ANALYSIS: Can the Foreign Office face up to the major challenges it faces in 2020?

To misquote John Lennon, foreign policy is what happens when you are making other plans. At least that’s how it often felt when I was at the Foreign Office: stuff happens, and a lot of time is spent reacting to unpredicted, urgent events. So anyone’s predictions about foreign policy priorities in the year ahead should be taken with a pinch of salt.

As if to prove the point, we suddenly face a full-blown Middle East crisis. With hindsight we could perhaps have seen it coming, following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the subsequent escalating incidents in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. But often the hard thing in foreign policy is to spot the tipping point, especially when Donald Trump is involved.

At stake are the safety of British troops, citizens and diplomats in the region, the future of the Iran agreement, the political future of Iraq, and the risk of wider conflict drawing in Iran, the US and other countries. If this goes badly it could greatly reduce the influence and presence of Western countries in the region. 

Our aim should be to stabilise the crisis and preserve space for a diplomatic de-escalation. This will cast a spotlight on one of the fundamental questions about Britain’s foreign policy role after Brexit: how will we position ourselves between the rest of Europe and America?  On Iran, France and Germany have views and objectives close to ours. But to make headway we will need both to work with then and to retain leverage with America. This balancing act will become a familiar theme. 

Beyond crisis management, our biggest foreign policy task in 2020 remains delivery of Brexit. This is about far more than just doing a conventional “trade deal”. Agreeing new terms for our deeply entwined relationship with the EU across many areas of economic and other activity is both vital in itself and a necessary base for developing other international relationships. Part of this negotiation will shape our foreign, security and defence cooperation with the other major democracies of Europe.

Three other relationships should preoccupy us: our relations with America and China, and their relations with each other. 

The US presidential election in November is the single most important planned international event of the year, for the US and for the world. Our ties with America remain deep-rooted and instinctive in diplomacy, intelligence, defence, business, research and many other fields. But they have become less intense and reliable under both Obama and particularly Trump. There will be a strong public focus in 2020 on work to take forward UK US trade agreements, but we are unlikely to see early tangible results. 

With China, Hong Kong and human rights in Xinjiang will remain high on the agenda. A longer-term question that will increasingly preoccupy us is how to handle Chinese inward investment and involvement in potentially sensitive areas of our economy. Huawei is the immediate issue, but there will be others. We need effective mechanisms in government to weigh the different considerations and reach the right answers.

“The FCO has been allowed to wither; it needs a shot in the arm as a strong, strategic department driving international policy”

Looking further ahead, as we enter a new era of bipolar geopolitics, the biggest strategic challenge before us is how we position ourselves to react to and influence the growing confrontation between the US and China.  Our goals should be to help prevent conflict, sustain international trade, and keep China and the US engaged within a system of international rules and institutions. They will be shared by other European countries, and by partners like Japan, Canada and Australia.

2020 will be the first opportunity to make a reality of the notion of “Global Britain” after Brexit. One big moment will come when we host the COP 26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November. Entering 2020, green issues are at the top of people’s minds.  Progress in UN Climate negotiations is painfully slow; at COP 26 we need to inject urgency and action. The Government is putting a lot of resource into this. Glasgow will be the biggest international intergovernmental event ever hosted in this country.

We will be able (I hope) to debate all these issues in the proposed Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review. This should start from fundamentals.

After Brexit we need to be clear what our international priorities are. I suggest as a starter: avoiding major power conflict, preventing disastrous climate change, dealing with international migration, responding to the new security agenda, promoting trade.

Then we should work out which relationships and international organisations are most important for us to achieve these goals. I am convinced our truest international partners remain the community of democracies.

Only when this thinking is done can we decide how to organise ourselves to advance our interests abroad. Which takes us to budgets. You cannot do Global Britain on a shoestring. We need an appropriate international presence that is appropriately funded. The FCO has been allowed to wither; it needs a shot in the arm as a strong, strategic department driving international policy.

Changing the structure of departments is worth considering but should not become a distraction or an end in itself. Merging DfID and the FCO could produce a better integrated and funded global network. A more imaginative step would be to bring international trade policy into the FCO. One way or another, we need a healthy alignment of diplomacy, development, trade and defence in the national interest.

Sir Simon Fraser was Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office from 2010-2015, and is now Managing Partner at Flight Global

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