Diplomatic Excellence in the 21st Century

Foreign Secretary William Hague gave a speech about the importance of diplomacy at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 9 July.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague


It is a great pleasure to be here. When Your Foreign Minister recently invited me to come to The Hague, I gladly accepted his invitation. We consider ourselves lucky to have such a strong and like-minded friend in the Netherlands. Our countries work extremely closely together in foreign policy. In the EU our countries are consistent champions of free trade, a deeper Single Market, and the fiscal discipline and structural reform which will be essential to future growth, and from Burma and the Western Balkans to Syria and Zimbabwe we work side by side.

I also like to think that the Dutch and the British have much in common, in the way in which we look at the world and in the way we do business: we are direct, we want to see decisions and action rather than process for its own sake, and we are outward-looking. We understand each other’s sense of humour, and I am told by our Ambassador that British television comedies such as Yes Minister are very popular here. I visited Unilever and Shell this morning: two of our most successful multinationals and shining examples of how well we work together in business.

I also believe that we share many of the same instincts and understanding of trends in the world. Your Foreign Minister has just spoken about some of these, and explained how the Netherlands is adapting to them. I congratulate him on this work and on his leadership, and I thank him for the chance to speak to you all.

My message to you today is that we are witnessing a Renaissance in the importance of diplomacy.

Some people thought that advances in technology, and the trend towards multilateralism, would lessen the demand for diplomats and Embassies in far-flung parts of the world.

But that has turned not to be the case at all. On top of the stresses and strains we are all experiencing here in Europe and in our own economies, the world we are operating in is rapidly becoming more challenging.

Today, there are far more centres of power and decision-making that we need to be present in, that we need to understand and to try to influence.

For although the world has become more multilateral, it has also become more bilateral at the same time:

In addition to the established ‘emerging powers’ such as the BRICs, many other countries are bursting onto the international scene, powered by a combination of economic dynamism, geographic location, youthful populations, natural resources, sovereign wealth, and the spread of global connectivity thanks to the internet and related technologies. We have moved irreversibly from a G8 world to a G20-plus world.

It is also true that countries are not settling into rival geographic blocs of states that think and act the same way. There is a far more dynamic and complex lattice-work of connections at play between states in terms of trade and foreign policy interests; and also a rich web of overlapping connections between business, civil societies in those countries which contribute to their choices and actions.

It also goes without saying that the same web of connections also applies increasingly to criminal gangs, cyber-criminals and terrorist groups, which now are often truly transitional in nature while rooted in local circumstances.

Working out how to navigate this much more complex landscape of a networked world;

How to protect our national interests and promote our common values and security;

How to work with countries that are not natural allies;

And how to address threats to our security and seek out economic
opportunity when both lie further afield;

All these things are the tasks of diplomacy today.

Some of these changes are uncomfortable.

We face the prospect of there being more situations in the world that we do not like but cannot easily change.

We have to adapt to the fact that some of our traditional diplomatic measures, including EU sanctions, will have a weaker impact as the EU’s share of global GDP declines relative to the rest of the world.

We have to expect more ambiguity in our foreign policy relations, as we work with countries that will be strong allies on some issues but vehemently opposed to us on others, or that do not share our values on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Nonetheless we have to build confluences of interests with such countries over time, since they will be essential to achieving our common objectives.

But there are also tremendous opportunities:

This includes the potential to develop a broader sense of international responsibility among the emerging power, and to forge global on issues that matter to us all. Securing a robust and effective global Arms Trade Treaty this month would be one example of this.

Vast new opportunities for the prosperity of our citizens are opening up, with the world economy projected to double from $60 trillion to $120 trillion over the next fifteen years.

And as the Arab Spring shows, our model of democratic freedom under the rule of law remains a powerful aspiration for people everywhere, and gives renewed hope and impetus to our efforts to promote human rights.

So whether it is to seek opportunity or defend ourselves against threats, for Britain these changes in the world lead to one inescapable conclusion:

It is that there is no substitute for a global diplomatic network of Embassies that gives our country the reach and influence it needs.

We need more skilled diplomats on the ground in the places that matter, who are able to get under the skin of those countries, who are immersed in their language, culture, politics and history, and who have access to decision-makers and can tap into informal networks of influence. We need a more expeditionary approach to foreign policy, particularly in the area of conflict prevention, but also to tap into new opportunities for commerce and trade.

And so after a decade in which Britain closed many Embassies, we have begun a diplomatic advance that seeks to build up our presence and influence in the fast-growing parts of the world, and that strengthens our Foreign and Commonwealth Office as an effective institution for the long term. We think this is good for our country, but we also believe it will contribute to our ability to support peace, security and prosperity.

We do want to see the European Union use its collective weight in the world to good effect, and argue strongly that it must not turn inwards but remains outward-looking and engaged in its neighbourhood and the wider world.

I gave a recent speech in Asia calling for the EU to do more collectively in its relation with ASEAN. We want to see more EU Free Trade Agreements concluded, and an ambitious approach to the strengthening of human rights and democracy in our neighbourhood. And now the EAS has been established, we want to see it work efficiently. We are determined to play an active and activist role in all the Foreign Policy discussions and efforts by the European Union, from climate change to nuclear proliferation. But at the same time we believe that there is no substitute for our own national diplomatic network and capability.

Our focus on strengthening the Foreign Office and expanding British diplomacy takes three principal forms, which I want to set out briefly.

The first relates to policy. We are investing in our bilateral relationships with the fastest growing economies and the new powers of the 21st century. This means strengthening our ties beyond Europe and North America. We completely disagree with those who think that Britain has to choose between the EU and America. So while maintaining our close ties with the US and the European Union, we are tapping into our other networks and relationships with an intensity not seen in Britain in years.
This includes the Commonwealth, which we see as a unique network that has been undervalued in recent years. We have invested significantly in our relationships with the Gulf - which stood us in good stead during operations in Libya where we worked in equal partnership with Arab nations. It includes our ties with India, Pakistan, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and we have begun the biggest effort to build up our relationships in Latin America since the 19th century.

The second change in our foreign policy relates to the first, and it is our conscious decision to expand our diplomatic network even at a time of budgetary constraint.

By 2015 we will have deployed 300 extra staff in more than 20 countries. We will have opened up to eight new consulates or trade offices, including two new Deputy High Commissions in India which brings the number of our posts there to seven, and we will have opened up to 11 new British Embassies in Liberia, El Salvador, Paraguay, Haiti, Laos, South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Cote D’Ivoire, and Somalia if circumstances permit.

The third change, which really binds this approach together, is a new focus on strengthening our Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a thriving institution at the heart of government. It must be as expert and effective as promoting our long terms interests as it undoubtedly is at being resilient and imaginative in dealing with urgent crises.

Our goal is a Foreign Office that continues to be capable of attracting and retaining the very best and brightest minds in the country, that equips its staff with effective diplomatic skills and places a strong emphasis on languages, history and regional expertise as well as on management and effective use of modern technology. I have summed this up as striving for ‘diplomatic excellence’ in the pursuit of our three core objectives: safeguarding Britain’s national security, supporting British nationals overseas and building our country’s prosperity.

This focus on skills and knowledge includes an increase in our budget for teaching languages to our staff by 30%. We are increasing the number of jobs overseas for which language skills will be an absolute requirement , and opening a new language centre in the building as well, so that our diplomats study together and foster a collegiate spirit. And I pleased that our Ambassador is a good example of this himself, being one of the few diplomats to master the Dutch language.

I launched a new Expertise Fund to deepen the geographical and thematic expertise of staff; this year we have so far supported over 300 projects worth over £800k.

We have introduced a sharper focus on commercial diplomacy, with a reinforced economics unit, more staff seconded to business, and Charter for Business.

We have brought Foreign Office historians into our main building for the first time ever, with their proximity reflecting the increased emphasis we are giving to the perspective they bring along with our Research Analysts.

We have adopted a new and much closer approach to Foreign Office Alumni so that we continue to draw on the skills and experience of our former diplomats. We have established alumni groups across different foreign policy areas, including my own Advisory Group of former senior FCO officials. As I put it to my colleagues, our staff should feel that they never really leave the Foreign Office, but are closely associated with it whatever else they go on to do.

At the same time we are bringing in more ‘outsiders’ from think tanks, non-government organisations, businesses and civil society groups, to test ideas and new and innovative approaches, and to help ensure that our policies are robust and remain relevant.

And as you are, we too are increasing our use of digital channels to discuss and inform our policy making: engaging on twitter personally, hosting Q&A sessions on foreign policy issues, and encouraging our Ambassadors to use twitter and Facebook. The FCO has 90 blogs, over 100 Twitter accounts and more than 130 Facebook pages. But there is still more that we can do to really harness the full power of digital diplomacy and we are studying this as I know you are.

So this is how we are responding to the challenges and opportunities we see in the world around us: the expansion of British diplomacy, an active and engaged role in the European Union, a greater focus on bilateral relationships, a programme of Diplomatic Excellence to build up the Foreign Office for the long term, and embracing the digital technologies of the 21st century.

We have a great sense of excitement and momentum about what we are doing. It is encouraging to know that others like the Netherlands are engaged in similar efforts. We have a lot that we can learn from each other and many areas in which we can work together, and I hope that we will collaborate even more closely in the years to come.

Published 9 July 2012