Select Committee transcript now available

The uncorrected transcript of David and my appearance in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last week on the role of the Foreign Office has now been published on the Parliament website – our summary opening statement is after the jump below.

(If you’re interested in contributing to the inquiry, there is still time to submit written evidence. See here for details on how to do that; the deadline is the end of this month.)

Chair: May I welcome everybody to the Committee’s third evidence session on the role of the FCO in Government, which will allow the Committee to question two of the authors of the latest Chatham House paper on international policy making? Alex Evans and David Steven are both senior fellows at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and are the co-authors of Organizing for Influence: UK Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty, which, I can assure you, some of the Committee have read. If you would both like to make an opening statement, that would be great.

Alex Evans: Thanks very much. We won’t make long opening statements, but perhaps it would be helpful at the outset if we just put our two central contentions on the table.

First, we think that the context for British foreign policy has changed utterly as a result of what David and I have called the “long crisis” of globalisation. We have just finished a decade that was book-ended by shocks-9/11 at the beginning of the decade and, at the end, the financial crisis and the combined food and fuel spike.

The new decade, 12 days in, shows every sign of being even more volatile than its predecessor, if the past two weeks are anything to go by-a food spike higher than 2008, the latest round in the financial crisis in the eurozone, extreme weather events in Australia and so on. We observe, in our Chatham House report, that this situation is in some ways comparable to the early 20th century, in which globalisation appeared, as Keynes put it at the time, “normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement”. In fact, of course, the first globalisation crashed amid the first world war-and it may do so again, we think, if the mounting stresses facing globalisation are not addressed.

So our first contention today is that the worst metaphor we could possibly embrace for British foreign policy is Salisbury’s idea of floating lazily downstream and occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat hook to avoid collisions. Our preferred choice of boating metaphor would be shooting the rapids; it’s the river, not the paddler, that dictates the pace of events. Steering becomes harder in rough water, and, above all, the central requirement for shooting rapids successfully is for all the occupants of the boat to paddle together. So we think it’s collective action that is the core challenge for British foreign policy now, and that, we argue, must be the key goal of the Foreign Office’s work.

David Steven: Our second contention is that the way British foreign policy is made and implemented must be fundamentally reconfigured in order to deal with the challenges that Alex has just spoken about. The Prime Minister has yet to be tested by his first global crisis, but when it comes he will find that he has few levers that effectively manage risk to the UK’s prosperity and security. That is not a criticism of the UK system. It is just a fact that Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to respond to the complex challenges that globalisation is bringing.

We think that the coalition Government have taken many steps in the right direction since the election. The National Security Council has improved the UK’s ability to respond to immediate risks, and the Department for International Development has been directing its attention towards fragile states, where it clearly has the most important role.

The Foreign Office, too, has been restored to its rightful role at the heart of British foreign policy, something that wasn’t true for some time in the past, and it has a Foreign Secretary who has the stature to provide co-ordinated leadership across Government. But we think it is at the Foreign Office that most is still left to be done. We believe it would be a grave mistake to constrain the focus of the Foreign Office-to turn it back into some kind of Department for geography, although clearly geographical expertise is an important part of its role.

We think it’s somewhat ironic that the UK seems to be focusing back on trying to manage a broad set of bilateral relationships just as the United States is moving in exactly the opposite direction. In its recently published Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the State Department has set out its intention to focus its energy on working regionally and globally rather than bilaterally, and on building the coalitions that address global, political, economic and security problems that cannot be solved by the US alone.

The State Department is rethinking from the bottom up how it achieves influence in an increasingly complex world. It’s staffing up its foreign service rather than running it down, and it’s challenging all diplomats to work in fundamentally different ways. So our second contention is that the British Government urgently need to follow this example and ask our Foreign Office to do the same. We look forward to your questions.

Read the rest here.