The silly idea of recruiting businessmen and other non-professionals into the Foreign Office is more menacing than it looks at first glance. It is a depressing signal that Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, though promising dramatic increases in the numbers of British diplomats, has not really taken on board what has gone wrong in the past and what can be done to put it right.
The main failings of British foreign policy over the last two decades has been amateurism and wishful thinking combined with a rather pathetic desire to retain great power status by piggy-backing on American political and military strength.
British participation in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria showed an inability to correctly forecast trouble and act effectively to avoid it. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was the British envoy to Iraq after the invasion of 2003, told the Chilcot Inquiry that “the preparations for the post-conflict stage were abject: wrong analysis, wrong people”.
It is not just that things go wrong, but so little is learned from past mistakes: fast forward to the summer of 2014, and a victorious Isis, fresh from capturing Mosul, is advancing on Baghdad where the political section of the British embassy has just three short-term diplomats, according to a report by the House of Commons Defence Committee.
I have always found it strange that British diplomats often stay for a shorter period in their posts than journalists. To be fully effective, anybody, however able, needs time and experience – and without these they will always lag behind rivals with greater expertise. Most of the skills required for successful diplomacy have not changed since Athens and Sparta were exchanging emissaries.
“One of the saddest developments during my professional lifetime has been the decline of the Foreign Office,” remarks one close observer of the institution. In THE wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, countries imagined the political landscape of the world had gained permanent stability and there was less to play for diplomatically. Expertise was at a discount.
The Foreign Office, moreover, has long been the victim of attempts by successive foreign secretaries to justify their budgets by stressing its role in promoting foreign trade. Commerce is more tangible than traditional diplomacy and easier to sell to governments as self-evidently beneficial. I recall a British ambassador in Tehran in the 1970s being quoted as saying: “I don’t want any more elegantly written reports about social conditions in Iranian villages. What I want is exports, exports, exports!” Soon afterwards the Shah was overthrown – something that had a lot to do with social conditions in Iran – and exporters may have wished that the embassy had paid more attention to them.
The Foreign Office is now to expand rapidly as Britain approaches its Brexit moment, and its diplomats will have to play its diminished pack of political and economic cards with greater skill. But expertise once lost cannot be recreated overnight, and long-term demoralisation of staff will take time to reverse.
More ominously for the future of the Foreign Office, the politicians who favour Britain striding bravely forward to claim an independent place in a post-Brexit world have been those least interested in finding out what that world is really like.
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