Archive for the ‘UK Public Diplomacy’ Category

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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.

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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 pyswar.org.  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.

References

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. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/14327/04085529%20Collier%20Simon-%20Final%20PhD%20submission.pdf?sequence=1

Strang, Lord (1963). The Unavowable Information Services of Her Majesty’s Government Overseas. CAB 301/399. https://www.psywar.org/content/strangIRDreport.

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Is Rules Based International Order the New Credibility?

February 25, 2019

The Henry Jackson Society recently put out a report The South China Sea: Why it Matters to “Global Britain”.  The core of the argument is that China is trying to exert claims over the South China Sea that should be opposed and that the Royal Navy should carry out freedom of navigation patrols to contest this claim.  Fair enough.  This then slides towards a claim that the navy should be big enough to manage (in collaboration with others) the Chinese threat.  Given the history of the Naval presence in the Far East during the 20th century (for instance concluding the Anglo-Japanese Treaty  allowed the withdrawal of forces to confront Germany before the First World War, the sinking of of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in December 1941) you can ask how feasible or sensible this is.  However what I was really struck by was use of ‘rules based international order ‘as a justification for this: the Chinese actions threaten the RBIO Britain is committed to defending the RBIO hence Britain must respond.

The idea of RBIO is a staple of UK foreign policy discourse.  The difficulty is I have with it is that practically anything can be made part of the RBIO.  It is the equivalent of ‘credibility’ in US Cold War discourse.  Anything can be treated as threat to credibility any retreat or restraint could be damaging.  What was dangerous was the failure to look at problems in a bigger picture that evaluated different values instead of a reduction to a single ill defined consideration of credibility.   It’s the same with the RBIO, what’s needed are ways of defining what the RBIO is and prioritizing threats and responses and areas for negotiation.  If RBIO is always treated as a seamless whole but which lacks a shape or nuance its defence becomes a slogan for practically anything.

 

 

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The Chilcot Report and the Problem of Strategy

July 6, 2016

I’ve got no intention of spending too much time on the Chilcot report but I was interested to see some of the comments about policy making after the initial invasion in light of the repeated concerns about the quality of UK foreign policy decision making.

From Section 9.8 Conclusions – The Post Conflict Period

175. Between May 2003 and May 2007, there were more than 20 instances in which UK strategy and objectives were reconsidered

177. Crucially, UK strategies tended to focus on describing the desired end state rather than how it would be reached. On none of the 20 occasions when UK strategy was reconsidered was a robust plan for implementation produced. Setting a clear direction of travel is a vital element of an effective strategy, but strategies also require a serious assessment of the material resources available and how they can best be deployed to achieve the desired end state. That is especially important when the strategy relates to an armed conflict in which it will be actively opposed by organised and capable groups. There is very little evidence of thorough analysis of the resources, expertise, conditions and support needed to make implementation of UK strategy achievable.

179. In the absence of a Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for Iraq, leadership on strategy rested with Mr Blair…

180.… Mr Blair’s ability to solve the strategic problems he identified therefore relied on his Cabinet colleagues, and the departments they led, working together.

181. A recurring issue between 2003 and 2007 was the difficulty of translating the Government’s strategy for Iraq into action by departments. The system that drove policyon the invasion of Iraq, which centered on No.10, could not be easily transformed into a system for the effective management of the aftermath, in which a coherent collective effort was needed to pull together the many interrelated strands of activity required. Although Iraq was designated the UK’s highest foreign policy priority, it was not the top priority within individual departments. As a consequence, Whitehall did not put significant collective weight behind the task

I’ve added the emphasis here.  This was the era of modernization in government, of the apogee of Gordon Brown’s influence.  From my work on the FCO its possible to see how in the first years of the Labour government departments got targets but by the middle of the noughties the expectation was that resource allocation should follow targets.

Another factor which comes out quite clearly is the impact of the decision made in June 2004 to deploy the HQ of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to Afghanistan in 2006.  Once this decision is made it placed a major constraint on what could be done in Iraq because of the need to resource the new deployment.  Given the way the bureaucracy seems to have operated this effectively removed the option of increasing the forces deployed in Iraq.  Indeed it appears, to me at least that there was reluctance to acknowledge the deteriorating situation in Iraq because of the disruption that might cause.

183. Throughout the UK’s engagement in Iraq there was a tendency to focus on the most positive interpretation of events.

184. One manifestation of that was failure to give weight to the candid analysis that was regularly supplied by the JIC, by some commanders in theatre, and by others that things were going wrong.

185. The default position was to judge that negative events were isolated incidents rather than potential evidence of a trend which should be monitored and which might require a policy response. This meant that underlying causes were not always investigated and brought to light.

 

Des Browne, the Minister of Defence from May 2006 to October 2008 gets a particular battering for this

The report notes

197…. On several occasions, decision-makers visiting Iraq (including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff) found the situation on the ground to be much worse than had been reported to them. Effective audit mechanisms need to be used to counter optimism bias, whether through changes in the culture of reporting, use of multiple channels of information – internal and external – or use of visits.

It seems to be me that the British government and armed forces managed to get into two wars without considering that it might be necessary to stop following its normal bureaucratic routines.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.