Rebrand ‘elitist’ FCDO, urge former top diplomats

Report by Mark Sedwill and fellow ex-diplomats argues the case for a Department for International Affairs
FCDO, King Charles Street HQ. Photo: Michael Foley/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

09 Apr 2024

The UK should rebrand the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and replace it with “an effective international affairs ministry focused on the challenges of the future”, a report by former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and other ex-government officials has argued.

The World in 2040: Renewing the UK’s Approach to International Affairs calls for “ambitious reform” of the Foreign Office and wider government machinery “to safeguard future UK prosperity and security”.

It argues that the UK’s approach to international affairs “needs urgent renewal” in a “rapidly changing world” and says a “new brand would help signal a forward-looking ambition for the 21st century”.

“The very name of the Foreign, Commonwealth (formerly ‘Colonial’) and Development Office is anchored in the past,” it says. “A new Department for International Affairs (or Global Affairs UK) would signal a potentially quite different role.”

The report also calls for the FCDO’s headquarters to be modernised, arguing “the physical surroundings” on King Charles Street “hint at the Foreign Office’s identity: somewhat elitist and rooted in the past”. It suggests the revamp could feature “fewer colonial-era pictures on the walls”, which “might help create a more open working culture and send a clear signal about Britain’s future”.

The prime minister's spokesperson said Rishi Sunak does not agree with the report's assessment of the FCDO "at all", adding that the department "is doing vital work to protect and promote UK interests abroad and he fully supports the work of the Foreign Office and indeed the foreign secretary in achieving those objectives".

Published by UCL Policy Lab, the report is authored by Sedwill – whose previous roles include national security adviser and director, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Foreign Office – and fellow ex-diplomats Moazzam Malik and Tom Fletcher.

Malik is UCL Policy Lab’s honorary professor and is a former director general at the Foreign Office. Fletcher, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, is a former No.10 foreign policy adviser.

Before writing the report, Sedwill, Malik and Fletcher convened a group of former ministers, senior civil servants and ambassadors in October in Oxford to debate the UK’s approach to international affairs and ideas for reform.

Described by the authors as a “pamphlet”, the paper looks at what the world might look like in 2040, and how the UK should adapt its approach to international affairs.

It argues that the UK needs to have a “clear-eyed view – and confident narrative” on what it has to offer and what it stands to gain from international engagement, economic cooperation and diplomacy.

It sets out the need for greater focus on “strong cross-government collaboration... bringing together all the different instruments and levers of national power to advance UK interests in a coherent, consistent and collaborative way".

To do this,the report says the department should build on the structures of the National Security Council, focusing on security and a select few other priorities for cross-government strategies, such as promotion of prosperity and challenges like climate change and economic development. Clear success indicators and accountabilities must be put in place, with the strategy “underpinned with stronger central staff capacity”, it adds.

The report also calls for the department to be “properly resourced”, with a rethink of how it is funded.

Currently, the UK is committed to spending 2% of its GDP on defence and 0.5% of gross national income on aid. The report argues the UK “would be better served by having a more flexible spending commitment for international engagement alongside defence – potentially 1% of GNI to cover planned international spending on climate, humanitarian, development and ‘soft power’ priorities”.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are maximising the benefits of merging diplomacy and development in the FCDO to better deal with global challenges, as seen in our responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the Middle East.

"We are committed to having an even greater impact and influence on the world stage -–which is why we recently completed a review across the department to ensure we are effectively directing our funds, streamlining all our international policy work, and building our capability for the future.”

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