Expeditionary diplomacy in a turbulent world

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Annual Conference of Ambassadors in Vilnius.

It is a great pleasure to be here. The opportunity to see behind the scenes in other Foreign Ministries is one of the privileges of being Foreign Secretary.

I often make a point of visiting other Parliaments on my travels overseas, since that is one of the best and most entertaining ways of getting to know the politics of another country. But hearing the thinking of other Foreign Ministries is just as valuable.

This is the third conference of Ambassadors overseas that I have been to apart from our own in Britain, after Finland and the Netherlands. At each I have spoken about the particular challenges confronting our generation in foreign policy, as well as changes underway in our Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

This is your opportunity to gather together as your country’s most senior diplomats, to chart a course for the year ahead, and to feel a sense of pride and collective purpose as an institution, something I believe in particularly strongly.

I was not aware until now that I am the first ever foreign speaker at one of your annual conferences. I hope you enjoy hearing what I have to say, or I might well be the last. I am particularly pleased to be here in Lithuania at what is a very strong and positive period in our bilateral relations. I am the fifth British Minister to come to Vilnius in the last eight months, and the first Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom ever to come here on a bilateral relationship. Our exports to Lithuania were up 18% last year, and 230,000 of your fellow countrymen and women now live and work in our country and contribute to our national life. With a new Government and an excellent new Ambassador we are bringing energy and enthusiasm to our relationship.

There are many areas in which we want to work closely with you:

In NATO, fostering stability in the Middle East and North Africa; in Afghanistan, as 2014 approaches; through the Nordic Baltic Initiative launched by our Prime Minister; and above all in the European Union, on our many common interests from growth to energy security, and as you prepare for your first ever EU Presidency in 2013.

We are living through a turbulent period in international affairs. We face perhaps the most unpredictable and unstable global environment since the end of the Cold War. And so it is an incredibly important time for diplomacy, for the understanding of other nations and all the skills that you bring as diplomats.

When I spoke to the Dutch Foreign Ministry last week I said that we are experiencing a renaissance in the role and centrality of diplomacy.

For the world is not conducting a seminar in foreign policy. Out there are nations advancing their own national interest, extremist ideologies we must confront, wars we must prevent, new threats we must anticipate, treaties we must negotiate and opportunities we must seize. We face urgent crises from Iran’s nuclear programme to the slaughter of civilians taking place in Syria today, as well as upheaval, tension and change across the Middle East.

We are witnessing an extraordinary shift in economic power and influence internationally, away from the developed economies of the West and towards the countries of the South and East.

We are seeing the dispersal of that power between a wider number of countries, and an explosion of connections between governments, economies and citizens driven by the internet, satellite television and mobile phone technology.

This is fuelling movements for economic and political reform such as the Arab Spring. We will always encourage people around the world to seek their freedom, but we also recognise that it can cause shocks and tension along the way which we need diplomacy to help mitigate.It is a more complicated international landscape, with many more centres of decision-making than at any time in human history.

The world is becoming more multilateral, but it is also becoming more bilateral at the same time:

It is not setting into ideologically-opposed geographical blocs, but we see many more flexible relationships that cut across geography, religion and political orientation. It is more important than ever to understand countries in depth, recognising for example that countries in the Arab world are as different from each other - if not more different from each other - than nations in Europe.

Such changes make it harder for nations such as our own to get their way in foreign policy.We have to work with more countries that are not natural allies and that don’t share many of our basic assumptions about foreign policy, such as the responsibility to protect. We are having a vivid demonstration of this at the UN Security Council this week with Russia and China, despite the murder of 17,000 people in Syria. And we face the prospect of a declining share of Europe’s GDP in the world - with consequences for the bite of traditional peaceful diplomatic measures such as sanctions.

But the changes in the world undoubtedly also bring immense opportunities in their wake: This includes new opportunities for innovation, trade, and global growth, with the world economy projected to double from $60 trillion to $120 trillion over the next fifteen years.And it is also throwing up new opportunities to advance human rights and freedom: I have just visited Libya, which will soon have its first democratically-elected government in over forty years, and Jordan, where sincere efforts are underway to achieve peaceful economic and political reform. If the Arab Spring does lead to more open and democratic societies across the Arab world over a number of years, it will be the greatest advance for human rights and freedom since the end of the Cold War.

It is also creating opportunities for an increased role for smaller nations, since size is not the determining factor for influence in a more networked world. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have played a pivotal role from Libya to Somalia and Yemen. I was recently in Singapore, one of the most dynamic hubs for commerce and ideas anywhere on our planet. And here in Lithuania, you bring your own deep understanding of Central and Eastern Europe and the experience of building democracy and a free market economy.

Promoting our national interests and collective security within this more complex environment is the challenge of diplomacy today:

We have to address fundamental questions of how our countries earn their living in the world, weathering economic storms and finding new ways to emerge stronger from them. We have to look further afield for opportunity, and resist the temptation of turning inwards at a time when we need to be outward-looking and engaged as never before: focussed on achieving growth and enlarging free trade, deepening the Single Market, combating protectionism and playing an even more effective and united role in foreign affairs. In Britain we are embracing this necessity:

We are looking for new allies in foreign policy, as well as new markets for trade and investment.

We have set out to be able to work as effectively with the new groupings of this century as we have done with Washington and Brussels throughout the last.

We have restored a proper emphasis on building strong bilateral relationships, since we see that as the key to regional influence and to an effective role in international organisations like the UN. This means tapping into our networks and relationships beyond Europe and America - in the Gulf, in North Africa, in Asia and throughout the Commonwealth - and reinvigorating ties with old allies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

We are combining this with an emphasis on what I call ‘expeditionary diplomacy’; responding to challenges before they become crises -which is why we hosted the London Conference on Cyberspace and the London Conference on Somalia within the space of the last twelve months.

And, at a time when many European countries are contracting their diplomatic network, Britain is actually on a diplomatic advance in many parts of the world.

After a decade in which quite a number of British Embassies and High Commissions were closed, we are opening up to 19 new Embassies, consulates or trade offices in India, Brazil, El Salvador, Paraguay, Liberia, Haiti, Laos, South Sudan, Madagascar, Cote D’Ivoire, and Somalia. We now have for example the largest diplomatic network in India of any nation in the world, with seven posts across the country. We will be one of very few countries in the world to have an Embassy in every nation of ASEAN. And we will are deploying 300 extra staff in more than 20 of the fastest-growing economies.

We are doing this because we are convinced it is the right long-term investment for our country. But we also believe it will benefit our allies too in many ways if Britain retains a strong, global role for many years to come.

But this diplomatic expansion does not mean that we are turning away from Europe or the United States in any way.

We completely disagree with those who think that Britain has to choose between the EU and America and the rest of the world, or those who say that we cannot undertake this diplomatic expansion without diminishing in some way these ties. Foreign policy is not a zero-sum game.

Our ties with Europe are deep. More than forty per cent of our trade is with our European partners. We are bound by vital interests and common values.

The community of European nations represents a victory for democracy and freedom. Twenty years as a young politician and, like others of my generation, the inspiration of seeing captive peoples winning their freedom from Soviet tyranny was unforgettable. I salute all those in Lithuania who made great sacrifices in that cause. You have shown in just twenty years how much a united people can achieve when they take their freedom and their destiny into their own hands.

The enlargement project, which the United Kingdom has always championed, is one of the EU’s greatest triumphs. If we compare how the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have flourished in the twenty years since the fall of Communism with how they fared in the twenty years between the wars, or compare the history of central Europe with the history of central America in the last two decades, we can see what an enormous achievement this has been. But there are different models of Europe. We do not share the belief of some in ever closer political union and our decision not to join the Euro has been proved correct for us, but we will always play a leading role in Europe.

We can use our weight in the EU to prise open markets in other parts of the world, and attract investment to the UK because of our central role in the Single Market.

And we are strong in foreign policy when the 27 nations of the European Union agree. From climate change to free trade and stability in our neighbourhood, particularly in the Western Balkans, we will always want Europe to use its collective weight in the world for our common interests.

Europe is changing because of the crisis in the Eurozone and it is impossible to predict with certainty what the EU will look like at the end of it. Every country, in or out of the Euro, will face hard and important choices. Because of the crisis and other reasons public disillusionment with the EU has never been so deep in the United Kingdom but I believe that EU membership is in the UK’s national interest, for the reasons I have given. I suspect that we are moving towards a more flexible European Union, as different countries pursue different kinds of integration. As we deal with the crisis we should remembers three things:

First, behind the Eurozone crisis every European country faces a fundamental challenge of competitiveness. We must all make it our central task to ensure our countries can secure their future prosperity. There are beguiling paths, of building up debt, of failure to reform, that lead to decline. Fortunately, that is something that is understood far better in the Baltic than elsewhere.

Second, the Single Market is at the core of the EU. The surest way to growth is through the expansion of trade and there is much more to be done on that in the Single Market.

And third, while some in the Eurozone may find more Europe to be necessary in some cases the answer is less Europe - less burdensome regulation that holds back business and less unnecessary interference in national life when such interference undermines the EU’s democratic legitimacy when it has never needed it more.

We will always want to work closely with you on European policy and I look forward to discussing these issues with you.

I see the long-term reorientation of Britain’s foreign policy and the maintenance of a global role as my major responsibility as Foreign Secretary, alongside dealing with the urgent challenges of the day.

But the other task I am passionate about is my campaign to achieve a permanent strengthening of the foreign policy capability and diplomatic network of the United Kingdom. Effective foreign policy is about much more than just good ideas. We need people and a machinery of government that can turn these ideas into action anywhere on the globe.

One of my core beliefs as a Member of Parliament is that democracies need strong institutions, including a thriving media, vibrant civil society and an independent and fearless judiciary. These bodies are outside government, and so can hold it to account and prevent it from ever becoming over-mighty.

But democracy also requires strong and resilient institutions within government, to provide advice and implement policies for successive governments of whatever political persuasion. Our professional, impartial and dedicated Civil Service is one of the anchors of our national life in the United Kingdom.

There was a period in British politics when the fashion was to establish whether Government Departments were “fit for purpose”. But I find that very unambitious.

My ambition is for our Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be the best Diplomatic Service in the world:

A centre of excellence in ideas, policy and analysis with expertise that flows throughout the whole government with the confidence of our Prime Minister and our allies;

Providing the leadership, connections and ideas that allow Britain to exert its influence in the world;

Equipped with the skills and connections needed to plug our country into the world’s new political and economic networks;

And making a distinctive British contribution to peace and security in the world; through the Commonwealth, NATO, the UN Security Council, our bilateral defence agreements and our membership of the European Union.

This includes our Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, and the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ for which I am also responsible.

When we draw together the skills and capabilities of our Foreign Office, our intelligence agencies represent, our Armed Forces, our Ministry of Defence and our international development programmes, we have vital national assets we can deploy across the world. My 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.

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

We are giving increased prominence to history, bringing our Foreign Office historians into our main building for the first time ever and consulting them more often.

We have adopted a new and much closer approach to Foreign Office Alumni and bringing in more ‘outsiders’ from think tanks, non-government organisations, businesses and civil society groups. And we are increasing our use of digital diplomacy to inform our policy making and communicate our messages, on Twitter, Facebook and through Ambassadorial blogs. It is precisely because we want to others to know about this work and to share our ideas and experiences that I have come here today.

We don’t always get everything right in our Foreign Ministries. But we play an indispensable role for the security, prosperity and international influence of our countries.

Our Foreign and Commonwealth Office operates in 263 missions, 189 countries, 9 international organisations, 154 currencies, multiple time zones, many war zones and over 80 languages and day in and day out to the highest standards.

I am proud of the men and women and families who make that possible - and I want to make sure that they are able to do so well long into the future.

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.

This is right for our country and will benefit our allies - and I hope will contribute to stronger ties between our nations in the years to come.