The Anglo-French Diplomatic Mutual Admiration Society

February 9, 2013

When William Hague become Foreign Secretary in 2010 he expressed concerns that under the Labour government the FCO had become too dominated by managerialism and was losing focus on core diplomatic skills such as reporting, writing and negotiating, languages and area expertise.  The response  was to launch (in true managerialist fashion) a ‘Diplomatic Excellence Programme’ including a bit increase the budget for language training.   This activity was accompanied by new performance targets and a benchmarking exercise . The FCO convened a panel of outside experts from NGOs, business etc who compared the performance of the FCO to other foreign ministries and reached the conclusion that the FCO was the second best in the world.  Who could be number 1?

It’s worth saying that I haven’t seen a list of who composed this panel or what their methodology was.  But just on my experience of the FCO if you were going to get them admit they were second best who might they just be willing to admit a certain admiration for? If you were going to give them a competitor to catch up with?  Of course their could only be one answer: the Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres et europeennes of the Republique Francaise – The Quai d’Orsay (sorry about the missing accents)

In giving evidence to Parliament in November  last year the chief permanent official at the FCO, Simon Fraser,  discussed this  comparison.  Somewhat conveniently the reasons for the superiority of the French echo areas where William Hague had previously voiced the need for improvement in British perfomance.

I think that the group felt that the French diplomatic service like Britain’s has a very long diplomatic tradition and culture and they are very effective in advancing their national interest through diplomacy. They are effective in supporting their commercial and economic objectives. For those reasons they were felt to be a very effective diplomatic service.

One of the things that has been stated in the past is that the French Government as a whole are more organised in their collective support of French economic interest through diplomacy.

The Quai D’Orsay probably is a more focused organization with a stronger sense of its own history and mission as the representative of France than the FCO is in regard to Britain (which is not to say that the FCO is exactly lacking in this) Dgging into the self descriptions  on their web site you do get something of the romance and history of diplomacy.

But the reason for this post is that if we open the Winter 2011-12 issue of Mondes: Les Cahiers du Quai D’Orsay the ministry’s version of Foreign Affairs things are not so rosy.  This is a special issue devoted to la diplomatie d’influence.  (Thanks to Ellen Huijgh for flagging up the importance of this concept).  In the editorial the head of the forsight unit at the Quai relates  diplomatie d’influence to soft power but much of the discussion is more about the use of diplomatic influence beyond bilateral relationships rather than the very diffuse way that soft power is used in some other contexts.   The lead essay by Nicolas Tenzer, ‘The Global Influence of Major Powers and their Strategies for the Future’ argues three key areas for influence to operate are in are

    1. Tendering processes by which states commission major projects
    2. International processes for standards setting
    3. The international processes of opinion formation, the conferences, think-tanks and media where  agendas are formed and issues framed.

The point is that influence in these spheres works through relatively diffuse international networks and that countries other than France have been working hard to build their positions.  Which country get the most mentions in this article as having been doing this?  The UK (Sweden, Canada, Germany also get multiple mentions).  In Tenzer’s view linkages betweens government, NGOs, professional organizations and universities  allow the formation of a national view on issues while at the same time allowing that perspective to be advanced in multiple arenas.

Genuinely influential states have that ability to operate in multiple registers.  All those countries understand that influence requires strong public diplomacy but mainly an ability to promote certain ideas and concepts discreetly in the right international places

These networks also allow the rapid deployment of expertise.  This an area where France has been building up  a new organization to allow it to compete (this is taken up in another article)

The issue also includes a piece on strategy in international organizations where the French approach of trying to place candidates at the top of the organization is contrasted unfavourably  with the British method of placing experts at the working  level.  There’s also an article on ENA, L’Ecole Nationale d’Administration as a tool of soft power.

It’s interesting to look at these two discourses together.  There’s an element of the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence here but we may be looking at two different points on a continuum.  The Quai is narrower, more focussed, more closed while the FCO is operating in a more diffuse, open manner.  Following the type of analysis that Ronald Burt in Brokerage and Closure you can see both of these positions have their own strengths and weaknesses.  More closure will build identity and performance while openness offers benefits through better information gathering and a greater range of connections to operate through.

Burt, R.S. (2005) Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Tenzer, N. (2011) ‘The Global Influence of Major Powers and their Strategies for the Future’, Mondes: Les Cahiers du Quai D’Orsay, 117–123.

[ Mondes publishes its articles in French and English but it was noticeable that the formatting of the French articles was sometimes clearer than the translations so its worth checking the French version even if you’re reading the English version[



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