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  • Organizing for British national strategy


    International Affairs 90: 3 (2014) 509524 2014 The Author(s). International Affairs 2014 The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford ox4 2dq, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

    [Politicians and senior officials] lack the time for fundamental or innovatory thinking. The sheer pace of decision-making in the contemporary conduct of international relationsand the general absence of any procedure for discriminating between the urgent and the importantmake that impossible. The practitioner sees his task as being to apply the conventional wisdom to the solution of problems that are both concrete and pressing.

    Sir James Cable, former head of policy planners, 19811

    There has been an over-preoccupation with the short term, often no longer than the present, at the expense of longer term strategic thinking.

    Sir Hilary Synott, former High Commissioner to Pakistan, 20112

    A primary responsibility of government is to take anticipatory action to enable the major risks facing society to be managed (and the opportunities seized) and to take anticipatory action to reduce societys vulnerability to the types of disruptive phenomena that we may face. It is in the judicious combination of these two responses that we will find future national security.

    Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, 20063

    Defining the problem

    Foreign policy strategy requires an understanding of long-term national interests.4 However, the national interest is a catch-all term that can be both meaningful and meaningless. Invariably political leaders define the national interest. Some will veer towards a minimalist reading, favouring limited national goals. Others may push for a maximalist reading, moved by principle or universalism. The balance between values and interestsand the definition of interestsis determined at the level of strategic foreign policy-making in the British system, as in other

    * This article is based on a paper presented at a conference on British foreign policy and the national interest convened by Robin Porter at Chatham House on 12 July 2013. The author would like to thank John Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, Ryan Irwin, Charlie Laderman and Chris Miller for relevant discussions at Yale; and the Asia Society, as selected interviews cited here were conducted during a Bernard Schwartz fellowship in New York in 2012. This article is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of the United Nations or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

    1 James Cable, The useful art of international relations, International Affairs 57: 2, 1981, p. 308.2 Personal communication with author, Jan. 2011.3 David Omand, In the national interest: organising government for national security, Demos Annual Security

    Lecture, 2006.4 Hew Strachan, Strategy and contingency, International Affairs 87: 6, 2011, pp. 128196.

    INTA90_3_02_Evans.indd 509 07/05/2014 09:43

  • Alexander Evans

    510International Affairs 90: 3, 2014Copyright 2014 The Author(s). International Affairs 2014 The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

    democratic societies. The prime minister, foreign secretary and cabinet, supported by civil servants and influenced by the small band of writers and thinkers who are actually read, now regularly set out a formal foreign policy strategy. Thinking about Britains interests, values and role in the world was once largely articu-lated through speeches and articles or in debate on the floor of the House of Commons. Today it has moved into the terrain of official strategy documents, although speeches remain important markers.

    Strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.5 Yet most plans fail. Plans often fail to define challenges accurately. Plans that predict the future rarely get it right. And plans are rarely useful at key decision points for political principals. So much strategy has to be about dealing with the unexpected and promoting coherent international policy-making in a changing world. But who services this strategizing? Which advisers can help political leaders navigate a complex and competing array of interests and arguments? And where does thinking creatively about the past and the futurethinking in time6fit into foreign policy formation?

    This article explores the formulation of the national interest by looking at the machinery of government, with a deliberate focus on how policy planning evolved within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Before turning to the policy planning staff, this article briefly looks at three specific problems of foreign-policy-making. These are the challenges of thinking in time, taking a strategic perspective on foreign policy, and thinking creatively.

    Hunting for the long-headed

    In December 1968 the Harvard Professor Ernest May asked how the US govern-ment could access long-headed staffers to provide greater strategic depth to foreign policy.7 Across the Atlantic the British had also been grappling with the problem of long-term foreign policy. Harold Macmillan appointed a committee chaired by Lord Plowden to review overseas representation in 19623.8 The resulting report was critical of the Foreign Office:

    In the past some policy problems have not been anticipated or prepared for sufficiently. This is easy to say but difficult to legislate for. Some situations are unpredictable and surprises cannot be eliminated. Nevertheless, many issues can be foreseen at least in outline and it is better to prepare for these in advance than to improvise when they have arisen.9

    5 Oxford English Dictionary, 2013.6 This phrase is taken from Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in time: the uses of history for decision-makers

    (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).7 Letter from Ernest May to Henry Kissinger, 6 Dec. 1968, Nixon Library archive, NLN 03/211, www., accessed 11 April 2014.8 Committee on Representational Services Overseas, Report of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas

    (London: HMSO, 1964).9 Committee on Representational Services Overseas, Report of the Committee on Representational Services Overseas,

    p. 55.

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  • Organizing for British national strategy

    511International Affairs 90: 3, 2014Copyright 2014 The Author(s). International Affairs 2014 The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

    Thinking in time is hard to do because it requires a fuller appreciation of the past and harder thinking about the future than officials have time or patience to undertake.

    Short-termism in foreign policy is a persistent problem, not least because foreign policy is often reactive. The operational and immediate dominate. It is difficult to take a long-term perspective when short-term priorities crowd the in-box. Governments are measured by what they do, not how they think. Strategy can be neglected. Even when there is a holistic foreign policy vision, ministers and senior officials will spend much of their time making decisions.

    Many problems flow from this focus on the present. It reduces space for reflec-tive thinking about Britains interests and role in the world, and about the means to advance them. It fosters an insider culture among officials who work on foreign and security policy. This culture can be impatient of outside views that appear inconsiderate of the demands of policy-making or unconscious of the ability (or otherwise) of government to execute particular policy choices.10 It diminishes the slender appetite that exists to consider recent or historic policy failure, and to incorporate lessons learned into current and future policy-making.11 It reduces the chance of meaningful conversations between scholars and practitioners.12 It can reinforce many of the behavioural biases in policy-making: optimism bias,13 overconfidence14 and groupthink.15

    One further challenge is recentism, a focus on the immediate past at the expense of a longer view. Recentism can make officials and politicians cautious when they should be bold, and bold when they should be cautious. Meanwhile diplomats and national security officials, like all professionals, face difficulties in dealing with information that contradicts existing beliefs.16 We are all prone to fail to recognize our own areas of incompetence.

    Who can take the broader view?

    The second challenge relates to taking a strategic perspective on foreign policy. A classic tension in bureaucracies is the competition between generalists and special-ists. The stereotype is that generalists lack depth, but bring breadth and judgement, while specialists lack broader perspective but bring expertise to bear.17 The debate 10 Part of the challenge here is stylistic. There is a sharp contrast between staccato, action-oriented policy briefs

    and longer academic or journalistic articles. 11 Peter J. May, Policy learning and failure, Journal of Public Policy 12: 4, 1992, pp. 33154.12 This is already difficult enough, hamperedaccording to Robert Gallucci, the president of the John D. and

    Catherine T. MacArthur Foundationby the theoretical turn in International Relations which has made dialogue between academics and practitioners more difficult. See Robert Gallucci, How scholars can improve international relations, Chronicle of Higher Education 59: 14, 26 Nov. 2012.

    13 Colin F. Camerer and Howard Kunreuther, Decision processes for low probability events: policy implications, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 8: 4, pp. 5659.

    14 Philip E. Tetlock, Expert political judgment: how good is it? How can we know


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