Investing in Our International Engagements, hosted by John Baron MP

The day before the Budget, the BFPG held an event in Parliament hosted and chaired by John Baron MP. The event included speeches by Stephen Twigg MP (Chair of the International Development Committee), Angus MacNeil MP (Chair of the International Trade Committee) and Lord Hannay (Member of the Lords International Relations Committee) as well as comments by BFPG Executive Director, Tom Cargill.

This event provided the opportunity to highlight both the current budgetary situations of the UK’s foreign policy departments and make the case for continued and additional investment in the respective departments. The event brought together various of the relevant Select Committee chairs and members on a joint platform, with an audience of over 60 people. With equally varied interests and expertise on UK international affairs, we were able to address these issues in a way that took into account the shared priorities and overlaps between our different foreign policy departments.

The UK’s main foreign policy departments face a range of different budgetary challenges ranging from underspending and low recruitment in DIT to a broader need for MOD and DFID to continue to make the case across the UK for the 2% on Defence and 0.7% on ODA as well as the urgency of addressing the chronic underfunding of the FCO.

UK foreign policy is unlikely to attain the same levels of public support as other sectors such as health or education. The impacts of our international actions are almost comparable in scale, but are not immediately apparent in the same way as. It is for this reason that we should continue to make the case for its importance to the public, which in turn should positively affect its resourcing. Of the different foreign policy departments, DFID has perhaps been the most effective at this aspect of public engagement, but even here there is a real awareness that more needs to be done.

Much discussion has been had in the news recently about the UK’s fading role on the international scene, with the failure to have a UK judge elected to the ICJ for the first time since 1946 being the most recent example. But, as the conversation at this BFPG Parliamentary event revealed, the case for investing in our international engagements applies regardless of the arguments around Brexit. If we are to maintain our current leading role, it will require additional resources to avoid the apparent trend of retreat. But equally, even if we are to relinquish our driver’s seat, we will need to invest more to positively influence the outcomes that we do want to achieve. If we were to become a smaller international power we would, more than ever, need an effective foreign policy.

Therefore, Brexit should not be seen as the primary reason for a need to invest in our international engagements but more of an accelerator. The challenges the UK currently faces in successfully exercising international influence were very much on the horizon before we voted to leave the EU, but what Brexit has done is accelerate the need for these issues to be seriously addressed.

As always though, it is not always just about needing more money, it is about doing better with what already exists. A pertinent example is language skills in the FCO. Spending more on improving language skills for overseas postings is crucial, but if the posting is for a very short period of time, the efficiency of this spending is then brought into question.

This discussion focussed on making a case for both a better funded and a more efficient foreign policy in a post-Brexit world but alongside this was also a message of warning – as we seek to promote our international trade we must not abandon our equally valuable task of promoting key values ranging from human rights to multilateralism and the need for a rules-based international system.

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.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.