The British Foreign Office has lost much of its way, critics say


Formerly the engine room of the Global Empire, the British Office of Foreign Affairs, Commonwealth and Development has in recent years been deprived of influence, prestige and self-confidence.

Britain’s chaotic efforts to evacuate Afghanistan in August have focused on the department’s shortcomings, according to the whistleblower, but critics say the FCDO’s handling of the crisis highlights broad problems in the department that was once considered Rolls-Royce of Whitehall.

“In the domestic sense, FCDO is at the lowest level of operational competence and respect than at any time in the 45 years I have been studying UK foreign policy,” said Professor Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute. -tank.

Liz Truss, who succeeded Dominic Raab as foreign minister in September, is tasked with reversing the situation. Her political star is on the rise – she is the most popular minister in the Conservative government, who will elect the next party leader – but it will be a big test.

It is also vital that Truss can be tackled as Boris Johnson has given new duties to the Foreign Minister and the FCDO this month: she will have responsibility for relations with the EU following the resignation of Brexit Minister Lord David Frost.

Truss is now accused of repairing strained relations with the bloc and resolving disputes over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements, which were first listed in the prime minister’s Brexit deal.

Liz Truss tasked with repairing relations with EU and resolving Northern Ireland post-Brexit trade arrangement dispute © Anna Gordon / FT

Clarke said the stakes are high. “The FCDO is now on the brink of a very slippery slope and will very quickly collapse down in the eyes of the world unless it regains its former prestige through improved competence and a better strategic vision,” he added.

Critics say the FCDO must increase its spending and staffing levels if British diplomacy is to maintain its influence, but the government’s austerity years have done their part.

In Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s October spending review, the FCDO was the only department in Whitehall to cut its budget by 5 percent by 2024-2025.

This month, Truss praised British diplomats as “the best” in the world, but just days later officials were told in an internal FCDO email: “We plan to reduce our total workforce by just under 10 percent by March 2025.” James Cleverly, the FCDO minister, later denied that such cuts would occur.

British diplomats say their embassies have no money and are much smaller than they should be. Some expensive diplomats based abroad have been replaced by cheaper local staff.

Meanwhile, there are widespread concerns about the merger in 2020 of the Office of Foreign Affairs and the Commonwealth and the Department of International Development – Johnson’s home project, which served as foreign minister between 2016 and 2018.

The quake was followed by a cut in the UK’s overseas aid budget, and one diplomat said the merger “went internally like a bucket of colds”.

This month, the 25-year-old whistleblower cited the merger as one of the factors that contributed to Britain’s “chaotic” evacuation from Afghanistan, led by the FCDO.

Raphael Marshall, an employee at the FCDO in London until September, said staff formerly working in the Department of International Development could not access computers at the London Crisis Center because “IT systems DfID and FCO are not yet integrated”.

He also claimed in written evidence to lawmakers that during the British evacuation, pleas for help from thousands of desperate Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban were ignored and that Raab, the then foreign minister, “did not fully understand the situation”.

British and dual nationals residing in Afghanistan relocated to the United Kingdom

Britain’s chaotic efforts to evacuate Afghanistan in August have focused on department inadequacies, according to whistleblower © Ben Shread / UK MOD Crown copyright

“There was a real problem with the political leadership, which did not help the Foreign Office’s confidence, nor its influence on Whitehall,” said Peter Ricketts, a former top civil servant in the Foreign Office.

Insiders describe the department on King Charles Street as “demoralized” after years of poor work by foreign ministers.

“The leadership of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab was a pretty depressing experience for those working in the department,” one said.

Alexandra Hall Hall, a former British ambassador to Georgia and a former Brexit adviser at the UK embassy in Washington, said the foreign minister’s job was no longer necessarily in the hands of a minister with long experience thinking about Britain’s strategic global challenges.

“It is a major reward – one of the highest positions in government given to politicians for their loyalty, either to silence them, or outside the country,” she added.

In addition to the large replacement of ministers, critics say the FCDO’s position has also been affected by strategic deviation, just at a time when the United Kingdom needs to develop its post-Brexit, “global British” foreign policy.

Brexit was said to have hit the ministry’s morale hard: it had no role in the UK-EU negotiations that followed the 2016 referendum on leaving the bloc. “The Foreign Office obviously had a very difficult five years,” Ricketts said.

In 2017, Sir Ivan Rogers announced his resignation from the post of British Ambassador to the EU, claiming that the team of the then Prime Minister Therese May ignored his warnings about the complexity of Brexit.

Sir Ivan Rogers, pictured in London 2017

Sir Ivan Rogers, pictured in 2017, claimed that the team of former Prime Minister Therese May ignored his warnings about the complexity of Brexit © Jack Taylor / Getty Images,

“There has been a lot of self-censorship since then,” said one former ambassador who left the FCDO two years ago. “You just thought you couldn’t give honest advice, there was a risk that you would be accused of being a ‘Remnant’ who can’t be trusted.”

Diplomats say they still feel bruised by Johnson’s failure to defend Sir Kim Darroch, the former British ambassador to the United States, who was forced to step down in 2019 after leaks of confidential diplomatic dispatches criticizing the Donald Trump administration.

A FCDO spokesman said: “The Minister of Foreign Affairs has set a clear strategic direction for the FCDO and is empowering staff around the world to implement it. . .

“The department gives priority to building closer economic and security ties with friends and allies as a way to achieve greater global influence, attract more countries into the orbit of freedom-loving democracies and create a network of freedom around the world.”


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