Mark Collins – The 2003 Iraq Invasion and the Decline of the UK Foreign Office

Further to this post (note second comment),

UK Internal Diplomacy Pre-Iraq Invasion 2003

a letter at the London Review of Books:

Failures at the Foreign Office

I was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until 2010, long after Oliver Miles left, and there is to my mind a lot of force in his assessment of its failure to speak truth to power over Iraq (Letters, 11 August). Returning in 2005 after eight years abroad, I quickly came to understand that this was not the FCO I knew and (almost) loved – an institution traditionally full of the most talented, eccentric and outspoken individuals. The new atmosphere of conformity and demoralisation was palpable, aggravated by the rapid turnover of foreign secretaries and junior ministers.

Firmly in charge were the Blair collaborators, underpinned by a new generation of liberal interventionists propelled to stardom by the Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s – some having arrived sideways from politics, the UN, charities or the media. Longer-serving diplomats formed a passive resistance, or a silent majority at any rate, and seemed to be regarded with suspicion, as if fatally infected with the scepticism and circumspection learned during the long conflicts of the Cold War. Now, career advancement was expressly linked to volunteering for (futile but preferably repeated) stints of duty in war zones like Baghdad, Basra, Kabul and Lashkar Gah, a willingness to be shot at seemingly trumping all other qualifications.

At the same time, in response to mounting pressure on resources from 2007 onwards, the FCO fell victim to a cult of managerialism that seemed to regard foreign policy as an inconvenient side-issue. Under a faddish doctrine of providing a ‘facilitating platform across government’, the FCO stopped trying to do anything well on its own, and was soon known to the general public only for its travel advice. The FCO entered the coalition years as a hollowed-out shell, symbolised by the scrapping of the diplomatic service language school and David Miliband’s dismantling of the splendid Victorian library.

Some think that Thatcher started the rot by sucking foreign policy away to Number Ten. But it was Iraq that decisively ended the FCO’s position as a great – once the greatest – department of state [but the Treasury?]. Where was it, for instance, in the EU referendum debate, the biggest foreign policy issue for generations? The appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary might be seen as the final sick joke, a nadir of institutional humiliation. Ever the optimist, I cling to the thought that the same was probably said of Ernest Bevin, who turned out an unexpected success [see this lovely book review: “Capability Bevin“].

David Roberts
West Horsley, Surrey [more here]

I served as a foreign service officer (aka a dip) with the Canadian Department of External Affairs, as it was then called, from 1974 to 1988; similar rot to that described by Mr Roberts was well setting in within us by the end of that time. In 1995 the department officially became the “Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada”; it has since been re-branded “Global Affairs Canada” by the current government, enough said.

By the way, the reason Canada’s international relations ministry was originally called “external affairs” rather than “foreign affairs” was because dealings with members of the British Empire–later Commonwealth–were not considered foreign unlike those with other states. Now we keep trendily changing nomenclature to show how grown-up or hip or something we are whilst India, which had a much more severe colonial experience than us, sticks with a “Ministry of External Affairs“. Go figure. Grown-up, eh?

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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