Envoys galore

by | Feb 10, 2009

For many years, the US has influenced UK national security thinking and vice versa. The 1947 National Security Act, pushed through by Harry Truman, was in many ways an attempt at copying the British system of government, which US policy-makers and commanders had come to admire during the years of close US-UK collaboration during WWII.

Later on, the influence tended to move the other way. The 1986 Goldwater-Nicols Act, which put the “joint” into the Pentagon, had as profound an effect on UK military organisation as the general staff system originally employed in Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

But whereas previously the ideas were studied and adapted to the UK’s constitutional set-up, today it seems anything invented in the US should be imported wholesale to the UK, regardless of whether it fits the political, legal and constitutional set-up or not.

So Richard Holbroke’s appointment as President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan has now been matched by the choice of Sherard Cowper-Coles as the Foreign Secretary’s Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This adds to Jack McConnell’s role as Special Envoy for Conflict Resolution and what is rumoured to be Des Browne’s imminent appointment as the Prime Minster’s envoy to Sri Lanka.

But whereas the Obama administration’s appointment of enjoys and representatives is a product of serious thought not only about the specific policy problems, but about how best to mange the sprawling US national security bureaucracy, the same cannot be said of the UK government’s approach. Unlike in the US, the envoys are simply bolted on to existing governmental structures. Rather than solve inter-department problems, they tend to highlight these.  And more often than not they serve to demonstrate governmental action, garner a bit of publicity, but little else. 

In Sir Sherard’s case, the former ambassador in Kabul is the Foreign Secretary’s man, but does not represent DfiD or the MoD. (That is before even addressing the question of whether a UK envoy as opposed to a British EU envoy makes any sense). Jack McConnell’s role, meanwhile, is a mystery to even senior FCO mandarins.  And who now remembers Michael Williams’ role as Gordon Brown’s Middle East representative? Or Britain’s peace emissary to Sudan, Allan Goulti?

Though the Civil Service will make the most of these appointments, it is clear that greater thought needs to be given to how the UK manages cross-cutting issues, high-level diplomacy and the need to engage US counterparts like Richard Holbrooke or George Mitchell.

Personally, I favour the idea of having Prime Ministerial Regional Envoys or in the cases where Britain has a large-scale, multi-departmental commitment, like Afghanistan, Resident Ministers, such as Harold Macmillan’s role in Austria, Duff Coooper’s in Singapore and Oliver Lyttelton’s in Cairo during World War II. These individuals would have the clout to manage all departmental interests, have a direct link to Parliament (and so could keep the arguments for interventions alive) and ensure the necessary delegation of authority.

But the whole system probably needs a good look. Now there’s a subject IPPR’s National Security Commission could deal with.


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