Making Foreign Policy: A Certain Idea of Britain

(John Murray Publishers, 2000), ISBN 0-7195-6046-2, Pp. 224, Index, price UK £17.99.

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In the course of his distinguished diplomatic career Sir John Coles worked in the Cabinet Office and was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. At the time of his retirement in 1997 he was concluding over three years as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. His views on the problems now faced by British foreign policy-making and what might be done to correct them, which it is the main object of this book to present, thus demand close attention.

According to Sir John, both foreign and domestic policy-making now suffer from unprecedented time pressures. This is because higher priority is now attached to the second order activities of management and policy presentation, and because the work-load has been increased further by the complexity of modern government, the speed of communications, and the huge growth in information. However, when to this is added the fact that foreign policy-making is uniquely hampered by the unpredictability of its environment and, in Britain’s case, further impaired by a traditional wooliness about the country’s proper role abroad, it should not be surprising, he says, that there is now concern about its quality. Though Sir John does not think that foreign policy-making in Britain has been all that bad, he concedes that its critics have a case, and the most stimulating sections of his book are to be found where – strongly influenced by recent Australian practice – he suggests what is to be done.

Clear objectives should be set in an annual White Paper so that the state’s foreign policy can be easily understood and its success measured. This ‘mission statement’ should reflect an idea of Britain not as a middle power but as ‘a major European power with global interests and responsibilities’. Foreign Secretaries should be kept in post for longer periods. Overload should be dealt with by bureaucratic devices such as ‘away-days’, freeing Permanent Secretaries of management responsibilities altogether, relaxing the pressure on ministers and senior officials to master the details of all policies by publicising the fact that they cannot and should not be expected to do this, and cutting back on summitry. More time and resources should be found for long-term planning. More money should be spent on Britain’s representation overseas, and the decline in the importance of the geographical departments in the FO should be arrested. The importance of the diplomat’s ‘political work’, which he says is ‘the essential foundation of foreign policy-making’, should also be acknowledged. Finally, says Sir John, more ways should be found of listening to outside advice.

Anyone who has suffered in a British university from the dead-head culture of managerialism will wince at some of the expressions used in this book. They will not need to be told, either, that recourse to a ‘mission statement’ is a sure sign that the institution in question has lost its way. Nevertheless, I would like to think that Sir John Coles uses this language with tongue in cheek, and to the substance of what he says I reply on all counts: ‘Amen’. This is an elegant, shrewd, and measured book which should be widely read.

Students of diplomacy will find particularly useful his chronological survey of the various official reviews of British foreign policy and diplomacy conducted since the Second World War (ch. 3); his defence of current practice, including the existing level of overseas representation and political work (ch. 4, and esp. pp. 141-52); his doubts about ‘preventive diplomacy’ (pp. 115-16); his observations on the shifting balance between geographical and functional departments in the FO (pp. 118-20, 147); and his forlorn attack on summitry (pp. 136-7).