Foreign Secretary speech on diplomatic tradecraft

"Our diplomatic network is the essential infrastructure of Britain’s influence in the world".

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

It is a pleasure to be here, and I am grateful to the British Academy for holding this event. It makes an enormous difference to us in Government to have such well-informed and constructive critics and intellectual sparring-partners in the Universities and think tanks. And I am aware that many academics in this audience will have educated foreigners who have gone on to become diplomats and leaders in their own countries, forming a lasting attachment with Britain in the process.

I was fortunate to become Foreign Secretary after five years shadowing foreign policy in Opposition, spending time in many of our Embassies and meeting many of our diplomats. So I came to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with a strong sense of its importance to our national life. It is one of the very finest institutions in our country, and I am proud to lead it.

The Foreign Office is a unique resource that enables us to advance British interests by understanding and influencing other nations, helping British nationals overseas, supporting our economy and responding to threats to our security. It is one of the pillars of our international influence, along with our Armed Forces and Intelligence Agencies. And it is also part of our country’s tremendous soft power advantages in the world, along with the British Council, BBC World Service, our great Universities, our international development programmes and our cultural achievements including the Olympics and Paralympics.

There are few countries that can rival Britain for diplomatic skills and influence in the world. When we bring together our global diplomatic network in 158 countries, our seat on the UN Security Council, our membership of the EU, NATO and the Commonwealth and our strong relationships in every quarter of the globe, we are able to make a significant impact and continue to do so.

We saw this during the conflict in Libya, when our diplomats secured a UN Security Council resolution authorising military force that few people thought would be possible, and when the Foreign Office brought together more than 40 Foreign Ministers and Heads of Government countries for a conference in London, at less than a week’s notice, to galvanise the military and diplomatic campaign.

We showed the same leadership in a different way earlier this year on Somalia: bringing together 54 countries and organisations to agree a new diplomatic strategy in London, securing in parallel a UN Security Council Resolution and new action to counter piracy, and at the same time persuading Somalia politicians to reach agreement. Seven months later piracy is down, Al Shabaab is on the retreat thanks to the efforts of African forces, and Somalia has a new and legitimate government. .

We saw it this summer during the Games. The Foreign Office looked after over 100 Heads of State, secured co-sponsorship of the UN Olympic Truce resolution from all 193 UN Member States for the first time in history; supported the British Business Embassy which was attended by 3,000 business leaders and led to £1 billion worth of deals, and transformed our relationship with the next Olympic hosts, Brazil, by hosting 15 Brazilian government missions on everything from transport to health.

And I am particularly proud of the patient British diplomacy which helped secure just last week the Mindanao Framework Deal between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on 7th October, after forty years of conflict costing more than 120,000 lives. By setting up the International Contact Group, sharing the lessons of the Good Friday Agreement and working side by side with the parties as they agreed a roadmap to peace, British diplomats played an indispensable role. These are examples just from the past year and eighteen months.

I am constantly impressed by the sheer range of tradecraft involved in the Foreign Office’s work. It is impossible to do justice in a short speech to the skills and talents needed to operate in insecure or rapidly changing environments like Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan; in dealing with sensitive consular cases such as the recent shooting of the British family in France; to work in the European Union on ground-breaking sanctions on Iran; to carry out complex negotiations such as for a global Arms Trade Treaty; and to deal with technical and commercially sensitive issues such as financial services reform in China and the internationalisation of the renminbi.

The men and women of the Foreign Office excel at doing all these things and more, and our country’s interests rely on them always being able to do so.

But this global impact can never be taken for granted, and it rests, I believe, on four essential requirements:

First, we need the FCO always to be a strong and flourishing institution over the long term: a centre of excellence in government, able to attract the most talented new diplomats of the future, skilled at developing and retaining knowledge throughout the organisation and excelling in all areas of diplomatic tradecraft. It has to be able to generate the best possible ideas and analysis, and to provide foreign policy leadership that runs through the veins of the whole of Government.

Second, our diplomats need to have an unrivalled knowledge among diplomats of the history, culture, geography and politics of the countries they are posted to, and to speak the local languages. This is a fundamental requirement of diplomacy and we have given renewed emphasis to it. As a small aside, I was delighted that the first person to greet Aung San Suu Kyi when she arrived in the United Kingdom on her historic visit was our Head of Protocol. He was able to greet her in the Burmese he learnt 20 years ago on a posting to the country. These things matter and our diplomats really do need to get under the skin of other societies. They must be able to forge relationships of trust across all areas, including politics, defence and security, the media, civil society, business and commerce. They need to have a strong grasp of economic fundamentals as well as the workings of international diplomacy; they need to be expert in negotiation and other traditional diplomatic skills; and they must be well-versed in modern communication including now, very often, social media.

Third, we need our diplomats to be present in as many countries as possible across the world. The number of centres of decision-making in the world is growing. Without turning away from Europe or America we need to have stronger ties with a wide range of new powers of the 21st century, and this means in my view being strongly represented in them.

Our diplomatic network is the essential infrastructure of Britain’s influence in the world. Of course it is never set in stone and is bound to change over time, and only today I have announced changes to our diplomatic network in Iraq. However having an Embassy or post flying the British flag really matters, and creates an effect that can never be replicated by a diplomat with a laptop however hard they work. That is why we have drawn a line under the closures of Embassies and High Commissions that took place under the last government. Instead of that, by 2015 we will have opened up to 11 new British embassies and eight new consulates or trade offices, and sent 300 extra staff to over 22 countries in the emerging economies - including Burma, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines - but with the biggest increases in frontline staff in India and in China. We are the only European country that is setting out consciously to expand their diplomatic network in this way, and we are investing in our country’s future influence.

And fourth, we need the Government to use the Foreign Office as it is supposed to be used and not to sideline it. We set up our National Security Council to ensure that decisions about international relations and security are taken in the round, with all relevant Ministers at the table, with Foreign Office ideas and analysis informing every meeting.

I see it as part of my mission as Foreign Secretary to work with our senior diplomats to achieve a permanent and well-entrenched improvement in the Foreign Office’s ability to project Britain’s influence overseas for the long term by systematically building up the Foreign Office in each of these areas.

Together, we have spent much of the last two years engaged in the biggest drive ever seen to increase the traditional diplomatic skills and institutional capacity of the Foreign Office, under the banner of ‘Diplomatic Excellence’.

The highlights of this programme include a new language centre in the Foreign Office that I will open next year, which will have 30 classrooms and train up to 1,000 students a year. We will soon have 40% more speakers of Arabic and Mandarin in our posts overseas than we had only two years ago and 20% more speakers of Latin American Spanish and Portuguese.

We have a new Expertise Fund to deepen thematic and geographical policy expertise across the Foreign Office. It has funded, for example, the creation of an India cadre enabling diplomats to study Indian culture, politics and history in India itself before their posting. We have set up new training for staff working in the energy sector, to give British diplomats an edge in a competitive market and a greater understanding of business priorities. We have invested heavily in formal policy skills training; in all, a total of 774 staff at home and overseas have benefitted from International Policy Skills courses since April 2011, and we are investing in training for our locally-engaged staff to give them a greater role in the Foreign Office’s future diplomacy.

As part of our renewed emphasis on history, the original Colonial Office and Home Office Libraries have been renovated, and our excellent Historians have moved into the latter in the heart of King Charles Street. And they are consulted frequently by the Foreign Secretary. We are bringing our expert research analysts ever more closely into policy discussions, and have set up networks across the Foreign Office to tap into the expertise of serving or former diplomats on issues like the EU and soft power. We are bringing in outside experts to “challenge” our policy on everything from Iran and Sudan to the way we use our historic residences.

We are putting a lot of emphasis on developing our younger talent. I am pleased that some of these young diplomats are in the audience this evening, as well as some members of the Locarno Group of former Ambassadors which I created when I came to office, who spent time earlier today passing on tradecraft tips to their successors.

And earlier this year we invited senior colleagues from across Whitehall, business, media, international organisations and foreign experts to join a Diplomatic Excellence External Panel whose role is to assess our progress

I am confident that these programmes will strengthen the Foreign Office for the future. Our challenge now is to translate this renewed confidence into foreign policy ambition: so that we don’t just react to crises, but address major world problems.

I have been struck time and again over the last two years by the fact that we are one of the few countries in the world that is able to make things happen at a global level.

For example, last year we held in London the first international conference calling for rules of the road to moderate behaviour in cyberspace, including the risks of cyber attack and the growth of cyber crime. This is one of the growing challenges of the internet age. Drawing on the UK’s national advantages in this area and the prowess of GCHQ, we have succeeded in launching and defining a debate which has now led to follow-on conferences in Budapest and South Korea, and we are setting up a new programme to help other countries develop their cyber capabilities.

We have also recently launched a new initiative to challenge the use of rape as a weapon of war. We are calling for a concerted international effort to increase the number of prosecutions for this appalling crime so that we shatter the culture of impunity. We will use our Presidency of the G8 next year to launch work on a new International Protocol in the areas of prosecutions for sexual violence and the protection of victims, and we have set up our own team of experts in the Foreign Office which we will be able to deploy to support investigations in conflict-affected areas.

In both cases we are using our diplomatic network, our policy-making expertise and our global role to provide leadership. We are developing British skills and capabilities and making a difference in individual countries as well as on the international stage. These sorts of initiatives are the best possible use of our diplomats and the diplomatic tradecraft of the Foreign Office, and ample proof that we help shape our world for the better. Our G8 Presidency next year will be a major opportunity to demonstrate this leadership.

So the work we have in hand at the FCO is designed to ensure that Britain’s influence in the world is expanding, not shrinking, that we are connected to the fastest growing areas of the world, and that we retain a global leadership role on the greatest challenges of our time. It will mean that the Foreign Office has an even greater capability to promote Britain’s national interest for the long term. And I believe it will mean that we can say that with confidence that ours is indisputably the best Diplomatic Service in the world, advancing Britain’s national interest and our values even more effectively in the world of the 21st century than it has done for so long, and with such distinction, in the past.

Published 17 October 2012