Rebooting the UK Foreign Secretary Role

With Jeremy Hunt replacing Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, the UK government has the opportunity to step back and reconsider some of the key messages of its foreign policy.

Expert comment
2 minute READ

Professor Richard G. Whitman

Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe

Jeremy Hunt holds a press conference during the annual UK-Australia ministerial consultations in Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images.

Jeremy Hunt holds a press conference during the annual UK-Australia ministerial consultations in Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images.

Boris Johnson was the least successful of all Britain’s post-Second World War foreign secretaries during one of the most important and demanding periods. Where gravitas and grasp of detail were needed Johnson supplied bon mots and appeared to be preoccupied with domestic party politics to the cost of building the confidence of the UK’s allies and partners.

During Johnson’s term as foreign secretary the public diplomacy aspects of British foreign policy were particularly poor. The headline message of ‘Global Britain’ was intended to counteract the perception that Brexit was an act of insularity and reassure allies and friends that a post-Brexit UK would be internationally engaged and redefining its global profile.

But for many overseas governments and commentators (and especially those within Europe), ‘Global Britain’ was symptomatic of a vacuousness in British diplomatic thinking and action, and Johnson was tainted by association with the Leave campaign, perceived as unscrupulous by many across the EU. Notwithstanding the UK’s ongoing diplomatic, development, military and security commitments outside of the EU, Johnson’s performance fuelled a sense that the UK had lost a grip on both the medium and the message of its foreign policy.

Striking a different tone

The newly-minted foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has a chance to re-establish greater confidence in UK foreign policy through his conduct in the role and the competence of his messaging. He also has the opportunity to lead the debate on a future British foreign policy that was conspicuously absent in the simplistic slogans of his predecessor.

The ongoing inquiry into Global Britain by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has demonstrated that the work on a post-Brexit British foreign and security policy has barely begun. The foreign secretary should be challenging his department and stimulating a broader and deeper conversation on the UK’s future foreign policy needs, and making a stronger case for greater resources to be devoted to UK diplomacy.

He would be well served by drawing on recent examples of how to conduct the role of foreign secretary. William Hague’s high quality communication skills with Robin Cook’s willingness to challenge prevailing orthodoxy would be a formidable combination. Both former foreign secretaries enjoyed the respect of the UK’s diplomatic partners.

Putting the FCO at the heart of the Brexit negotiations

Brexit diplomacy will peak in the autumn when the terms of the withdrawal agreement need to be settled. But this is only the prelude to the commencement of negotiations over the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

Hunt must make a strong case for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has been sidelined in the Brexit negotiations, to take the lead on the future EU–UK relationship. The task of navigating a future relationship with the EU needs core diplomatic skills and a detailed knowledge of the position of third parties, which has been missing in much of the withdrawal negotiations.

From March 2019, once in transition, the UK will require a new type of diplomacy with the EU, as Britain will be outside the EU but remain bound by its policies and decisions until the end of 2020. At the same time as being locked in to the EU but out of the institutions that shape it, civil servants will be negotiating the future EU–UK relationship.

Muscular multilateralism

Hunt will have a domestic and European audience for his vision of UK foreign policy in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in early October. Addressing what will be a friendly audience, he should seize the opportunity to demonstrate his foreign policy credentials.

A central component of the government’s autumn message should be that the UK is affirming itself as a defender of multilateralism. By affirming a ‘muscular multilateralist’ approach, the UK would send a signal to the US that support for multilateralism is a core tenet that will not be compromised for any relationship, no matter how special.

For Europeans the message should be that, despite Brexit, the UK remains committed to multilateral institutions as the best basis for managing international relations, and will seek to become the EU’s first-call international partner.

Whether the Global Britain slogan is rebooted, or, preferably, retired, the autumn presents an opportunity to establish greater clarity of messaging on post-Brexit British foreign policy.