In defence of the diplomatic realm

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AS DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, is often keen to point out, Britain still exercises a 'punch above its weight'.

Even though it comprises only 1 per cent of the world's population and represents only 5 per cent of the world's gross domestic product, Britain occupies an exalted position in world institutions, including the UN Security Council. This may reflect international vocation, an elaborate illusion, or a bit of both, but British diplomacy is all run on a shoestring. Now, just at a time when its commitments are open-ended because of the break-up of the Soviet empire, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and a range of peace-keeping operations, the Foreign Office is short of cash - so short that it will have to rethink its entire method of operation.

Contrary to popular perception, the Foreign Office is not about grand embassies or glittering diplomatic receptions. Behind the glorious facade is an often shabby reality of cramped offices, antiquated filing procedures and harassed officials, all overseen by garish strip-lighting. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which presented its report on Foreign Office expenditure this week, wisely avoided recommending the wholesale disposal of diplomatic property, as has often been suggested in the past. The truth is that in this area not much more can be done.

The budget of British diplomacy at pounds 1.36bn represents only 0.5 per cent of total public spending and supports a great deal, including the British Council and the BBC World Service, all overseas immigration procedures, as well as the ballooning expenditure on peace-keeping operations. The committee suggested that many of the Foreign Office's efficiency benchmarks might be too broad to be meaningful. Interestingly, however, the MPs did not come up with any proposals of their own; efficiency in diplomacy, unlike a performance at the Eurovision song contest, cannot be measured with a score card. Nevertheless, the Treasury still expects cuts to be made, and points out that under the Conservatives, the Foreign Office's budget has increased by 61 per cent in real terms.

Among the criticisms made by the Foreign Affairs Committee is the fact that 60 per cent of Britain's diplomats are based in London, compared with Germany's practice of maintaining only half that manpower in Bonn. But German embassies do not carry the same responsibilities, especially in commercial work and officials based in London are anyway much cheaper than those posted abroad. If Parliament is keen on beefing up Britain's representation, it should come up with the necessary resources. Since nothing of the kind is expected, a rethink of priorities is now urgent.

Eager to justify his budget, Douglas Hurd now stresses the role of British diplomats in promoting trade. It is a good argument, but hardly overwhelming. British industry should seek to emulate the experience of German exporters who rely more on their professional associations than on their government for identifying markets and customers. British diplomats should not become glorified salesmen, partly because they are unlikely to succeed at it, and partly because old-fashioned diplomacy still has an important role to play.

Reeling from the disaster of Yugoslavia, the Foreign Office now claims to be particularly interested in conflict prevention. This is right, but success requires a much deeper change in working methods. In order to prevent conflicts, diplomats need to be constantly informed about rapidly changing situations. A research and analysis department has existed for decades, precisely to monitor and interpret such developments for decision-makers. But the department is not used properly, and the Foreign Office is now thinking that much of its research work could be contracted out to academic establishments at a lower cost. Yet crises require instant answers, not long academic tomes, and no expertise exists in the UK when it comes to many of the countries likely to explode. Strengthening internal analysis within the office should therefore remain a priority.

Furthermore, most diplomats are still expected to be generalists, people equally at ease in either Madagascar or Yugoslavia. Some staff in the well-run but chronically overworked Central European department, for instance, oversee former communist countries for an average of only 18 months, just enough to come to grips with the issues, before they are moved along. The result is that embassies abroad spend too much time educating desk officers in London about their countries of responsibility, rather than devising new foreign policy approaches. Specialisation in one area (or 'going native' as many Foreign Office officials call it disparagingly) should no longer be considered a sin. In many cases it ought to be encouraged for Britain's benefit.

The Yugoslav debacle was at least partly due to the fact that the Foreign Office pays more attention to managing crises than to planning for the unpredictable. From the start of that conflict, diplomats were so concerned with finding a consensus with other European allies that they hardly bothered to inquire whether the joint policy that the EC had in the Balkans made any sense. Drafting ringing declarations became the aim and Britain, like all other Western countries, barked but never dared to bite.

The lesson is clear: handling future crises needs better co-ordination between the foreign and defence ministries. All the disputes in which Britain may become involved require a mixture of carrot and stick: diplomatic persuasion coupled with the ultimate option of using force. Clear procedures for sharing the costs of these operations must be established, and the dialogue between generals and diplomats must become both permanent and genuine.

Yet before all this is done, the Foreign Office will have to decide where Britain's long-term security interests really lie. Some senior members of the diplomatic service were not initially persuaded that Yugoslavia's tragedy mattered; they were pushed into 'doing something' by the media and public opinion. Running a foreign policy according to where CNN happens to have a satellite dish beaming up pictures of dying children cannot be called a strategy.

Some senior officials at the Foreign Office are only too aware of these problems, many of which will take years to solve. Yet the tragedy is that time is not the Foreign Office's best ally. The Treasury is demanding cuts, while the general public still believes that Britain's policy can make a decisive impact on the world stage. One or the other will have to give way soon: a punch above one's own weight may be a nice concept, but it is not one that can be maintained for long.

Foreign Affairs Committee, Expenditure Plans of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HMSO, pounds 17.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.