Are commercial interests the beginning and end of diplomacy today? Nicholas Kitchen writes that in a networked world, Britain should move away from forming its foreign policy based on short-term economic motives and start engaging with the world in a way that celebrates the UK’s myriad connections.
The feting of Xi Xinping by the Cameron government during the recent state visit has been regarded with embarrassment by many in the British foreign policy establishment. The matey selfies and fish and chips, the tone-deaf policing, the inflating of the value of trade deals – not to mention the craven and unnecessary invitation to the leader of a one-party state to address Parliament – all underscored Britain’s unalloyed commitment to a partnership with China, even at the risk of longstanding existing relationships. The United States in particular, was deeply unimpressed.
For those driving British strategy, the visit represents the logical conclusion of a sustained and concerted campaign to attract Chinese investment to the UK economy. The coalition’s promise to focus on relationships with emerging powers – a smart way of avoiding divisive debates between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on whether to look to Europe or the United States – has become almost entirely about turning the UK into China’s best Western friend.
It may be that building Sino-UK ties is good strategy, combining access to investment with placing the UK in a position to help diffuse growing Sino-US tensions. And there’s no intrinsic harm with having good relations with any nation, although the degree of Britain’s affection has surprised even the Chinese. But the China visit revealed a deeper truth about British foreign policy, that it is now for all intents and purposes run by the Treasury. It was George Osbourne, not the Foreign Secretary, who wanted “to take a bit of a risk with the China relationship”. And it is short-term economic self-interest that dominates. Senior officials are celebrating the fact that the internationalisation of the renminbi will be processed through the City of London – the deal an apparent quid pro quo for Britain’s willingness to torpedo the position the United States had staked out (however unwisely) on the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.
This emphasis on commercial interests has been such that there is a danger that the UK’s diplomatic service begins to see its primary role as a trade promotion service, interested only in boosting British exports. Such a scenario is rendered more likely by the ongoing enervation of the Foreign Office (FCO). A major loser in the last Spending Review, and squeezed by two protected departments, defence and international development, the FCO has seen its budget cut by over 20 per cent since 2011. Some of that is accounted for by the moving of the World Service onto the BBC’s books, and a former senior civil servant described the FCO as having a ‘victim mentality’ fuelled by myths about how badly it has been treated by the government. Nonetheless, even he was sympathetic to the general thrust of the argument – recently made by reports from both the Foreign Affairs Committee and Chatham House – that the cuts to the FCO have gone too far, and have eroded Britain’s diplomatic capacity.
There is a deeper malaise though, which go beyond the technical issue of departmental budgets: a loss of confidence in our ability to engage constructively with the world outside our borders. As the LSE Diplomacy Commission notes, on major international issues, the UK has been increasingly insular and self-absorbed: an uncertain internationalist; side-lined in Syria, ineffective in Ukraine, unwilling in Europe, inimical on refugees. Yet the reality is that the UK remains a very significant international actor: a P5 member and top-5 economy and military spender that also ranks number 1 in soft power, the world’s leading financial centre ranked in the top ten for infrastructure, competitiveness and ease of doing business, and second in innovation. The UK has serious weight to punch, should it decide to do so.
British foreign policy has for too long been the preserve of grandees: “wise” and nearly always white men, with an understanding of Britain that reflects their own experiences and reading of history. Britain today is a very different place, with very different versions of that past. Of the UK’s population of 64 million, nearly 8 million were born elsewhere, of which there are populations of over 20,000 from 60 different nations, over 40 of which are outside Europe. Together with the institutional presence Britain’s significant international weight confers, these populations ties make Britain “hyperconnected”: with ties to and relationships with almost every nation on the planet.
Crafting a foreign policy that reflects the UK’s status as the most ethno-culturally diverse society in the world is the great challenge for British diplomacy today, but it is also a great opportunity. In a world increasingly based on networks, the connections that diversity engenders are a real asset, and points to role for the UK as an agenda-setter, convener and coalition builder, committed to addressing global challenges. Forging such a role would require a shift in strategic mentality that forgoes the short-term mercantilism of recent years, and invests in the tools of diplomacy. But it would be a strategy that reflects Britain’s true identity, and that Britain’s highly capable diplomats would feel a little less uncomfortable about.
Note: The above draws on material from the LSE Diplomacy Commission’s report Investing for Influence, published today, 9 November 2015. LSE IDEAS convened the Diplomacy Commission as a forum for informed, private and strategic discussion on Britain’s place in the world, the future of British diplomacy and foreign policy.
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Nicholas Kitchen is Executive Director of the LSE Diplomacy Commission