Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.
This week Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has been giving some pointers for Global Britain – and a reality check for those who think that foreign policy should be about virtue signalling and moral posturing.
Hunt became Foreign Secretary three months ago when Boris Johnson resigned over Brexit. He may lack Johnson’s pazazz, but he is at least trying to understand the world and work out what ‘Global Britain’ means beyond the slogan.
Yesterday he outlined ideas for the future in a speech at Policy Exchange and in his first appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the work of the Foreign Office. Hunt reminded us, in both his speech and his talk, that we need to understand some harsh global realities.
In 20 years time, China, a one-party nominally ‘socialist state’, may have the world’s largest economy. Democracies are regressing. Free and open states are in a global minority. The rules-based system is under threat. In short, the world is changing, not necessarily to our liking, and we don’t have as much power as we would like to change it.
Yet the UK needs to continue to defend an international order based on values. The alternative is a valueless and anarchic one based on hard power – plus the willingness to use force.
The Foreign Secretary rightly talked of expanding and reinvigorating British diplomacy. He is planning for 1,000 more staff: 335 new diplomatic posts overseas, 328 new roles in London, and 329 new locally engaged staff. In addition, he wants 12 new UK posts and a greater emphasis on language training.
He also talks of protecting media freedom. This is not a ‘nice to have’, but a critical element in defending freedom of speech and the core values of democracies. We have a Foreign Secretary who wants to support the BBC World Service and sees it as a critical tool in the UK’s arsenal of power. Whatever one thinks about the BBC at home, the World Service TV and Radio is critical to the future of global free speech because of its reach and what it represents – especially in the developing world.
More generally, he wants a more confident UK as a great power. This is all good. However, there are some ‘buts’.
Hunt is mid-way through his thinking. What we need to see from the FCO under his leadership is more strategic understanding about its role. Over and above the generic promotion of UK interests, what are our aims and campaigns? Can it really be right that Britain’s overseas policy is divided up between so many government departments – FCO, DfID, Defence, DExEU, DIT, Cabinet Office, not to mention Number 10?
There is a powerful argument for the UK to redefine the 0.7 percent it spends on aid rather than accept the sometimes confusing definition set by the OECD, which undermines the credibility of our aid budget and, on occasions, negates its affect. We need more ‘hard’ power in a more dangerous world.
Finally, there is the central question; what does Global Britain stand for? The blunt answer is that we don’t really know because the Government hasn’t done enough collective thinking on it – yet. We badly need to develop our national strategy post-Brexit.
This summer, the grand old man of US diplomacy, Henry Kissinger, told Hunt that the difference between a good foreign secretary and a bad foreign secretary was that a good foreign secretary thinks strategically.
It is early stages, but at the Select Committee Hunt was thoughtful, diligent, and decent. His problems are the limitations on the FCO, the lack of thinking about Global Britain, and the UK’s current obsession with Brexit. By next Spring we’ll need a better understanding of the Foreign Secretary’s strategic thinking about our future.