Nadhim Zahawi is MP for Stratford on Avon.
As I write, the Treasury is drawing up plans for the emergency Budget in July. For what it’s worth, my advice is we should think very carefully about how we resource the Foreign Office.
The FCO’s budget is tiny by the standards of Whitehall – smaller than Kent County Council’s. Yet the advice it provides informs huge spending decisions elsewhere in government: whether to impose sanctions, where to push for trade deals, and of course whether we go to war.
Rightly, we’re also asking more of the FCO these days. We now expect each embassy to be a showroom for British trade. The modern diplomat needs to be as comfortable hobnobbing with a local CEO as they are with a government minister.
To do the job effectively, our diplomatic staff need to supply the best possible advice to government. Yet lack of manpower and lack of time are making that job harder. As Sir William Patey – who served as our Ambassador in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan – observed in a speech earlier this year:
‘…the days of having a second or a first secretary travel up country for a week or two and get to know the local tribes and maybe write an interesting report for the ambassador and keep it, just clock it away as we might need it one day, that is becoming increasingly impossible.’
Yet those interesting reports on local tribes, obscure religious feuds and regional powerbrokers really matter. Take the Middle East, where the failures of policy over the last decade have arisen from our failure to comprehend the complex political realities on the ground.
In planning for the post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led Coalition simply hadn’t grasped the depth of hatred between the disenfranchised Sunni minority and the newly empowered Shia majority, out for revenge after decades of Baathist oppression.
This led to costly mistakes, such as the decision to back the deeply sectarian Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s first Shia Prime Minister, and an overzealous de-Baathification policy which saw thousands of Sunni Iraqi army officers out of a job and thus with a grudge against the new political order. Many of those officers now serve under the black banner of ISIL.
There is no longer any appetite for Blair-Bush style nation-building or costly military occupations. But ISIL is still our problem; so too is Russian aggression in Europe. That makes the job of gathering political intelligence – finding out who we should be working with and what help they need – all the more important. We can’t put boots on the ground in Iraq, but we can find and support the Sunni politicians who want to make their country work.
This is a lot of responsibility for the FCO and, to do what we’re asking of it, we need to ensure that it has the right skills and expertise. Take languages. In the Middle East and North Africa only 28 per cent of frontline FCO staff speak the local language to the required level of proficiency. This falls to 27 per cent in Russia and Eastern Europe. These are two regions of vital strategic interest to the UK, and we need to close the gap.
We also need to protect the FCO’s institutional memory. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, we quietly wound down the many decades of Eastern European expertise we had built up over the course of the Cold War. Yet that expertise was badly needed when the Russians annexed Crimea last year. We can’t make the same mistake in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, where British diplomats have acquired a wealth of hard-won knowledge.
I’m not arguing for a blank cheque. There’s still more work to do to ensure the FCO spends less on managing itself in Whitehall and more on overseas engagement. More resource should also mean greater accountability and Parliament has a vital role to play in this. I, for one, would like to see more Foreign Affairs Committee hearings with our ambassadors, focusing on how they plan to deliver our strategic priorities abroad.
Our embassy staff do an extraordinary job, often in hostile conditions, and we can be proud that we have one of the best diplomatic services in the world. But there are huge foreign policy challenges in the Parliament ahead, and we now have to commit to remaining the best.