A Post American Foreign Policy for the UK?

July 1, 2010

Lot’s of exciting mildly interesting stuff coming up here in the next few days… but in the mean time a few observations on William Hague’s speech today on Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World.  This has been noted in  some quarters as British Foreign Policy for a Post American World in the sense that Fareed Zakaria talks about it.

As is traditional in these kind of speeches Hague identifies a number of changes that have occurred in world politics, the emergence of new centres of economic power, the expansion of the circle of international decision making ie more countries matter, complex security threats, and the changing nature of conflict as he say  ‘wars among the people’ (references to Rupert Smith are standard in this context)… but ‘when taken together with the fifth and most striking change of all, the emergence of a networked world, the case for a new approach to the foreign policy of the United Kingdom becomes unanswerable.’

What does Hague mean by a networked world?  I don’t think that this is entirely clear but let’s extract some of the ideas.

1.  ‘For although the world has become more multilateral as I have described, it has also become more bilateral.’  This is a bit of a zen koan  but I think that what he is getting at is that British foreign policy and diplomatic practice has focussed on multilateral issues and fora at the expense of bilateral relations and the quality and strength of issues with particular countries matter.  Hague’s thought continues to identify the US as our most important bilateral relationship.

2. Hague continues:  ‘Today, influence increasingly lies with networks of states with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance and connections, including the informal, which act as vital channels of influence and decision-making and require new forms of engagement from Britain.”  Putting this together with the first point the logic would go something like this:  because decision making is fluid we cannot identify institutional targets for our diplomacy therefore by strengthening our bilateral links with key actors we are in a stronger position to influence these ‘fluid and dynamic patterns’

3. Part of the networked world is about the changing media of communication.

Today Foreign Ministers communicate through formal notes, highly frequent personal meetings, hours a day on the telephone to discuss and coordinate responses to crises, and quite a lot of us communicate by text message or in the case of the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and I, follow each other avidly on Twitter.

4. This is probably the money quote

In recent years Britain’s approach to building relationships with new and emerging powers has been rather ad-hoc and patchy, giving rise to the frequent complaint from such Governments that British Ministers only get in touch when a crisis arises or a crucial vote is needed. This weakens our ability to forge agreement on difficult issues affecting the lives of millions around the world and it overlooks the importance of consistency and personal relationships in the conduct of foreign policy.  In many countries decisions about politics and economics are also often more closely entwined than in Britain, meaning that the absence of strong bilateral relations has the further effect of weakening our position when economic decisions are made.

The solution is better coordination across government both at a strategic level via the new National Security Council.  A second aspect is recognizing the role of government departments other than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in sustaining relations with other countries and put in place mechanisms to coordinate all this activity so that the UK can actually deliver on decisions about upgrading bilateral relationships.

A couple of thoughts.  It will be interesting to see the extent to which this coordination can actually be achieved.  MFA loss of control is a common theme in the literature going back decades.  The other point is that it is that relationships consume resources (even if  only attention) and create network constraint.  This requires a strategic sense of priorities. Hague is going to be giving another three speeches over the next couple of weeks so maybe we will get something about this.


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