The Transformation of Foreign Policy

By Briggs, Rachel | Renewal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of Foreign Policy


Briggs, Rachel, Renewal


Ten years ago when I started working at the newly formed Foreign Policy Centre as a starry eyed graduate, I remember being swept away by the scale of the challenge we had set ourselves. In brainstorming sessions to write our prospectus in those first few weeks, we talked about 'democratising foreign policy' and 'bringing foreign policy home' with missionary zeal as if we were embarking on a national campaign comparable to the Stop the War or Drop the Debt coalitions.

But in time, working in the thick of these debates, those sentiments came to feel mundane and everyday. We accepted without question the idea that foreign policy should be open to the same kind of scrutiny and public engagement as health or education; that the private sector is a valid actor, alongside the state; and that foreign policy needed to encompass new issues, such as the environment, travel advice or foreign public opinion. Five years later, I moved on from foreign policy to take up a position at Demos, where in those days the organisation's staples were public services, gender and the monarchy. While I was busy building Demos' international network, I assumed the ideas we had developed were becoming just as uncontroversial to mainstream policy makers as they had been to that young, idealistic team of '98.

In some ways, foreign policy has moved on leaps and bounds. The environment is now one the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) main priorities. The FCO's recent reorganisation sees it structured along thematic rather than geographical lines, something we had advocated all those years ago. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private companies are now in and out of the Department for International Development (DfID) on a daily basis and carry out much of their work overseas. And foreign policy has become an issue that matters in general elections, although largely for the wrong reasons in recent years (Iraq and terrorism).

While the foreign policy of today is, in many ways, unrecognisable to that of the 1990s, the challenges we and many others marked out around the time that Labour came to power in 1997 are so profound that it will be many years before we have worked through their full implications and made all the necessary reforms. This special edition of Renewal is an attempt to stop, take stock, and lay down some of the next steps for policy makers working in foreign policy, international development and security. It is far from comprehensive--to be so would require a whole year's worth of journal space--but it picks out some of the most pressing and interesting issues and seeks to weave them together into an agenda for the next phase of work ahead. It maps four key shifts: the rise of new actors in foreign policy, the emergence of new non-traditional issues, the changing world order, and the need for a new international system to deal with resilience.

The rise of new foreign policy actors

Arguably the most significant shift in foreign policy during the ten years I have been an observer is the arrival of a raft of new actors, from NGOs and aid agencies, to private companies and citizens. While the big decisions about foreign policy are still made in Downing Street and the FCO, it cannot be denied that these organisations now have a real say in how foreign policy is made and delivered on the ground. The Foreign Secretary himself made this point in a lecture to the Fabian Society which highlighted the fundamental shift in power from governments to people (Miliband, 2008), and in this issue Alex Evans and David Steven stress the limitations of a centralised response and the government's reduced capacity to act given the nature of the new risks and challenges we face.

While the involvement of non-state actors is an inevitability, making these relationships work in practice is not without problems. This is perhaps best illustrated by the case of NGOs. One of the major changes when Labour came into power in 1997 was the establishment of DfID, with its leading Minister occupying a seat in the Cabinet, and the government's commitment to substantially increasing the UK's international development budget. …

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