Rory Stewart calls for greater local expertise in national strategy and across FCO

The Defence Select Committee chair has criticised the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) prioritising management skills over local expertise in its overseas staff, and expressed scepticism over the UK’s approach to developing strategy. 

By Sarah.Aston

27 Oct 2014

Speaking at a conference on national security last week, Rory Stewart outlined his thoughts on the culture of the FCO and the dangers as officials prepare for the next national security strategy.

In response to a question from CSW on whether more needs to be done to train civil servants to meet national security challenges, Stewart spoke of the need to move the focus of the FCO away from management.

Reflecting comments made by former foreign secretary William Hague, who criticised the FCO for focussing more on “cumbersome bureaucracy” than making the best of its staff’s skills, Stewart said: “There has been a huge shift away from how it used to be, which is you were rewarded for speaking languages well, for knowing a great deal about a country towards a new system which puts the focus on management.”

Following the FCO’s adoption of the Civil Service-wide Core Competency Framework to shape recruitment, performance management and development discussions, Stewart says that very few FCO civil servants are adequately equipped with the necessary language skills and understanding of the countries they are working in.

“One of the central metrics that the foreign office looks at is staff satisfaction surveys rather than the question of how well they understand the country and how well they are serving Britain. It’s a fundamental cultural problem that needs to be addressed.”

Stewart explained that of the 15 ambassadors currently stationed in the Middle East, only three of them can speak Arabic, adding: “That is complete insanity!”

He explained: “There are really amazing people in the modern Foreign Office - with immense energy. There have been huge improvements in management skills and in the focus on commerce. But all the crises of the last decade show the central importance of understanding politics, and culture, and of spotting quickly when things are going wrong. That is why we need far more emphasis on language, political reporting, and deep country knowledge.”

Stewart sits on both the National Security Strategy Joint Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee and is chair of the Defence Select Committee.

He has also been a Coalition Deputy Governor in Iraq, taking responsibility for an 850,000-strong province in the Marsh Arab in 2003, founded the Afghanistan charity Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which sought to restore parts of the old city of Kabul.

Discussing what was needed for the next national security strategy to succeed, the Defence Select Committee chair was sceptical of the results of Britain’s voracious appetite for discussing strategy.

Stewart said, the challenge for government is getting diplomats out of the building to experience first-hand the problems their strategies are meant to be tackling.

He said: “Real foreign policy, real defence policy involves not just talking about these things but hiring the people and supporting them to do these things, putting them on the ground, teaching them difficult languages and understanding that at the centre of any response to any of these issues we’re talking about – terrorism, failed states, rogue states, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq – is an understanding of culture and an understanding of local politics.”

Where Britain falls down when approaching national security, Stewart said, can be divided into three main tendencies.  

Firstly, he argued Britain tends to expand distinct and concrete issues to the universal which makes it incredibly difficult to extract what needs to be done to tackle the issue.

Referring to the problems of population growth and climate change – just named by Admiral Lord West among his list of priorities for the next national security strategy— Stewart said: “It’s very difficult to work out what exactly the relationship of population growth or climate change to the particular issue you’re discussing and more importantly what exactly Britain is supposed to do about this.”

Secondly, matters of national security, he said, are discussed in ways which makes it sound as if action is being taken when in fact nothing is being done. A common example of this, said Stewart, are phrases such as ‘We live in a globalised, inter-connected world.’ or ‘Everything has been changed by Social Media. It’s all about Twitter and Facebook’. Such statements may describe a situation but can’t help in shaping a response.

Finally, Stewart criticised Britain’s use of “tautologies” that sound like solutions but are merely “re-descriptions” of problems of national security: “The idea of ‘counter-insurgency’, which is simply a way of saying we have an insurgency, and ‘state-building’, which is simply a way of say we don’t really have a state.”

“We need to get out of this crazy idea that we sitting in this room are going to come out with some grand doctrine,” said Stewart, adding: “The mark of a serious country - the mark, for example, of the United States which remains for all its flaws a ‘serious country’ - is not simply the architecture of its production of this thing called ‘strategy’. It’s that they have people on the ground – deeply knowledgeable people, deeply committed.”

Stewart’s key message, whether this be in regards to national security strategies or the current focus on management in the FCO, is a simple one: “What we really need is people who love other people’s countries, who are fascinated by other people’s cultures!”

In response, an FCO spokesperson said: “Raising the standard of staff language skills is important to us. 

“We have done this by opening a new language centre, which will train up to 500 members of staff per year and delivering between 50,000 - 70,000 hours of language training per year in up to 80 different languages. 

“The ability to communicate with others in their own language helps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office deliver Government’s priorities and do business overseas.”

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