Bilaterialism is back

Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced a major drive towards enhancing Britain’s bilateral relations, reversing the policies of the former Labour government which he said had caused a “strategic shrinking in British influence in the world”.

Outlining his vision of a “renaissance” of British diplomacy, Mr Hague said Britain would not “outsource” its foreign policy to bodies such as the EU External Action Service, pledging instead to strengthen its bilateral relations with strategic countries.

He said: “Strong bilateral relations with diverse countries are critically important to Britain, as the world is not concentrating into regional blocs but developing into a lattice of overlapping alliances. Our experiences in Libya have confirmed that when we grapple with conflict or insecurity in particular parts of the world we need to do so in partnership with regional countries as well as with our allies.”

Increasing Britain’s presence

Saying that British diplomacy was “advancing not retreating,” the Foreign Secretary committed the FCO to expand Britain’s global presence in key emerging powers, including China, India, Brazil and Turkey, but also in a number smaller strategic countries in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Africa and Central Asia.

He vowed not to close any of the existing 140 British posts overseas during this parliament and pledged to open three new embassies in South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan and Somalia, while re-opening missions in El Salvador, Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar.

“Modern-day communications can and must enhance our diplomacy, but they cannot replace it,” he said. “There is no substitute for having trained diplomats on the ground with access to decision-makers and making vital contacts.”

Ministers are also increasing their contacts with foreign heads of mission in London, with recent meetings between the Middle East Minister and the GCC Ambassadors and the Africa Minister with African Heads of Mission for talks on climate change.

Enhancing skills

Mr Hague also announced policies aimed at reversing what he called Labour’s “hollowing out” of the geographic diplomatic skills in the Foreign Office through its past emphasis on management skills.

He said: “Diplomats will have the opportunity to build up and retain real expertise in countries, regions, issues and languages, getting under the skin of places of importance or potential importance to the UK.”

Decrying Labour’s closure of the FCO Language Centre, he announced an additional £1m annually to upgrade the diplomatic service’s language skills.

British diplomats will be given “sharper economic skills” through new training in commercial diplomacy and secondments from the world of business.

Measures to retain the “intellectual firepower” of the FCO are being introduced, such as the creation of the ‘Locarno Group’, where an alumni group of elite retired FCO officials gives additional advice to ministers.

The Foreign Secretary also criticised the closure of the Foreign Office Library and restated his commitment to consult historians in foreign policy making.

The measures will be funded by reallocating staff and resources away from smaller European posts. The Foreign Secretary will also reinstate the protection of the FCO budget against currency fluctuations.

William Hague addresses Foreign Office staff on the renaissance of British diplomacy