Archive for the ‘FCO’ Category


Parliamentary Committee Report on UK-China Relations

April 12, 2019

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently put out a report on the UK’s relations with China.  This was seen by some as indicating a turn to a more cautious or suspicious line towards China.

I tend to read these reports more for what it tells us about how people think about the issues.  As I’ve indicated before I think UK foreign policy thinking tends towards an undifferentiated global liberalism that doesn’t provide a basis for prioritizing one thing over another.

This report has quite a lot of this but also some signs of greater appreciation of real world constraints.

The reading of China seems quite plausible.  China likes order but has some reservations about current one.  A central driver of Chinese external behaviour is the security of the regime, which also translates (as Max Weber would expect) into a concern with questions of prestige.

The report spends quite a lot of time discussing a whole list of contentious issues in relations with China; the South China Sea, the treatment of the Uighurs and the state of democracy in Hong Kong, Huawei, Belt and Road Initiative, influence activities in the UK and gives some consideration to what should be done about them but the report seems to swing between a faith in an abstract legal order and a rather one on one confrontational stance.  One of the strangest things in the report is the demand that the FCO produce a report on situations where it has successfully changed China’s position.  By the time that a country like China has a well-defined position it is going to be extremely difficult to change it and even if it does change its mind it will be very careful to obscure what has happened.   Also a good diplomat will not boast about this.

In relation to British policy the report points to the apparent disconnect between the Ministry of Defence, which seems quite keen to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, and the Treasury  which has its own emissary to China outside the normal diplomatic framework. The Committee wants a statement of strategy towards China that can guide the actions of all government bodies.  That doesn’t seem unreasonable but UK government is quite capable of producing a strategy that is simply a list of departmental preferences and doesn’t set priorities.

Because China is developing a global presence there should be a China strategy but this needs to be developed in the context of an Asian strategy and an overall international strategy.  The report keeps returning to the question of influence and treating China in isolation actually makes this question much more intractable.  Putting China in an Asian context may show ways of working with Asian (and other) countries to push things in a desirable connection.

There is also a need for a greater recognition of the differences in motivations on different issues – it’s probably much easier to influence issues around Huawei or even the Belt and Road than it is on those that are seen in Beijing as to do with national cohesion, which of these issues are going to have be treated things that are protested for forms sake and which are going to be subject of a political strategy that expects to get a result.  The rhetoric of rules based international order tries link everything together and make it all equally important.  Strategy pushes towards choice and discrimination in the real world.


The Everyday IRD: British Covert Information in the Early 1960s

March 21, 2019

The Information Research Department (IRD), the Foreign Office’s Cold War covert information agency, has been back in news this week as the latest release of material from the Public Records Office confirms the involvement of the IRD in the production and use of forgeries aimed at Soviet aligned fronts organizations.  This report provides some detail on an operation against the World Federation of Democratic Youth in 1963.

By coincidence I’ve been looking at a couple of pieces on the IRD in this era which really focus on the day to day to activities of the organization.  These are a top secret review of the IRD conducted by the former Permanent Under Secretary of the FO Lord Strang in 1963  that was been dug out of the archives and transcribed by  The second is a PhD Thesis by Simon Collins on the IRD in the Middle East and Africa between 1956 and 1963.  Strang’s report is redacted and is very much a Whitehall focused document while Collin’s thesis actually gives a pretty strong sense of what IRD was doing.

The Strang report seems to have been motivated by concerns over whether an expansion of IRD was providing value for money. The agency had been authorized to appoint up to 24 field officers who  could be sent overseas.  Part of the background here is that the IRD was largely funded by the ‘secret vote’ that financed the intelligence services and wasn’t subject to the same level of financial stringency that affected the overt overseas information services of the FO, the British Council and the BBC.  Neither was it subject to the same staffing policies as the FO.*  There’s a similarity with situation in the US during the early Cold War where the Marshall Plan information activities and those of the CIA had more money and more freedom than those of the State Department.  Although Strang accepts the argument that the IRD should be maintained as a covert organization I also get a sense in that part of the importance of the IRD  in this era is because of the additional resource it brings to the overall information effort.

At this point the IRD is the largest department in the FO and is several times the size of the overt information departments.   Strang gives a figure of 288 whereas the total staff of the Information Policy Department, Information Executive Department and the Cultural Relations Department is 83.  The key to the difference is that IRD is producing its own content and has its own people in the field.  I would assume that information officers at overseas posts did not count as part of the IPD establishment somewhat reducing the discrepancy.

I think Collins gives a good sense of what is happening with the IRD at this point.  From 1955 the IRD is  tasked against Nasserite Arab Nationalism as well as Communism.  This continues to be a priority well after the Suez Crisis.  Egypt’s external communications are attacking the British position in Africa not just  conservative Arab regimes.  In the late 1950s Britain wants to rebuild diplomatic relations with Egypt while containing the Nasserite influence.  The result is Transmission X; a sort of asymmetrical rebuttal service to Egypt’s radio broadcasting.  Instead of a classic mid-20th century radio war with competing radio stations directly attacking each other – which might have undermined the goal of repairing diplomatic relations – Transmission X used near real-time reports on Cairo’s broadcasts from BBC Monitoring Service as a basis to produce materials: opinion pieces, scripts that could be rapidly circulated to posts and to their contacts in government and media in the Middle East and North Africa.  The initial concept was to undermine the credibility of the Egyptian broadcasts by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies. Collins sees some success with this activity.  But from an organizational point of view  the consequences are bigger.  IRD is no longer just producing background materials but is now also operating as a full time information service.  The content and scope of Transmission X expanded beyond the narrow agenda of countering Egyptian broadcasts to take in anti-Communist material and even non-political ‘projection of Britain’ fare.   Certainly one gets the impression from the two studies here that one of the consequences of the expanding IRD field presence was for it to be used to fill gaps in the official information services.

The idea that 1955-65 represents a ‘golden age’ for Western public diplomacies crops up  in discussions of the  France and the US as well as the UK.  In this era public diplomacies are expanding as colonial countries gain their independence, public diplomacies are also pressed into service to fill gaps in national media systems and commercial international news services.  From the mid-60s the costs of this start to become apparent, the Soviet and Chinese threats in Africa seem less immediate and gaps in media systems are being filled in so that the scope of these information activities can be scaled back.

The main point is that while the involvement of the IRD in black activities will always be of interest the bulk of what they were doing was much more mundane.  In making sense of British Cold War information activities the covert and the overt need to put into context.

*I’m wondering if the exemption from the normal staff regulations meant that there were more women in IRD. The field staff were carefully selected and included at least three women, at least two of whom had intelligence connections going back the Second World War.


Collins, Simon MW (2013). “Countering Communist and Nasserite Propaganda: The Foreign Office Information Research Department in the Middle East and Africa, 1954-1963.” PhD, University of Hertfordshire.

Strang, Lord (1963). The Unavowable Information Services of Her Majesty’s Government Overseas. CAB 301/399.


The Future FCO Report

May 11, 2016

On Monday the FCO issued Future FCO a report commissioned by the Permanent Undersecretary in the wake of the November 2015 Spending Review that looks at how the FCO can improve its ‘internal working, policy making and impact’.  Given that the lead author was the FCO’s leading digital diplomacy enthusiast Tom Fletcher it wasn’t surprising that press coverage focused on technology and how the ministry needed to become more like Spooks or 24 and it was hopelessly out of date.  There’s some of that here but surprisingly little.

This is a report the management of the FCO and its staffing not foreign policy.  It is not written for public consumption it assumes a high degree of knowledge of systems and procedures and it rarely bothers to explain its reasoning.  In fact much of the conclusions are foreshadowed in the terms of reference the first of which is ‘identify opportunities for better, flatter and more flexible organization of policy capabilities, including through delayering and greater clarity on roles and responsibilities.’  The report claims that this is the ‘first post-internet review of the FCO’ which is pretty odd given the serial reviews that went on under the Labour government.

I’d pick out three  particularly interesting aspects

  1. Shrinking the Whitehall Ambition.  One of the things that leapt out a me was this ‘the FCO should neither seek to lead not dedicate significant standing resource in London to thematic work’.  Non-security thematic work should be brought under a single multilateral directorate.  This isn’t really explained but it does imply a concession of policy space to the National Security Council and to other ministries, it’s not something I can imagine the ministry in Paris or Berlin doing without a big fight.
  2. Defend the Embassies.  There is quite a bit in the report about strengthening the capability of the embassies to support all UK overseas functions this is something that has been going on for a while under the banner of One HMG – trying to get as many departments as possible under the same roof.   There is a definite push to get the Embassy to be a more joined up activity with a more of a country plan and a soft power plan.  There are some good ideas for trying to take some of the ‘corporate’ weight off embassies and to provide a better service to other government departments.  If the FCO is conceding policy space to other departments I’m not sure that ambassadors will have much success in keeping those other departments under control in the field.
  3. Flexibility at all costs: Since the days of the Know How Fund in post communist Europe the work of the FCO has increasingly been organized around projects.  There’s an interesting discussion in the report about way this works in managerial terms – with strict oversight of relatively small amounts of money  – and some suggestions for reforming ‘programme’ as its referred to here.  Future FCO goes further and suggests that FCO directorates should have 25% of their staff in campaign pools rather than in permanent jobs in order to give more flexibility, in fact in an appendix the possibility is raised that the relationship with some countries (Nigeria is an example) should be managed on a campaign basis.  I can see the argument for flexibility but at the same time one of the features of diplomacy is its permanence.  As a student of British government I can also predict that the campaign pool will be the first thing to be cut when things get tough.

This report is very much in line with the past 20 years of FCO managerialism.  I think the difficulty is that in the UK these reports can be written without any consideration of foreign policy.  In them the FCO inhabits a kind of abstract policy space where what it does is ‘delivers policy objectives’ without any consideration of what the world is like and how well things are going.  In reading French or German reports the ministry is located within a more recognizable geopolitical world which gives some sense of what it has to be configured to do.


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.


The Future of DFID

June 12, 2015

A few weeks before the election the Parliamentary Committee on International Development put out a report on The Future of UK Development Cooperation: Phase 2 Beyond Aid this was a sequel to a report specifically on aid.

The nature of international development is changing. The number of low income countries is falling. Within that group, most of the poorest countries—and overall, 22 out of DFID’s portfolio of 28 countries—are fragile states, requiring multiple and complex interventions. At the same time, the importance of global issues—conflict, climate, migration, trade, tax, financial stability, youth unemployment, urbanisation economic development, and infectious disease—is rising. These changes will be reflected in the new framework of Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted in 2015.

Aid remains essential for the poorest countries, and for some purposes in middle-income countries (MICs). It is encouraging that the UK has reached the 0.7% target. However, overall, a new approach is required which reflects the changing situation.

First, as aid is no longer provided to some MICs, such as India, new forms of co-operation have to be developed which facilitate links with UK institutions in a wide range of areas, including health, education, culture, law, culture and science. This will be labour-intensive, requiring DFID to put more emphasis on working with small organisations.

Second, policy coherence for development (PCD) is at the heart of a new approach. This means working across Government in the UK, and with global partners in the multilateral system, to maximise the impact on development of all the UK’s actions.

The report has some interesting discussion of how other countries organize their international development activities and it’s clear that DFID is an outlier – the trend in recent years has been for closer integration of aid with the MFA – indeed the whole thrust of the report is for closer cooperation with the FCO and with other parts of government. The solution that the Committee recommends is that

  • The UK maintains a free-standing and Cabinet-level Department for International Development which ensures that international development priorities are at the heart of government, and is appropriate for the UK.

  • Cross-Government working be improved. The security sector is a case in point. The National Security Council should take a broader view of threats to UK security, and ensure that development and conflict prevention be given the priority they deserve. There should be explicit strategies and policies, with clear responsibilities for delivery. Current experience with joint Ministers, joint units, cross-Government funds, and shared offices overseas, should be expanded.

  • DFID make policy coherence for development (PCD) a higher priority and make improvements to reporting and accountability. DFID needs to put PCD at the heart of its work, co-operating closely across Whitehall, and not treat it as an add on. The National Audit Office and the Independent Commission on Aid Impact should give a higher priority to PCD. The National Security Council should be fully accountable to select committees, via the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, and individual select committees.

As they say:

We believe DFID’s long-term future as a standalone ministry will be at risk unless stronger mechanisms to support cross-Government working on development are put in place.

There’s an irony here in that DFID has built its success on entrenching a view of development as poverty reduction, a view given legal status in the 2002 International Development Act but it’s now finding that this protection is becoming a straightjacket – particularly if they want to work with middle income countries this is beginning to fall into the kind of areas that the British Council would define as ‘cultural relations’. The other point is that the OECD definition of ODA is much less restrictive than the UK’s self-imposed definitions.

Of course as DFID has lots of money maybe they should mount a takeover of the FCO – it could use some cash, leadership and ideas.


Cuts and Capabilities at the FCO

February 27, 2015

Back from the International Studies Association and back to the blog..

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has just issued its response to the FCO’s Annual Report and they are seriously concerned about the effect of the government austerity programme on British overseas representation. In their view the FCO is short of staff and the reliance on locally engaged staff is creating problems for the future by reducing the experience that UK staff can build up overseas.

One issue that they point to is the inadequacy of language skills at the FCO. This is an issue that they’ve flagged up before and one that came up last week in a report on the EU response to the Ukrainian Crisis. The new report points out that only 28% of FCO posts in Russia and Eastern Europe are occupied with staff with the required level of linguistic competence. The really interesting point though is that the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, there the figure is …27%. Now you might think that the situation in Ukraine has come as a surprise hence the low priority for the languages but given the recent history of Britain in the Middle East the need for Arabic can’t be a surprise. This backs up the argument that despite the support for language training expressed by the leadership of the FCO the management system doesn’t value it.

This is supported by a November 2013 report from the British Academy on the state of language capacity across British government that documents concern among diplomats that putting in the time to learn and maintain hard languages is damaging to their career progression and can cause them to become too ‘niche’ given the need.

My conclusion: modernization, in terms of rationalizing management, may be good for the efficiency of your foreign ministry but it doesn’t also add to its effectiveness.


The FCO Review of the British Council

September 22, 2014

UK government departments are now required to conduct triennial reviews of ‘non-departmental public bodies’ and in July the FCO published its review of the British Council. In general terms it concludes that the BC is doing a good job but that consideration should be given to spinning off some of its income generating activities into a commercial entity.

What is interesting though is the what the report tells us about the FCO concept of Britain’s influence in the world or more accurately the lack of one.

If you are going to review something you need some criteria to evaluate against. The report draws on three substantive sets of criteria. Firstly, the contribution to British cultural diplomacy and UK influence, secondly, the purposes of the BC and thirdly the views of stakeholders. If you’ve got three different sets of criteria you need to be clear about how they relate to each other.

The report immediately raises red flags by describing the BC as ‘the main official body for cultural diplomacy’.  At the BC being described a ‘cultural diplomacy’ would set nerves jangling  but this isn’t the real problem.  As I’ve noted before there is no tradition of official thinking about ‘cultural diplomacy’ in the UK. The BC has tended to talk about cultural relations and even in the past the Foreign Office had a Cultural Relations Department. As readers of this blog will know over the past 10 years government discussion has drawn on concepts of public diplomacy and soft power. The report pulls ‘cultural diplomacy’ out of the air and doesn’t provide any supporting intellectual framework.

The second set of criteria are the purposes of the BC set out in its Royal Charter:

  • Promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom;
  • Develop a wider knowledge of the English language;
  • Encourage cultural, scientific, technological and other educational cooperation between the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Otherwise promote the advancement of education.

Hmm, nothing about British influence here.

Thirdly, the review draws on the views of ‘stakeholders’, which variously include government departments, cultural institutions, UK ambassadors and some of the BC’s competitors – especially commercial providers of education services and English language teaching.

The result is that report tends to shift between three stances. Firstly, is the BC doing a good job for British influence, secondly, is it working in accordance with its purposes and thirdly, are the stakeholders happy?

Evaluating an organization against its purposes is relatively straightforward. The report points out that the BC’s ‘society’ strand of work doesn’t fit with its purposes. The irony is that over the last 10 years ‘society’ has been where you find the more kind of projects that the FCO was keen on. It’s when you turn to ‘influence’ that things get difficult. I’m really not sure how you can evaluate an organization against a criterion like ‘influence’ that it doesn’t have a plan for and where the evaluators don’t know what it is and what it looks like. This also feeds into the question of ‘stakeholder’ opinion. Any organization needs to understand what stakeholders think but to make use of such data you need to recognize a few things. Every stakeholder has a perspective (where you stand depends on where you sit), some of these perspectives are inconsistent – particularly for an organization like the British Council – and this may mean you have to trade off some stakeholder views against each other. If you don’t have a clear idea of what the organization is doing it’s difficult to make these trade-offs. This leads to a rather random reporting of ‘stakeholder’ views. For instance there seems to support for the BC doing more arts work but because there’s no in depth analysis of stakeholder views and no theory of influence there’s no intellectual underpinning for this view.

In the appendix of the document that discusses language teaching there’s an example of precisely this kind of trade off. A foreign government is offering a contract for teaching its personnel English, in such a situation it might be OK for the BC to use its status as a government agency to win the business even though this disadvantages commercial operators because of the benefits to the UK. This is one of the few places in the document that tries to balance different perspectives instead of switching between them. The result is a sense that the FCO wants more control over the BC but it’s not sure why other than to ensure that it fills out its financial paperwork properly.

A few years ago I heard representatives of the FCO and the Quai d’Orsay talk about public diplomacy. The Brit talked about budgets, targets and key performance indicators, the French rep talked about the mission of France in the world. France has eventually realized that it may have the overarching concepts but it needs to manage its foreign outreach better, Whitehall needs to realize that managerialism isn’t enough: we need an overarching and enduring theory of British influence.


Four Thoughts on William Hague as Foreign Secretary

July 15, 2014

William Hague has stood down as Foreign Secretary after four years so four quick thoughts.

  1. Hague’s general approach to foreign policy can be seen as a continuation of New Labour minus the messianism plus a greater focus on bilateral relationships. Key elements of the Blairite approach such as the continued use of the ‘our interests are our values’ formulation and the importance attached to the Building Stability Overseas Strategy remained
  2. One of Hague’s major emphases has been on the FCO as an institution and the skills required by its staff hence initiatives like the reopening of the language school and efforts to benchmark against other ministries. Further he pushed efforts to expand the diplomatic network to give more weight to rising countries.
  3. On the other hand the FCO is increasingly hemmed in within the national diplomatic system. Hague seems to regard the National Security Council as the source of policy, even though successive Parliamentary reports have pointed to its inability to formulate strategy. Hague accepted the need for the FCO to make cuts in order to contribute to the austerity programme. At the same time with a shrinking budget the FCO has been forced to make an increasing contribution to the government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNP on development aid. One would expect the consequence of rising funding for DFID versus a cash strapped FCO led by a one of the most senior of the party’s leaders to be ongoing interdepartmental warfare yet from the outside there’s hardly been a whiff of this.
  4. This absence of conflict suggests to me that Hague’s incumbency has been fundamentally shaped by his loyalty to Cameron’s political project: to promote a modern caring Conservatism hence the unwillingness to rock the boat. Although this may have been to the good of the party I take the view that we need a rethink of British foreign policy and this certainly hasn’t happened under Hague. Even if Philip Hammond is seen as less close to the Cameron/Osborne axis at the heart of the government we’re still only 10 months from an election so don’t hold your breath for new thinking.

Material on British Public Diplomacy 1997-2001

June 30, 2014

If you’re working on British public diplomacy under the Labour government from 1997-2001 you come across references to Panel 2000, the Britain Abroad Task Force and the British Council’s Through Other Eyes research project. What’s irritating is that most of the material on this period was on the web and has now disappeared as organizational websites have been updated.

I had noticed that there were some pages from the BABT web site available in the Wayback Machine but I hadn’t spotted that it’s the complete site with working links. This includes the list of priority countries for the taskforce, plus summaries of activities in each of them. Because the FCO and British Council sites have also been archived in the same place you can also find the September 1998 ’21 recommendations’ report from Panel 2000 and both (1999 and 2000) of the British Council Through Other Eyes reports on perceptions of the UK with all their tables as well as country by country summary reports.  These aren’t full polls and they focus on educated groups but they ask about perceptions of other countries as well as the UK – it’s interesting to see how positive views of the US were even in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.




Man Claims Britain Can Do Strategy Shock

May 28, 2014

The May issue of International Affairs has a selection of articles on Britain’s national interest and the strategy question. Jonathan Gilmore correctly questions the continuing tendency for British political discourse to equate interests and values and Jamie Gaskarth attempts to use role theory to sort out what Britain should be doing in the world.* I was intrigued to see the article by Timothy Edmunds that argues against the position that Britain can’t do strategy (see here and here)

In fact he argues that

it is possible to see the outline of an emergent and distinctive theory of action in contemporary British strategic practice, characterised by principles of adaptivity, anticipation, self-organization and nascent cross-governmentalism.

In an environment characterised by complexity and uncertainty it becomes difficult to link ends, means and interests.

Therefore we see the emergence in the UK of a way of thinking about strategy that relies on risk assessment and horizon scanning to allow government to focus on risks and how they can be managed.  In a complex world we try and identify the risks and how they can be managed.

To be fair Edmunds discusses many of the criticisms of this approach – for instance that risk assessment is subjective, that the approach is reactive.

From my point of view processes of risk assessment and horizon scanning are inputs into strategy not an approach to strategy.   Strategy has to be selective rather than additive – having worked with risk management approaches they tend to operate a bureaucratic tools whereby everybody covers their backside.

In the end Edmunds helps to explain where this approach has come from but it just reinforces the critics’ point. It’s the failure of the politics that creates a space that the bureaucracy attempts to fill with administration and scientific looking technique.

*Role theory should be left interred in the structural-functionalist graveyard if you ask me.