Diplomats must rediscover older skills

THE resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as Britain’s ambassador to the EU has raised the question of the role of diplomats, especially when they disagree with the policy of the government.

This will arise also in the US, where the majority of career diplomats are likely to be appalled by some of President-elect Trump’s foreign policy initiatives.

Although the British government has hastened to appoint a replacement for Sir Ivan, the issue is not likely to go away, especially given the suspicions of many of those in favour of Brexit that British officials are working to undermine the policy.

The British Diplomatic Service for many years maintained the fiction that British diplomats did not work for the government of the day but for the Crown, in the same way as the British military.

Thus, like army officers, British diplomats received a Royal commission (I still have mine somewhere).

I understand this is no longer the case, but anyway it meant somewhat less than it appears.

In practice, British diplomats, like all other countries’ diplomats, carry out the policies of the government. If they feel unable to do so, they should resign (as Carne Ross did over the Iraq War).

Like other civil servants, during the process of policy formation, diplomats can engage proactively in debate with ministers.

This is when they should definitely have the courage to speak truth to power.

Ministers will rely on their expertise about international relations and foreign countries, and their advice on what will and will not wash.

However, at the end of the day, it is the minister who must take the decision (it is curious that many former diplomats make terrible Foreign Ministers precisely because of their congenital inability to take decisions).

Once the policy objectives have been established, it is the duty of the diplomat to advise the government on the most effective strategy for achieving them, drawing on all the tools available.

It is also the task of the diplomat to implement that strategy. This is, of course, a simplification.

In the messy world of foreign policy, policy objectives have to change as the policy environment changes.

Advising on strategies for implementing policy can often merge into advising changes in the policy objectives.

Foreign policy-making tends to be an iterative process. However, the general point remains: diplomats advise on formulating and implementing policy, but ministers must decide what the policy is.

One of the problems of Brexit, about which Sir Ivan complained in his now famous valedictory email to his staff, is that no clear policy objectives have yet been set.

In large part this is the fault of the Prime Minister.

With all due respect, simply repeating that Brexit means Brexit is not a policy decision.

Moreover, while dividing responsibility for Brexit negotiations among the three most powerful pro-Brexit politicians may have made sense in terms of internal party politics, it was almost guaranteed to produce confusion in policy-making.

David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, respectively ministers for Brexit, International Trade and Foreign Secretary, are all powerful political figures with even more powerful egos.

None is known as a good collaborator. Instead of working together to produce coherent policy objectives for the Brexit negotiations, they have preferred turf battles over departmental responsibilities and even who gets to use the Foreign Secretary’s country residence and when.

The latest such turf battle appears to have been over the role of Sir Ivan’s successor in Brussels.

It is therefore possible to sympathise with much of his complaints about the lack of clear ministerial direction.

However, the problem about the Brexit negotiations goes deeper, and relates to the nature of the 21st-century foreign office.

Towards the end of the 1990s major changes took place.

Traditional political reporting, and the political networking necessary to produce it, were downgraded.

Diplomats capable of thinking geopolitically, or in terms of global balances of power, were replaced by Europeanised bureaucrats, accustomed to the very specific negotiating techniques of the European Union.

Ability to talk Business School Speak was preferred over foreign languages.

Working in the European Department of the Foreign Office, and in particular the UK Mission to the EU in Brussels, became essential to promotion to senior positions.

These changes reflected a perception that the European Union had become the most important factor affecting British interests, and that more traditional geopolitical issues were being replaced by a new agenda of global issues like climate change, world trade and international development.

These new global issues were increasingly seen as competencies of the European Union (more correctly the European Commission).

Britain’s voice and interests would therefore be best articulated through the European Union.

The assumptions underlying this world view have been progressively undermined by the events of the 21st century: 9-11; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the economic and financial crisis; the reemergence of Russia as a global player; the increasing assertiveness of China’s foreign policy; Syria and Libya; and the realignment of Turkey towards Moscow.

The latest nails in its coffin have been Brexit and the election of Donald Trump (the election of Le Pen as French President next spring would be more like a grenade blowing it apart).

It is not clear if the Europeanized bureaucrats of the modern Foreign Office have the intellectual or personality skills and mindset to deal with this less comfortable world. More particularly it is unclear if they understand the nature of negotiating Brexit.

These negotiations will require a clear understanding of the dynamics of the European Union and its member states; identifying and manipulating the different groupings and their competing interests and concerns; and identifying what kind of Europe Britain wants to see (as it certainly won’t be anything like the existing Europe) and what kind of relationship or relationships Britain wants to have with it, in terms of security and politics as well as trade.

Most important negotiations will be carried out in capital cities, as British diplomats seek to influence the thinking of their governments, meeting their concerns about Brexit and, if necessary, sowing divisions among the 27 EU members.

Above all, Britain will need to work with the smaller members who resent the power of the Commission, have their own concerns about security and foreign policy, dislike the idea of further European integration, and are unhappy with the idea of “punishing” Britain “pour encourager les autres” (I suggested a more detailed strategy in my Letter to the Prime Minister).

The Europeanised bureaucrats, like Sir Ivan, who fill the modern foreign office are accustomed to negotiating consensually within the shared assumptions of the European project.

It is not clear whether they are capable of getting outside their comfort zone to the extent of developing and implementing the more traditional geopolitical style balance of power diplomacy that Britain will need to secure a successful Brexit.

The 21st century is feeling a lot more like the multipolar world of the 19th century.

This does not mean unconstrained realism (think about Gladstone’s Bulgarian Horrors Campaign). But it does mean foreign policy built more around shared interests than shared values or ideologies, and diplomats capable of thinking in terms of global and regional balances of power.

It is a world in which a Castlereagh, a Metternich or a Bismarck would feel at home.

In Britain this will be driven by the needs of the Brexit negotiations. In the US it will be driven by a US president determined to tear up the comfortable assumptions of his predecessor.

British and American officials should stop complaining and instead relish the challenges of resurrecting more traditional diplomatic skills for tackling a volatile and unpredictable world.