The Home Secretary’s foreign policy

by | Jun 21, 2013

Earlier this year the British Home Secretary made an unfamiliar journey to Afghanistan. Theresa May’s visit to Kabul focused on the future of terrorism and counter narcotics. A broad range of scenarios on the future of terrorism were presented and debated but the strategy for managing heroin, Afghanistan’s main export to the UK, was disarmingly ambiguous.

As the British begin to pack up in Afghanistan, some worry that the country will, once again, become a safe haven for international terrorists. Politicians have voiced their concerns about the international implications of a deteriorating security situation while officials wonder how Britain will be able to reduce the 20 tonnes or so of heroin imported annually to the UK.  The Home Secretary’s response to what she was told was brief but to the point: failing to prevent the crisis overseas has major implications for domestic policy.

It is easy to understand why. Globalisation has increasingly blurred the traditional boundaries of domestic and international policy. Take Syria – while the Foreign Secretary criss-crosses continents cajoling governments to take the necessary steps to help end the violence in the country – the Home Secretary faces the prospect of hundreds of Britons who are fighting in Syria returning home battle-hardened. This is a conflict with a potentially nasty sting in its tail for the UK – whether we do something or not.

Successive British Governments have responded to the blurring of domestic and international boundaries by ensuring departments and agencies work closely together at home and abroad. Diplomats in British Embassies have been joined by their colleagues from across Government including the Home Office, Border Agency, Security Service and Serious and Organised Crime Agency. Civil servants who thought they would spend their working lives in Croydon now find themselves operating in Dubai as key players in British diplomacy overseas. There are three reasons for why this trend is set to continue.

The first reason is that tackling threats upstream makes sense. The British Government has pledged to invest in people and resources to enable it to do more overseas. Often this means pursuing terrorists and organised crime groups in ungoverned spaces, where the remit of the host government does not extend outside of the capital city. In order to tackle organised crime in Latin America and West Africa (the latter an increasingly important hub for cocaine and heroin trafficking to Europe) teams must be deployed from land and sea to seize illicit material and arrest criminals – the frontline changes daily and requires a flexible response.

Some of the most complex cyber crime cases involve British police officers operating overseas in cooperation with law enforcement organisations against highly skilled and professional criminals in Russia. Sending more civil servants, intelligence officials and police officers overseas to target individuals may seem an expensive effort but when the internet, for example, is worth £100bn to the British economy, targeting criminals abroad becomes central to ensuring the British public are confident when conducting business online.

Intervention is only part of the answer. The second reason for why the Home Office is looking overseas is to play a supporting role in tackling the drivers of conflict –such as widespread corruption – which is critical to the stability of developing countries. Last month, for example, the Head of Security at Ghana’s international airport was charged in the United States with conspiring to smuggle Afghan heroin to New York. And this is not the first time that a high-profile Ghanaian has been arrested on drug-trafficking charges. A member of the Ghanaian parliament is also serving a jail sentence in for drug trafficking. Such widespread corruption has led to UKAid to fund the British police and SOCA to stop foreign or UK criminals from benefitting from corrupt practices in developing countries. A new taskforce of UK legal and investigative experts is also being developed to help recover stolen assets across the Middle East.

A third reason is arguably the most important. Pursuing individuals overseas, seizing illicit material, and providing resources to combat the drivers of conflict produce short term victories but rarely lead to strategic success. The final piece of our efforts overseas is to ensure governments have the capacity to carry out such tasks for themselves. Building strong, legitimate institutions capable of responding to the myriad of threats and challenges requires a range of skills and expertise and the UK is rightly recognised as a leader in this field. There is logic in using UK police officers, for example, rather than the military to help build a robust, democratic police service in countries like Kosovo. Knowing what governance structures and processes to put in place and sustain them is crucial if such governments are transparent and accountable to the people they serve.

Globalisation has expanded our interests overseas. It has created new opportunities and dangers. In protecting the country from terrorists, organised criminals and illegal immigrants the Home Office now finds itself operating in unfamiliar territories. In an age where borders and boundaries no longer exist and are meaningless to those who wish to harm us, the Home Secretary’s foreign policy priorities matter more than ever.


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    Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.

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