Archive for the ‘UK Public Diplomacy’ Category

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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.

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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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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.

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Ask Max Weber: What’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy

May 20, 2015

Britain’s lack of appetite for international affairs attracted some negative commentary during the election campaign, even the Iranians weight in calling for a more active foreign policy. Given that there’s a widespread belief in Iran that the British are as malevolent as the Americans this was a pretty big deal. The three main parties all had pretty much the same foreign policy in their manifestos so it wasn’t going to become a big issue.

So what’s going on? One explanation is that it’s to do with popular war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan. Public opinion won’t wear an active foreign policy. Given that Chatham House’s regular survey continues to show 60% support for a significant international role I’m not convinced. In fact Max Weber offers an alternative explanation; it’s the elites that are the problem.

Weber’s argument goes like this.* Support for active foreign policies come from elite groups who gain material (arms contracts?) or other benefits (status, promotions) from success in the international sphere. The success generates prestige that serves as one mechanism to legitimize the elite. In this scheme nationalism is the tendency of the ruled to identify with the rulers – and the more successful they appear to be the more popular they are.

So how is British foreign policy going? Well we invaded Iraq and then having told everyone we knew what we’re doing discovered that we didn’t. The army decided to have another go and got us involved in Helmand, and made it clear that we still didn’t know what we were doing. David Cameron’s Libya mission has gone south and on Syria I’m not convinced that he was really trying that hard. The political, military and foreign policy elites have all been thoroughly deflated on foreign policy. The politicians don’t know anything about foreign affairs and are more interested in clinging to office. I get the impression that senior military, FCO, and intelligence people are anxious to pass the buck – which explains their enthusiasm for the NSC. And the Iraq fallout isn’t over yet because we’ve still got the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War to come it covers the period up to 2009 which means that there are people still in senior positions who are implicated in events – so don’t expect brilliant new initiatives coming up from below to enthuse the political leadership any time soon.   New thinking is going to have to come from outside the government.

*Randall Collins discusses this in chapter 6 of Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), this draws on the argument in Chapter 9 of Weber’s Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California, 1968).