatever the voters decide on June 23, the UK will continue to need an effective diplomatic service of its own. What Mr Fletcher’s report appears to indicate is that, in a world where heads of government and finance ministries are increasingly powerful, foreign ministries need to sharpen their role. For the FCO, this means reducing the amount of time it devotes to dry policymaking in oak-panelled rooms. The goal should instead be to build a well-resourced global network that comprises genuinely capable and knowledgeable individuals.

3 thoughts on “UK diplomacy must maintain an edge in the face of competition

  1. A serious soul searching is long overdue for our very own Wisma Putra. Right now, this foreign policy instrument is punching below its potential. In particular, its Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations badly needs a total revamp to enable it to be more effective in the preparation, training and development of our diplomats to meet the challenges of a highly competitive world.

    I think that after 59 years of its establishment, a comprehensive and critical review of Wisma Putra operations is called for. Unfortunately, there is no administrative and political will to do so.–Din Merican

  2. The fact of the matter is that the UK has lost its empire but yet has not found its role. For example, it does not have much power or even influence when dealing with a power like China.

  3. Maybe should start the diplomacy lessons with Mr Cameron. That he shouldn’t call other countries corrupt in front of the Queen and with open microphones around.
    But then again, I wonder why Malaysia was not mentioned in the same breath as Nigeria and Afghanistan?

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