Foreign Policy Elite Defends the Foreign Office

November 24, 2015

This week we are hearing about the UK’s public spending plans for the next four years which will include substantial cuts. Given that the government has committed to spending 2% of GNP on defence and 0.7% on aid the only place for cuts in the foreign budget is the FCO and two groups have put out reports in the last couple of weeks to make the case for growth in foreign affairs expenditure.   First on the scene was Strengthening Britain’s Voice in the World from the UK Foreign and Security Policy Working Group and this was closely followed by Investing for Influence from the LSE Diplomacy Commission. The latter group has a more academic make up – although the ‘academics’ include several retired diplomats and the former is more drawn from the think tank community. The media is represented by the Financial Times and the BBC, the LSE has a banker.

As you might expect the ‘think tankers’ have produced a more narrowly focused report while the ‘academics’ take up broader issues of nature of the international system and the purposes of foreign policy but the two reports recognizably emerge from the same milieu. Both argue that the UK should pursue an active foreign policy and needs to invest in its diplomatic machinery. Both are concerned about the decline of spending on the diplomatic service. As the think tankers conclude governments ‘cannot talk the rhetoric of being a global player while at the same time cutting back on many of the institutions that sustain British influence abroad’.   They also agree what British foreign policy is about; for the think tankers it is the ‘support of an open, liberal international order’ for the LSE ‘a dispassionate advocate of both globalisation and governance.’ These two papers essentially restate the logic of the past two decades of British foreign policy which have produced the current situation where however persuasive the government finds the argument for 2%+0.7% everyone else finds the UK unengaged with foreign policy.

What is more interesting in these papers is the what is absent from them and looking at them this way suggests some of the features of how the British foreign policy elite constructs the world.

  1. This is international politics without politics. Britain should support ‘a rule based international order’ or in the words of the LSE ‘the UK’s key relationship, as it for all states, with international society as a whole: in a globalised, networked world, states’ interest in the system’s overall operation vastly outweighs their partial interests within it.’   There is zero insight that there might be different rule based orders and that the UK tends to favour a particular version of a rule based order.    Everyone might agree that the absence of rule based order would be bad but that doesn’t mean that they agree on which rules and how they are applied.
  2. This is international politics without priorities. Part of the reason for this is that there is no sense of geopolitics in these documents – indeed it is the think tankers who head a section ‘global not just regional’.  Geography is one way in which priorities can be set.       Both the reports slip into the typical British perspective of identifying Europe with the EU as something which is different from foreign policy. Here there is something that can be learnt from French thinking where the EU and an idea of Europe as a geopolitical space coexist, the EU is an asset that France can choose to use or not, and the existence of the EU does not abolish countries as geopolitical actors.   From this perspective Europe must always be a foreign policy priority for the UK regardless of the EU.
  3. There is very little in these documents about democracy and human rights – oddly the academics have less discussion of this than the think tankers.   How much significance should be attached to this? Are they advocating de-emphasizing these concerns or merely taking them for granted?
  4. There is also little about one of the centrepieces of British foreign policy thinking over the last decade and a half: the doctrine of stabilization.  That fragile and failed states are the sources of threat to the international order (not least through terrorism, drugs and refugees) recent events make this proposition plausible. The corollary is that the UK (and its partners) can, through a mix of military, political, humanitarian and development actions, resolve the situation. The problem is that while the proposition makes sense in theory it’s not really clear that it works in practice. The political and organizational challenges of stabilization are simply too much for Western coalitions to handle.   If organizational dysfunction is normal should the UK put so much effort into doctrinal and organizational innovations (eg Building Stability Overseas Strategy, Stabilisation Unit and associated funding streams)?

If you read these reports together you get an idea that British foreign policy is supposed to be about doing global good deeds with little sense of priorities or feasibility; it’s no wonder that beyond the members of these study groups most people (including the political class) don’t seem very engaged by it. These are the same ideas were originally set out at the height of post Cold War Western self confidence. If British foreign policy is not to be guided by George Osborne’s random enthusiasm for China we need some new thinking for a post Western World.


Documents on British Scholarships and Visits

November 10, 2015

The role of scholarships, exchanges and visits in British public diplomacy is pretty much a black hole in terms of both policy attention and academic interest so I was interested to come across a Foreign Office review of Scholarship programmes from March of this year.

The review discusses three programmes Chevening, Commonwealth and Marshall. In general terms these all provide support for post graduate study in the UK. Chevening is intended to ‘support foreign policy priorities…by creating lasting positive relationships with future leaders’, Commonwealth ‘to contribute to international development’ and Marshall to ‘strengthen UK-US relationship’. Chevening currently in recent years Chevening has had 650 students a year but for no clearly defined reason this is rising to 1,700, Commonwealth has around 900 awards funded by DFID and Marshall 30-35.

The report offers a mass of detail including recommendations from internal reviews and if you’re interested in scholarships and exchanges I would certainly recommend it.

However in reading it becomes clear that this is a typical British government document in its relentless focus on efficiency and rationalization and the almost total neglect of what the point of all this activity is. The reviewer, who is a former banker who is now the chair of “The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation” which “regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications” seems most concerned that the management structure of the Chevening programme is different from the other two – which are run by independent commissions and argues for a common management structure via a Scholarships Commission, which would be sponsored by the FCO (not sure what DFID would think of this).

However, these aren’t the only programmes that the government runs. Here’s a link to the FCO International Leaders Programme Strategy for 2014/15 that runs through the benefits of bringing leaders from the Emerging Powers to the UK in the manner of the US International Leaders Programme.


Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy: Part 2

October 23, 2015

In my previous post I noted that the way that we talk about ‘digital diplomacy’ is still the same despite 20 years of practical experience but why is this?

An obvious explanation that follows from the ‘tech narrative’ is that the world is changing fast and that MFAs are changing more slowly so they still have the same need for adaptation. There’s something to this but this is claim that needs to be more critically evaluated.  For instance MFA web sites have already become thorougly institutionalized so it’s nothing have happened.  I’m always suspicious of claims that organizations have to adapt to their environment without clear evidence about mechanisms.  For instance is it possible to show that MFAs that have been laggards in adopting digital diplomacy have performed worse that those that have been more enthusiastic adopters in any area other than adoption of digital media?

There’s also a political-cultural dimension in the interaction between the prevalent social narrative of technological transformation and the popular image of the diplomat as a reactionary. This image long predates Twitter – the French and Russian Revolutions proclaimed the death of diplomacy, revolutionary America and revolutionary Iran two centuries apart tried to transform it – but in hard times digital diplomacy becomes a way that MFAs can signal their relevance to sceptical politicians and publics. For instance the relationship between US Secretaries of State and Congress often (eg Rice and Clinton) seems to resolve into a ‘money for modernization’ deal. In this situation ‘digital diplomacy’ becomes a symbol of modernization and modernity.

How can we push the discussion of digital diplomacy forward?  I think the key requirement is move ‘digital’ out of the narrative of technology and reembed it in the reality of diplomacy and foreign policy. In working on the comparative history of public diplomacies  I’ve been very struck by the persistence of patterns, institutions and ideas in national diplomacies. Although in tracking developments across time you see national diplomatic systems dealing with similar issues the continuities are also very obvious.   These continuities come from international factors (relationships, geopolitical situations) and domestic ones (the national political economy, national self-conceptions, the broader mode of governance) the result is the persistence of national styles. From an analytical point of view this tells me that there cannot be a singular ‘digital diplomacy’. From a prescriptive point of view it suggests that instead of attempting to conform to some abstract model of what a digital diplomacy should be MFAs should focus on embracing digital in a way that works for them.


Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy Part 1

October 10, 2015

I was happily reading Brian Hocking and Jan Melissens’ report on Diplomacy in the Digital Age and largely agreeing with it when it struck me:  reports about diplomacy and tech stuff haven’t changed in 20 years.*   Why is ‘digital diplomacy’ permanently new? Why isn’t it old? Why are we still writing about it in the same way?

What I mean is that the core analytical structure hasn’t changed. You set up (implicitly or explicitly) an ideal type of ‘the digital age’ or something similar and this then serves as a standard for evaluating the diplomatic practices of a country or as comparison for another ideal type ‘diplomacy’. The ‘digital age’ is assumed to provide a singular standard that national practices or ‘diplomacy’ must conform to. This gives rise to a narrative of modernization where certain MFAs are assumed to be advanced and others retarded in the process of adaptation to a singular ‘digital’ future.

The problem with this mode of analysis is that ideal types are tools and shouldn’t be mistaken either for accounts of the real world or for theories – warnings that Max Weber offered in his original discussion of ideal types (Weber 1949: 101-2). In 1995 we didn’t have any real world experience with ‘digital’ and an informed guess was the best we could do. But now the field of practice is 20 years old as is the history of writing about it.

For example, the FCO got its first web pages in 1995, in June 2000 it produced an E-business strategy that covered issues such as the ability to deliver services on-line and knowledge management as well as external and internal communication. in the second half of the ’90s most of the foreign policy think tanks in Washington were running projects on ‘virtual diplomacy’ or similar, and by the turn of the decade we had both theoretical perspectives (Off the top of my head Nye and Owens 1996, Rothkopf 1998, Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999a, 1999b) and some early discussions of the impact of the web on diplomatic practice (eg Potter 2002). We even substantial comparative pieces of research that address the adaptation of foreign ministries to ICTs that have been around for a few years (eg Batora 2008, Archetti 2012 and I’m sure that there’s more). What concerns me is that the discussions that we are having today don’t seem to reflect this 20 years of experience but instead reflect a constant year zero (or perhaps zero day would be more appropriate) in the area.

In part 2 I’ll offer some thoughts on why we are still writing that same report and how we ought to think about the question of digital diplomacy.

*Whatever happened to diplomacy 2.0, internet diplomacy, web diplomacy, virtual diplomacy, the revolution in diplomatic affairs etc?



Archetti C (2012) The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 7: 181–206.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999a) The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999b) The Nature of a Revolution in Diplomatic Affairs, International Studies Association Convention, Washington DC.

Bátora J (2008) Foreign ministries and the information revolution: going virtual? Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Hocking B and Melissen J (2015) Diplomacy in the Digital Age. The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Nye JS and Owens WA (1996) America’s Information Edge, Foreign Affairs, 75: 20–36.

Potter EH, ed (2002) Cyber-Diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Montréal, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Rothkopf DJ (1998) Cyberpolitik: The Changing Nature of Power in the Information Age, Journal of International Affairs, 51: 325–59.

Weber M (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Il: Free Press.


National Public Diplomacy…Systems, Machines, Assemblages, Fields….?

September 18, 2015

Over the last few years Brian Hocking (eg 2013) has introduced the concept of the national diplomatic system – the idea that ministries of foreign affairs exist in the context of a set of other agencies that are involved in foreign affairs. A while back I argued that it is important to analyse national systems of public diplomacy holistically. What I had in mind was the tendency, for instance, to discuss the British Council and the Alliance Française as if they were directly equivalent, rather than the latter being much more of a specialist language organization than the former.  From my perspective it makes if you look at ‘national public diplomacy systems’ as a whole you understand how different countries do things in different ways and how the parts fit together.

When I presented this at a conference Eytan Gilboa objected to the term ‘system’ because it made things sound too organized. The funny thing was I nearly didn’t use the term on precisely those grounds. I had thought about ‘network’ but given my propensity to label everything ‘network’ I’d restrained myself. I’d also thought about ‘assemblage’ which, to an English speaker at least carries a connotation of being thrown together, randomness and likely to fall apart (which actually seems a  fairly  accurate description of the situation in many countries).but. It also seemed a bit pretentious.* I toyed for a bit with ‘field’ in the Bourdieuan sense while I thought that this was good for thinking about the relationships between different organizations I was uncomfortable with the idea that a field can be an actor.  Maybe the public diplomacy ‘ensemble’ or collective’ would work?

More recently I’ve come across the idea of ‘la machine diplomatique‘, this originally comes from the work of Jean-Baptiste Duroselle (1979) on French diplomacy during the interwar period but has been taken up by other French scholars to indicate that diplomacy has multiple components (Frank 2003, Arthus 2012).

I think that the idea of the collective nature of diplomacy or public diplomacy is an important idea but it’s important to have the capacity to recognize  that the parts of whatever we call it don’t always fit together very well and the relationships between them vary with changing situations.

*Not that that had ever stopped me before.

Arthus WW (2012) La Machine diplomatique française en Haïti (1945-1958). Paris: L’Harmattan.

Duroselle J-B (1979) La decadence 1932-1939. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Frank R (2003) La machine diplomatique culturelle française après 1945, Relations internationales, 115: 325–348.

Hocking B (2013) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Diplomacy System, in Kerr P and Wiseman G (eds) Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 123–40.


What is the BBC Up To?

September 15, 2015

The BBC recently issued a document on its future. This is part of an ongoing debate in the UK over the renewal of the BBC’s charter – a process that happens every 10 years. This was accompanied by media stories discussing the BBC’s plans for broadcasts to Russia and North Korea – which in turn have attracted a degree of commentary.

What is slightly surprising about this is that if you turn to the future of the BBC document the World Service is the focus of one page out of 99. The page is  headed ‘we want to invest in the world service’   – to which the question must be why don’t you just get on with it then? The explanation is ‘there are limits to how much British households can be expected to fund news for others around the world to consume, despite the benefits.’  Hmm – the BBC was happy enough to take the license fee (tax) and, before it took over funding of the World Service,  extra money from the tax payer as well so this seems unusually solicitious of the British public.  What is the BBC proposing to do?  The entire agenda is reproduced below:

A bigger digital presence in Russian through a new digital service on platforms such as YouTube and the Russian equivalent Rutube, together with TV bulletins for neighbouring states. We would also start a feasibility study for a satellite TV channel for Russia

A daily news programme, seven days a week, for North Korea, initially delivered through Short Wave, and news for Ethiopia and Eritrea on Medium Wave and Short Wave

New or extended digital and mobile offers in India and Nigeria

More regionalised content on the BBC Arabic Service to better serve audiences across the region, and target new audiences, with increased coverage of North Africa and the Gulf.

Some of this will cost money but the first two look like headline fodder.  So the BBC needs more  money but the aim is not to simply get a grant from the government but

We would aim for any increase in public funding for the World Service to be matched by external income for our other global news services over the Charter. This means commercial ambition; seeking revenue from audiences outside the UK; and being open to funding from governments and civil society.….So our ambitions must be commercially self-sufficient.  ..To do that, bbc.com will have to experiment, exploring new advertising deals, subscription services, live events, syndication packages and commercial opportunities across all platforms and languages. The proposition, though, is simple: access for advertisers to a global audience; and a product for consumers that is the most trusted and reliable news service in the world

Essentially this is a proposal – we will do something that will be helpful to the British government if the government allows us greater commercial freedom. This is intended to further blur the distinction between the BBC’s traditional publically funded external broadcasting and its commercially funded services.  Since the government refused to fund the development of external BBC television services back in the 1980s it has been in the interests of both sides to blur the distinction, the BBC seeks to coopt the history and reputation of the ‘classical’ external services while the government likes to trumpet the footprint of the BBC globally as part of  British ‘soft power’.

The language of soft power further obscures because both commercial success and the support of  democratization in a repressive regime can be claimed as part of soft power.   The more the BBC pursues  a commercially driven strategy the more the potential divergence between foreign policy goals and those of the Corporation.   As a commercial actor the BBC produces content that will appeal to its key target markets (BBC World Television in English has a very US centric view of the world) and will seek to maximize revenue for commercial partners by limiting access to its content – for instance you can go to the website of France 24 (its English service is extremely underrated), DW, Russia Today and watch them live – you can’t do that with BBC World. The irony is that is you want to watch a British television news service on the web from outside the UK you can – it’s called Sky News

My take away is that the British government needs to recognize that outside the UK the BBC wants to operate mainly as a commercial actor (and one that has recently been rapped over the knuckles for showing sponsored content from that failed to meet impartiality standards) and it needs to consider the extent to which UK foreign policy interests and BBC commercial interests overlap. I would also recommend that the government has a hard look at the quality of BBC external news programming versus competitors like France 24, DW and Al-Jazeera English – BBC World Television often looks pretty sad in comparison.   The government needs to have its own view on UK external broadcasting and it can’t trust the BBC to tell it what that view should be.


Nation-Branding Lite? The GREAT Campaign

September 1, 2015

Since 2012 the UK has been running promotional campaigns in selected countries under the strap line Britain is GREAT. The GREAT campaign is primarily focused on attracting investment, tourists and students as well as pushing British exports. Between 2012 and 2015 £113.5m has been spent and in a newish report the National Audit Office estimates that it has so far provided a return on investment of £1.2Bn – which is pretty good going since the overall target for the campaign is £1.7-1.9Bn by 2019-20.   The NAO is an organization dedicated to demonstrating that public money could have been spent better so it’s quite surprising how happy they are with the view that this is good value for money.

It’s also interesting to see that the report cheerfully uses branding language to discuss the campaign but in a couple of ways the GREAT campaign is a retreat from high concept nation-branding to a more traditional promotional campaign. In its classical form nation-branding is supposed to grow out of a consensual view of a core identity or narrative. This core narrative also needs to be consistent with the way that the brand will be experienced. Branding projects are frequently tripped up by the fact that there isn’t consensus or consistency. Where countries have achieved that consensus it has been as the end result of a long period of discussion (eg Sweden or Finland) which is rarely achievable. The GREAT Campaign has got round this by simply identifying a set of themes that can be used to appeal to different publics – eg heritage AND innovation – no need to make difficult choices and from the point of view of the NAO it seems to be working.


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