British foreign policy has been plunged into crisis because it lacks a “clear purpose”, a committee of experts has concluded.
The warning comes as part of a report coordinated by the London School of Economics and written by some of Britain’s most senior former diplomats, intelligence officers and foreign policy academics.
They argue Britain's approach to world affairs leaves it “sidelined in Syria, ineffective in Ukraine, unwilling in Europe, and inimical towards refugees”.
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In their analysis, the experts add: “There is a great deal of disquiet among the UK’s diplomatic community that British foreign policy lacks a clear purpose, and that as a result there is an approach to the distribution of resources that lacks strategic coherence”.
The report blames “successive prime ministers and foreign secretaries” who “shy away from significant foreign policy engagements” and leave Britain “self-absorbed and insular”.
And it calls for a greater joining up of defence, diplomacy and development policymaking to ensure a more coherent approach to international affairs.
"Above all, good strategy requires that policies in one area don’t undermine goals in others. For the UK to be a global actor that leverages its hyperconnectedness and diverse society to promote international collaboration, it must itself be willing to be at the table on international issues, offering its varied contributions, and prepared to do more than just its share."
It also argues that Britain's stance on membership of the European Union distracts from the importance of the relationship.
“Constantly fretting about the formal status of our association with the EU restricts what the UK can in practice achieve through that relationship,” the report says. “In, out, or semi-detached, the fact is that working in and with Europe is a necessary component of nearly every area of policy”.
FCO "no longer a plum department"
The LSE Diplomacy Commission's panel includes ex-FCO minister Lord Judd, former civil service commissioner Sir Michael Aaronson and the former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service Sir Richard Dearlove.
As well as warning on the wider foreign policy picture, the report also expresses concern about the ability of the Foreign Office to provide an attractive career at a time when the department's budget is under pressure.
It says officials considering a career in the FCO – which it says used to be "considered a plum department" – may now "look at the relative trajectories of departmental budgets and conclude that diplomacy doesn’t have the highest status or the brightest future".
It adds: "Securing and retaining the best people also means that you need to do everything you can to recognise the difficulties inherent in the job and provide support structures. The Foreign Office has done a significant amount to move on from the traditional ‘diplomatic wife’ model and recognise the challenges its staff and their sometimes extended families face.
"But the reality is that expertise is being lost because the diplomatic career path doesn’t provide adequate flexibility and support that takes account of, for example, the careers of diplomats’ partners, or the needs of their children’s education."
The report recommends a reformed diplomatic service career structure "that understands the needs of families and that is more flexible in its ability to reward and promote talent".