National Engagement on Foreign Policy: Emerging Themes

The BFPG has now hosted three public events in different parts of the UK asking people to share their concerns, hopes and ideas regarding different aspects of our foreign policy.  This is in addition to dozens of smaller meetings with various local authorities, business groups, voluntary organisations, faith groups, political parties and other stakeholders nationally. We have also hosted a number of policy roundtables with thinktanks, Members of Parliament and others, all looking to better understand the shifting tectonics underlying UK engagement in the world.

It is early days, but already a number of themes are emerging which broadly support the reasons we established the BFPG back in Autumn 2016.

The first theme is the underutilised and poorly utilised capacity that the UK benefits from in all aspects of foreign policy related issues. Universities in particular retain vast reservoirs of expertise on everything from language skills through history of the smallest region to international dispute resolution mechanisms and sub-sea mining. Diaspora networks represent another highly influential and increasingly assertive source of influence in certain key bilateral relationships. Yet the policy world, largely based in London, generally draws only very partially, and often parochially, on the expertise we have as a country.

The second theme is the early but already clear indication that there are significant regional variations in foreign policy perspectives. This has emerged partly from private interviews, but also came out clearly in our public events held so far in Birmingham, Southampton and Edinburgh. It is not a surprise that maritime themes were raised in Southampton, but the depth of expertise and understanding of how the UK’s maritime trade is inextricably bound up in many other aspects of our foreign policy came through very clearly. In Edinburgh migration, skills and soft power came through as key foreign policy concerns, with multiple audience and panel contributions focussed on how to ensure Scotland can import the skills it needs to access the global economy, as well as concerns around how to ensure the significant soft power Scotland projects serves the modern day needs of a vibrant, diverse 21st century Scotland.

The third theme is a growing frustration with our current approach to foreign policy making – whether in relation to diplomacy, trade, or even security. The work we have undertaken thus far is not yet of sufficient breadth to support a claim for it being a representative qualitative analysis, but there is consistent feedback that the way strategic decisions are made on many issues related to UK international engagement are unclear and appear dominated by the concerns of a small London based elite. In private interviews, in particular with those involved in trade and those working for large local authorities and devolved administrations frustrations are routinely expressed at what are perceived to be policies made without the opportunity for regional perspectives to be integrated. Indeed there appears to be a lack of adequate mechanisms for doing this efficiently and systematically.

The last theme is one of stakeholders across the UK accelerating their own international initiatives. This is partly in response to a perception of an official foreign policy apparatus that has long been seen as unresponsive, but also in response to Brexit and the post-Brexit environment which has deepened a sense of regional detachment from a Whitehall distracted by Brexit related concerns. Interestingly there has been an uptick in the range of informal interactions going on directly between these regional actors, including UK Overseas Territories, larger metropolitan authorities and devolved administrations. This is potentially positive for increasing the depth, credibility and reach of national foreign policies, but also brings the risk of incoherence or worse without a degree of coordination.

Taken together, these themes represent an important and largely overlooked set of domestic concerns related to our foreign policy. Through our national engagement events, publications and network building, the BFPG intends to deepen our collective national understanding of these trends, and support greater interaction between policy makers and stakeholders across the UK with regards to our foreign policy. We have been very fortunate to benefit from advice and support from a growing range of organisations and individuals recognising the timeliness of this initiative, as well as core support from Strategy International, support for our national engagement events from Universities UK and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. However, we need more help. If you would like to contribute in any way please do get in touch. The BFPG takes no institutional position on any particular issue, but I am personally ever more convinced that the UK has both a necessity and an opportunity to innovate in how we engage internationally, both to better utilise and reflect the range of national resources and perspectives we enjoy, and to strengthen our foreign policy in a world of significant change.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill
tom.cargill@bfpg.org.uk

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.