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Strategic priorities for British foreign policy. Speech at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Leadership Conference, London, 6 January 2003

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Event: FCO Leadership Conference

Location: Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London

Speech Date: 06/01/03

Speaker: Jack Straw

Welcome to this, the first ever conference for the Heads of Mission from all of the UK's diplomatic posts abroad and for staff from the office here in London. The theme is leadership. I want the conference to be both about the kind of leadership which the UK should be offering in the world, and the kind of leadership which our staff are entitled to expect in terms of the management and direction of the Service.

Here in London, there have been a number of strands of work leading towards this conference. In his speech tomorrow, Michael Jay will examine how we must adapt as an organisation to the new challenges we face in international affairs. I want to use my speech to focus on the strategic priorities for British foreign policy for the next decade.


Almost everyone here came to adulthood in the nineteen sixties or seventies. For our generations there was a depressing stream of comment about Britain's relentless decline. The former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, gratuitously put the boot in when he asserted that 'Britain had lost an empire but had failed to find a role'; but what he said resonated precisely because it contained so much truth. In the early sixties - at the time when Acheson spoke - the governments of Macmillan and Douglas Home were trying to come to terms with the aftermath of Suez; in the mid and late sixties, the Wilson government struggled with serious economic decline. The seventies appeared little better; yes, we did join the European Community but on terms much less favourable than if we had been there at its interception. Our continued economic demise was epitomised by the IMF's loan of 1976.

Two decades later that gnawing sense that Britain was inexorably on a downward path has gone. Of course, the self-criticism is still there. That is good. But alongside this, I believe there is a quiet pride in a Britain remade, in a country more comfortable within its skin than it has been for many decades. I do not claim that this happier condition has emerged only since May 1997. The process has been a much longer one. But as Foreign Secretary, I feel a real sense of pride in this country, of what we have achieved and of confidence in the future. I am particularly proud that Britain is making it as a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-racial society.

We do have the world's fourth largest economy, an active development aid programme, very

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effective armed forces and more investments overseas than any country other than America. We enjoy great cultural influence, thanks not least to the English language and world beating broadcasting. We are a Permanent Member of the world's supreme decision-making body, the United Nations Security Council.

Our greater self-confidence is reflected by a renaissance in Britain's foreign policy. Part of what has been achieved in the world over the past decade and a half has been greatly assisted by active British diplomacy, consciously to create something for the better following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

There is no rule of history which said that the Soviet system had to be replaced by something more benign. Indeed, in parts of the world it has not been. But what has happened in eastern and central Europe in the past 12 years has been astonishing. Ten countries in that region joining or soon to join the EU and NATO. The Balkans, still difficult, but basically on the mend. The prospect of conflict between European states now almost unthinkable. Your predecessors and mine had the vision, more clearly than some on the continent, to see what was needed to wean these societies away from the dependence of the Soviet system towards independence. It's easy to forget that just four years ago our Prime Minister was the first EU leader to call for a 'big bang' enlargement in 2004.

Setting NATO and EU expansion alongside the transformation we have made in our relationship with Russia, this makes the last decade one of the most successful periods in the Department's history.


Yet, to some extent, our success also bred complacency. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the firm UN response to Iraq's annexation of Kuwait led many to proclaim the ultimate triumph of liberal values, founded on the international rule of law. The Balkans conflagration, so soon thereafter, was a terrible reminder of Europe's past and gave the optimists a rude awakening. Tardy European diplomacy, initially not backed by any credible threat of force, was no match for ruthless dictators. Historians are rightly delivering a damning verdict on Europe's initial response to the Balkan wars.

Beyond Europe's borders, in certain cases the consequences of the end of the Cold War have been catastrophic. Some states in the developing world were unable to manage the transition from superpower client to more genuine independence. The phenomenon of state failure in the post-Cold War era has emerged as one of the greatest threats to global security, spreading chaos in central Africa and providing the cover for al Qa'ida to launch the worst terrorist attack in history.

In parts of the world, the end of the Cold War brought to the surface long-suppressed ethnic and religious antagonisms, previously subsumed by the all-encompassing ideological confrontation between East and West. At times - as we saw in Rwanda and the Democratic People's Republic of Congo - Western policy makers struggled to cope with all this.

More recently, we have seen a growth in support for militant groups promoting a form of

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Islam which bears no relation to the true faith. These groups claim to oppose western values. The truth is that when it comes to the common rights of all peoples there is no 'clash of civilisations'. Freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law are universal values. It is those which these groups are seeking to extinguish among peoples of every faith.

Diplomatic sensitivities and the dictates of realpolitik have perhaps inhibited us from countering the propaganda of militant Islam. The appalling lesson of 11 September is that we can no longer ignore the challenge, or indeed other potential threats to our security. Those who seek to undermine global stability - whether they be terrorist groups fired by twisted religious belief or authoritarian states bent on acquiring WMD - are not about to resign themselves to the superiority of liberal democracy and universal rights. On the contrary - they will continue to undermine them.

The challenges I have outlined each have the capacity to damage our national interests and to undermine international peace and security. If we are to confront them, then we will need a clear strategy. Last year I therefore commissioned a major review in the FCO to do just this.


As a result, we have begun to set out a number of medium to long term strategic priorities which I believe should guide our work. Before I run through them, I should add the caveat that this list is neither exhaustive nor necessarily complete. But I hope it will form the basis for lively discussion over the next two days.

The priorities we have identified are:

● to minimise the threat to international and domestic security posed by weapons of

mass destruction and terrorism; ● to minimise other threats to the UK, such as uncontrolled migration, transnational

crime and extremism in the Islamic world; ● to maintain a stable international system based on the UN, the rule of law and

multilateral co-operation; ● to promote UK economic interests in an open and expanding global economy;

● to promote democracy, good governance and development - as we are doing with

NEPAD - the new partnership for Africa's development; ● to bolster the security of British and global energy supplies;

● and to build a strong European Union in a secure neighbourhood.

Overall, I would sum up the purpose of British foreign policy this way. It is to work for UK interests in a safe, just and prosperous world.

Of the three pillars I've just mentioned for a positive future - safety, justice and prosperity - which are embedded in these priorities, it is the middle one, justice, which is pivotal. We live in a dangerous world: we have to have effective armed forces capable of intervening to ensure that good does triumph over evil, and to make day-to-day diplomacy more effective by backing it where appropriate with a credible threat of force.

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Prosperity is linked to both safety and justice. By any historical comparison, the world today is, in aggregate, remarkably prosperous. But behind the overall levels of affluence there are huge disparities of income and wealth both between nations and within them. We ignore this issue at our peril. As an African Foreign Minister said to me last year, 'Hungry people are angry people'.

The inclusion still today in the treaties of the European Union of a commitment to increase agricultural production is a reminder of how raw still are the memories in continental Europe of starvation and all that went with that. A necessary pre-condition for the elimination of conflict between and within nation states is an end to hunger. Necessary, but never sufficient, as Europe's subsequent progress shows: for Europe's achievement in almost eliminating violent conflict within the continent has been built not on the Europe of food surpluses, but on the Europe of values.

If we are both to defend these values and to secure their advance, then we must confront our opponents. We know that there are individuals and groups who are capable of unspeakable criminal acts - whether they be individual murders, state-led genocide, or terrorism on the scale of 11 September. We have therefore to be very tough on such evil, and as well eliminate the environment in which it breeds. That is where the imperative of justice comes in.

There was a terrible reminder of the unspeakable nature of terrorism last evening when two suicide bombers inflicted the most awful carnage in the centre of Tel Aviv, killing at least twenty three and injuring many more. As I did last night, when I first heard the news, I send my sincere condolences to the relatives and friends of the bereaved, to the injured and to the people of Israel. The toll of violence and retaliation must seem endless to the overwhelming majority of Palestinians and Israelis who want nothing more than to live in peace and security.

Terrorism requires a firm security response. But I also know that a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict can only come from a settlement based not only on the economic and security needs of both sides, but on their human, spiritual needs for recognition, and for respect for their governments and societies as a whole.

Early next week the United Kingdom is due to host a meeting in London with representatives of the Palestinian Authority and of civil society to consider ways in which the reform process within the Occupied Territories can be advanced. It must be in the interests of all sides of this conflict for Palestinians to have to address the key issues of reform including security sector reform.

I therefore greatly regret the decision announced by the Israeli government this morning to prevent representatives of the Palestinian Authority from travel outside both the Gaza and the West Bank. I believe that this cannot advance the cause of peace and security for Israelis any more than it can for Palestinians. And as I said to Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli Foreign Minister this morning - whilst I understand the anger in which the decision was made, and the profound concern and responsibilities of the Israeli government to fight terrorism, I hope very much that they will think again about this decision. And overall I want to say this - that good governance, respect for the norms and obligations of international law, and human rights are

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not therefore add-ons; but key to the work of the British government abroad, and by DfID and MOD and the Treasury as much as the FCO, in achieving a more stable world. I am proud that in the United Kingdom government we have made significant strides to link together an approach to the prevention of conflict, not least with funds from these government departments, with their allocation determined by Cabinet Committees. This 'joined-up' approach is paying dividends today on the ground in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and Afghanistan where British diplomats, peacekeeping troops and development specialists are helping to restore democracy and the rule of law.

And we see in Zimbabwe where bad governance, the collapse of the rule of law, is itself the principle cause of both hunger and anger amongst its people. And where - irony of ironies - the British government is now spending more in humanitarian assistance to alleviate the poverty and hunger caused by Mugabe than we had on offer, and would have needed to pay, to the Zimbabwe government and through them to white farmers to resolve the issue of land and its transfer by peaceful and lawful means, as we had offered and agreed at the Abuja talks in September of 2001. Now what we are seeking to do here is to draw together a degree of collective and historical expertise - and I believe that we will need all of this if we are to tackle the priorities I've outlined earlier. Let me examine three of them in a little more detail - first the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

We will need all of this collective expertise if we are to tackle the priorities I outlined earlier. Let me examine just three of them in a little more detail.


Nine years ago an old school friend - by then a senior civil servant - briefed me on the threat posed by the proliferation of WMD. At the time, I was immersed in domestic affairs and so my initial reaction was to think this was a rather distant problem, of little immediate relevance to British citizens. But pretty quickly I digested the enormity of the problem my friend had raised with me.

His fears were well-founded. Today, the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons presents the greatest threat to our national security, and to the peace of the world.

Policy makers have been grappling with this problem since the end of the Second World War. Their efforts culminated in the emergence of an international non-proliferation regime in the 1960s and 70s which, on the whole, has served the world well. Predictions that there might be 20-30 nuclear weapon states by the year 2000 have not materialised. But is has become clear that the treaties and the inspection regimes do not, in themselves, present a sufficient barrier against proliferation.

11 September showed that the terrorist organisation al Qa'ida would stop at nothing to inflict mass slaughter. If they were to manage to acquire WMD, I am certain they would use them. The most likely sources of technology and know-how for such terrorist organisations are rogue regimes which continue to flout their obligations under international law not to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

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This is why terrorism and rogue regimes are part of the same picture. Our immediate aim must be the development of effective techniques to disrupt and eliminate terrorist groups which might attempt to acquire WMD.

But we will also have to deter and remove the threat posed by hostile or unstable states which possess or are pursuing WMD.

Since 1991, Iraq has been a litmus test of the world's determination to hold states to their non-proliferation commitments. UNSCR 1441 sent the strongest possible signal to Saddam Hussein that the UN will meet this test. Iraqi disarmament - whether it is achieved by peaceful means or by force - is essential both for the world's capacity to deal with the threat presented by WMD and for the authority of the UN.

North Korea typifies the unpredictable nature of the threats we face over the next decade. Here is a regime which has failed the most basic test of any state: the obligation to provide sufficient food for its population. Yet it may possess the most destructive weapons known to man and it certainly has no qualms about exporting WMD technology to any bidder. This lethal trade is destabilising security in North Africa and the Middle East. I welcome the fact that the world is uniting to hold the North Korean regime to its legal commitments. Managing this threat will be a significant test for the international community.

The lesson from our experience with both Iraq and North Korea is that international non-proliferation law is nothing without effective enforcement. Over the next decade, the battle to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons will be about disruption and interdiction of supplies and intelligence sharing as well as the application of the international legal framework.


This brings me to a second priority: the maintenance of a stable international system, rooted in our commitment to the UN and international law.

The multilateral institutions established at the end of the Second World War have been the basis for one of the most stable, prosperous eras in history. But their continued success will depend on the willingness of nation states to accept that membership of global organisations brings responsibilities as well as privileges. For China this means improved labour standards and respect for human rights as a necessary adjunct to membership of the UN and the WTO. For the United States - the architects in chief of the post-war international order - it means continued support for a system which has advanced their national security and prosperity for over 50 years.

And for European members of NATO, it means greater and more effective military contributions to the Alliance. I referred earlier to the sense of complacency which enveloped Europe in the early 1990s. This is reflected by a decade-long decline in European military budgets. But given the security dilemmas we now face, this defies logic. It erodes American confidence in an Alliance - which can prosper only as long as both sides of the Atlantic pull their weight. And it threatens to undermine the effectiveness of Europe's diplomacy for the

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In a comment on how all this looks from across the Atlantic let me quote from a recent article by a liberal Democrat, Mr Michael Walzer, co-editor of the journal Dissent and a United States supporter of the International Criminal Court. He wrote 'when war is just and necessary, as in the Gulf in 1991 or in Kosovo in 1999, it is the United States that bears the brunt of the fighting. Our European allies oppose American unilateralism only this far: they want a rôle in deciding when war is just and necessary, but they are content, once the decision is made, to leave most of the fighting to American soldiers'. [Renewal Vol 10. No 3] Those who argue (wrongly) that strong relations with the US and with the EU are mutually exclusive would do well to heed these words.


This leads me to a third priority for our foreign policy for the next 10 years: the creation of a strong European Union in a secure neighbourhood.

Thanks to your contribution, much of the work here is already in hand. We have been the driving force behind the Lisbon economic reform agenda. This has not always been easy. But all EU Governments, irrespective of their political hue, have a responsibility to deliver jobs and prosperity to their electorates. If implemented, the Lisbon agenda can do just that, consigning protectionism and the blight of long-term structural unemployment to the past, whilst preserving the commitment to a just society which lies at the heart of European economies.

Economic reforms and enlargement must proceed hand in hand with an overhaul of the EU's decision-making machinery. The debate in the Convention on the Future of Europe has now entered a critical phase. You will know that the Prime Minister and I agree that one outcome should be a written constitution for the EU.

A hallmark of this constitution should be its flexibility, and a recognition that Europe must play an increasingly influential role in international affairs. Enlargement in 2004 should be an opportunity for the Union to broaden its horizons beyond central Europe, and to focus on the challenges of spreading democracy and prosperity on its southern and eastern frontiers. The Union's contribution to reconstruction in the Balkans suggests that Member States share this vision. And at the Copenhagen Summit we finally saw agreement on a date for accession negotiations with Turkey. Over the next decade, the Union has an opportunity to build a lasting partnership with this leading Muslim democracy.

We should also play an important role in helping the Arab world to meet the agenda for reform outlined in the UN Development Programme's recent report, including the adoption of more democratic forms of governance within the Arab world; we should help the reformers across the Arab world to address some of the key challenges which they face, and the reasons for their relative lack of prosperity and intellectual development. And too, we have to have an increasing concern for those countries lying just beyond, or just beyond those, the immediate borders of the European Union - Moldavia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and all those countries, former parts of the former Soviet Union, which we summarise by the epithet 'the stans'.

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Because they become our neighbours, and it is those countries which will literally border the European Union once enlargement has taken place.


The scale of the challenges I have outlined is immense. And their emergence has coincided with rising domestic demands for improved standards of service from all Government Departments. It would be easy - but wrong - to think we can isolate ourselves from these demands because of our unique remit. Our involvement in the consular emergencies in New York, and South and East Asia has raised our profile to new levels in the public consciousness. The FCO's Travel Advice has never been under greater scrutiny. Consular, commercial and visa services are the public face of the FCO. British citizens judge us on our performance in these areas - more than any other. Heads of Mission will therefore have to attach as much importance to these issues as any other area of a post's work.

Every week in Cabinet, I'm struck by the extent to which domestic and foreign policy are fused. DEFRA, DTI, DfID, the MoD and the Home Office lead on some of the most important international issues.

Nobody now believes the FCO alone can deliver the Government's objectives overseas. I see the future of this Department as bringing together the collective talents of all Government Departments, relevant NGOs and other stakeholders to advance broad government priorities.

In the stakeholder survey carried out last year, there were strong and very positive messages about the quality of staff, and recognition for what the FCO has done to modernise itself. Generally, stakeholders feel we provide a good service. This was borne out by a recent survey conducted by the BBC's Westminster Hour programme. With the Treasury and DfID, the FCO emerged as the best performer in Whitehall.

If we are to maintain this standard, then we need to keep our performance and our relations with stakeholders and the public under constant review. We will need to show that we can react quickly to new circumstances, building public confidence that we can be relied upon both in an emergency and at any other time. Our response to the lessons of the terrorist attack in Bali is a case in point. We have now established a 24-hour capability to respond to crises. This includes the formation of mobile teams of experts who can be sent immediately to any part of the world in an emergency. Flexibility and a commitment to service delivery will be the hallmarks of their approach, principles which must underpin all aspects of our work from political reporting to visa and immigration issues.


Before I close I want to offer a personal thank-you to all members of the Service, and to all FCO staff. One of the abiding strengths of the FCO is the depth of the attachment and loyalty that staff fo rm with this Department. The unique nature of the work of British diplomats, where many often have to work in the most trying circumstances imaginable, underpins this relationship.

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For many of you, the past 18 months have been especially difficult. Some of our missions are in the frontline of the campaign against terrorism. Staff in Karachi work in the shadow of machine gun posts. Yet despite the new pressures, our performance has not flagged. British diplomacy remains the yardstick against which other foreign services measure themselves. This should be a great source of professional pride to you all as it is to me. And it gives the best possible foundation to tackle the challenges we face in the next decade.