King Charles III and the Continuing Relevance of Royal Diplomacy

In a recent blog, we celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s unparalleled contribution to British and Commonwealth diplomacy and international affairs over her 70-year reign. In this piece, we begin to explore how King Charles III can continue her legacy and make a contribution fit for a modern Britain and a modern world, championing new opportunities and meeting new challenges.

King Charles III accedes to the throne with a history of international engagement enviable by even the most accomplished diplomat.   

He has already been active in his international engagements; in recent years increasingly standing in for the late Queen, making overseas visits (for example to Ireland and Greece, both countries with deep and sometimes complex relationships to the UK) and attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda in her place. Apart from his own official and private visits abroad (the distinction is scarcely relevant in the way it is – and should be – for the rest of us), he has for years played a a significant role in receiving foreign visitors in the UK.  His role in the “realms” (the countries that recognise the Monarch as their Head of State) gives him a (literally) unique perspective, as the figurehead for not one but a number of distinct countries and cultures.

His extended family connections extend across much of Europe; beyond, he has an automatic connection with Royal houses and their families. Perhaps a little like those of military officers who can strike up relationships through shared experiences transcending current political differences, Royal connections constitute an extra dimension that can be put to the service of the State. And he has been making these connections throughout his life, not just in the space of a political career.   

King Charles’ interest in the environment is inherently international and the role of the Prince’s Trust International is one example of the charitable activities outside the UK and Commonwealth with which he has been engaged. For the new Monarch, it isn’t all political and diplomatic. 

But, colourful as it is, is Royal diplomacy really a part of the modern world? It certainly can be, precisely in the same way that, for many, a constitutional monarchy still plays a uniquely valuable role domestically. Just as former Prime Ministers have described the importance of their regular (totally) private audiences with The Queen, so Royal diplomacy, precisely because it is personal and not part of the political day-to-day, provides a unique opportunity – if you like, call it a particular kind of “Track Two”, listening, sharing wisdom and experience without an axe to grind or an ambition to pursue.   

How will King Charles III do? History will tell, but we can identify some of the conditions which will contribute to the answer they will give.   

First, perhaps, the Monarchy’s international role depends essentially on its domestic position. If it remains (as it appears today) very widely supported, its role internationally will follow. The role of the Prince and Princess of Wales and other members of the Royal family in maintaining support among younger generations will also be important. If the Union comes under pressure in coming years from the movements for Scottish independence or Irish reunification, the very way in which the King (and the United Kingdom) is described could become more difficult to explain. More broadly, the prestige of the Royal Family is linked to the national strength of the UK – however one chooses to define it – though the link is softer and somewhat intangible: the UK is indisputably not the global power it (just about) still was in 1952 and yet the international attention on the Queen’s funeral was unprecedented.

Secondly, with the King’s accession, the Commonwealth enters a new and uncertain era.   King Charles III has already made clear that he will respect the view of any of the realms that wish to cease their association with the Monarchy. As Prince of Wales he has acknowledged the legacy of slavery, but intensified calls for a stronger response, even reparations, will challenge a Monarch whose responsibilities to the Commonwealth, which he treasures, could come up against the policies of a British Government. Royal diplomacy will definitely be required into the future.

Finally, the issue on which King Charles has become best known is the environment, where he has been (by Royal standards) an outspoken campaigner for many years before concern for climate became central to political discourse. He has already made clear that he will not act as King in the same way as he did as Prince, but his continuing concern and commitment is beyond question. A diplomatic tightrope stretches out ahead. Imagine an overseas visit to a country that is implementing policies that threaten serious environmental damage: how can the King be more outspoken abroad than he is allowed to be at home? 

These challenges are real and are not just for the King, his advisers and his present and future Prime Ministers, but also for those – charities, campaigners, businesses – who will have opportunities to be associated with him and his work. His influence, like The Queen’s, will come from his status as “constitutional” Monarch: always dignified (as Edmund Burke put it), often behind the scenes, and with a perspective of a length and breadth that no political figure can rival. It may be tempting for some to press for a more pointed, campaigning, “modern” role for the 21st century and its social media. This would be a mistake: the Monarchy’s future as a diplomatic asset for the UK certainly depends on keeping up with the times but retaining a detachment from the day-to-day that only it can have. It’s a golden egg we should preserve.

David Landsman