That are foreign offices for? In theory, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the diplomatic service should help the government conduct our international relations on the basis of a deep understanding of other countries. Yet in practice things aren’t so easy, and world affairs can sometimes take diplomatic services by surprise.
Back in 1992, I attended a top-level briefing of the prime minister on events in Yugoslavia, a crisis that scarcely anybody around the world had foreseen. At previous crisis briefings I had always felt somebody knew not only the main players but also their fathers and probably their grandfathers. But this time I suddenly realised that not one person in the room really knew the story.
We did in fact have one such expert, a Serbo-Croat speaker who had just finished his tour as ambassador in Belgrade. But he had just been promoted to be head of the internal FCO administration, the “chief clerk”. The idea that he might be better employed advising on what amounted to a world crisis didn’t stand a chance in the prevailing climate; chief clerk he remained.
Two parliamentary reports this month suggest embarrassing situations such as this have become more rather than less common. Both the Lords EU external affairs subcommittee and the Commons foreign affairs committee say the same, talking of “suggestions that the FCO’s local knowledge and expertise in understanding foreign countries is not what it once was”, identifying an urgent need for “a long-term rebuilding of deep knowledge of the political and local context in Russia”. Rory Stewart MP, chairman of the defence committee, said much the same in a recent debate on the Middle East. Knowledge of languages such as Russian and Arabic has declined.
Throughout my service, from 1960 to 1996, resources allocated to the FCO fell by about 1% a year. Since then I believe they have fallen much faster. Some of this reduction was justified by Britain’s changing role in the world and by changes in the nature of diplomacy. But it has gone too far.
I am not an advocate of “punching above our weight”. Indeed I am not very keen on punching at all. But the old Foreign Office, for all its faults, was recognised to have a deep understanding that made it an indispensable element in every discussion or decision with a foreign angle. This was true in Whitehall and as true in the world outside.
Germany and France going off to talk to Russia would have struck an odd note in the 20th century. I remember being a little surprised in 1965 to find that the UK was a founder member of the Danube Commission, which turned out to be very helpful in some negotiations with the then Soviet bloc. As the retired US ambassador Chas Freeman put it recently, in international affairs “if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu”.
Building this weight up again, as the parliamentary committees have recommended, is overdue. It would not, however, have avoided all the mistakes of the past. The Iraq war is a prime example. Among all the leaked documents and published statements by those involved, I have yet to see any considered recommendation by the FCO as to whether we should go to war or not, and among those who have spoken out much more has been heard from intelligence officers and the military. That is partly a failing of the FCO, but partly also a failing of cabinet government. What could the FCO have done with a prime minister who, when confronted with advice that the war was illegal, simply wrote that he didn’t understand it, and went ahead anyway?
In a world where “everybody speaks English” it is hard for a Brit to get the practice needed to be comfortable in a foreign language. It’s tempting not to bother, and not always possible. But knowing the language is the key that unlocks the door.
One of my last acts as an ambassador in 1996 was to intervene on instructions to persuade Greece to draw back from an unnecessary confrontation with Turkey over some islets – rocks, rather – in the Aegean Sea, which was getting very close to shooting. Inevitably the instructions arrived after working hours and I had the difficult task of reaching the foreign minister (who did not speak English) in the middle of the night when he was attending a kind of war cabinet and certainly did not wish to speak to foreign ambassadors.
He was a bit of a maverick, but I had made a friendship with him and my Greek was good enough to fight my way past telephone operators and secretaries to give him my message. My American and German colleagues had parallel instructions. Neither spoke Greek. The American didn’t lack staff resources (they never do) and also scored, though he made some enemies in the process. The German didn’t get past the telephone operator. There wasn’t a war.
Oliver Miles is a retired diplomat and a former head of the near east and north African department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.