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Review of Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns

altReview of Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns


Douglas Alexander is a senior Labour Party politician, currently Shadow Secretary of State for foreign affairs in the UK. Ian Kearns was formerly Deputy Director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, the UK’s ‘leading progressive think-tank’. Partisan, then. But don’t let these political credentials distract you. There is much in this valuable new book for readers of all political persuasions. In particular, it left me pondering three questions about international development, one easy, one hard and one very hard.

First, where are the limits of international development? That’s easy. Hint: the threads are longer than you think.

Second, what is the future of multilateralism when international institutions are imperfect and hard to reform.  That’s hard. Hint: keep trying, and be more ruthless in managing incentives.

Third, should development ministries like DFIDDepartment for International Development become ministries of global affairs, and in that case where does it leave ministries of foreign affairs? That’s very hard. Hint: if DFIDDepartment for International Development does not want to follow CIDACanadian International Development Assistance Agency and AUSAID into oblivion, then it needs even stronger networks across Whitehall.

The book is an edited collection of sixteen essays on future challenges. It is ostensibly about foreign affairs, but ranges widely across different kinds of challenge, as well as regions and institutions. There are chapters on countries or regions – China, Russia, the Arab World – but also chapters on institutions – the EU, the UN, NATO – and on challenges – climate change, poverty, humanitarian intervention. There is a section on power and diplomacy in the 21st Century. And the text is topped and tailed by Alexander and Kearns. The cast of authors is impressive. To name just a few: Mark Leonard on China, Charles Grant on the EU, Michael Williams on the UN, Paul Collier on poverty, Robin Niblett on diplomacy.

Alexander and Kearns begin with the big challenges. The global shift of economic power from West to East is ‘the most profound geo-economic re-ordering that our generation is likely to see’ (Pg 1). The global climate crisis poses ‘real and dangerous risks’ and ‘is most likely to define the next half century’ (Pg 3). ‘Weak and failing states outnumber strong and stable ones by more than two to one . . . and harbour a range of dangers’ (Pg 4).  ‘The anxiety that the future may not belong to the West is palpable’ (Pg 2). To sum up: ‘we cannot simply carry on as we are and expect Britain to be successful on the international stage in future’ (Pg 7).

Pulling the debate together in the final chapter, the editors identify four trends. First, the diffusion of power, from the West to the Rest, and from the nation state to an array of non-governmental organisations. Second, a change in the ‘character of power’, away from military capability towards other instruments. Third, the inadequacy of traditional notions of sovereignty in a world with multiple non-state actors. And fourth, the growing importance of decentralised, peer-to-peer information flows. This leads them to make a strong plea for ‘extended multilateral cooperation’, drawing in new partners, and finding ways of working collaboratively with those who do not share our values. A key idea, borrowed from Joe Nye, is ‘smart power’, combining the hard power of coercion with the soft power of attraction and example. This needs to be backed up by a high degree of legitimacy, and founded on domestic strength. Applications are offered across the range of issues. Alexander and Kearns conclude that ‘a radically changed global contract means now, more than ever, that all states are buffeted by events and none can fully command the external environment. The choice on offer is whether to be buffeted within the framework of a strategic vision or whether to be buffeted without’ (Pg 307).

The individual essays flesh out these arguments and are especially interesting on questions of influence and on the limits of power. For example, and dipping in and out selectively, Mark Leonard puts forward a tendentious argument to the effect that ‘China’s participation in global institutions has hollowed out many of the progressive norms rather than ‘socialising’ China’ (Pg 40). Robert Legvold writes interestingly about relations with Russia, especially the choice between a transactional relationship and one based on values. Shashank Joshi dives into the complexities of the Middle East. An overarching concern is with the growing limits to US influence, and its changing priorities. The pivot to Asia is much discussed, though nuanced in an overview by Xenia Dormandy.

It is tempting to think that these chapters are not about ‘development’ as we currently understand it, but of course that is far from the truth. The China chapter has a good deal to say about global trade rules, and Leonard goes so far as to suggest that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is designed partly to create so valuable a market that it will corral China into accepting Western norms. Similarly, the Russia chapter has a strong focus on the global impact of Russia’s energy policy. And who would say, with Syria dominating the humanitarian agenda, that the Middle East is not a development concern.

Other chapters are obviously relevant. Collier, of course, revisiting the themes of the Bottom Billion: he emphasises especially the idea that ‘aid (is) not enough, we (need) to bring laws, trade policy and security support into play as well’ (Pg 202). Jeffrey Mazo on climate change: using the cases of Darfur and the Arab Spring to illustrate the wide-ranging impact of climate change and emphasising that it is a ‘threat multiplier’. Simon Adams on the imperative of the responsibility to protect: calling for fewer Security Council vetoes and a stronger International Criminal Court. I did not know, but learned from Adams, that R2P was designed as an ‘explicit rejection’ of the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (Pg 218).

Two other chapters are worth a mention. Both illustrate the problem of a multilateral system that is not quite fit for purpose. First, Charles Grant writes about European futures, including the challenge of German hegemony and the crisis of legitimacy. He also discusses the waning power of the European Commission, a loss of authority vis-à-vis Member States and the European Parliament. The EUEuropean Union can be rescued, he thinks, but quite a lot needs to change, from German attitudes, allegedly currently condescending, to strengthening the role of national parliaments in the legislative process. Second, Michael Williams writes about the UN, praising its universality and legitimacy, but lamenting the dysfunctionality of the Security Council, the patchy record of peacekeeping, and the displacement of the UN by the ‘illegitimate’ G20. Again, change is needed, starting with Security Council reform.

What, then, of my three questions?

What are the limits of international development?

First, where are the limits of international development? We don’t need to argue about whether development is about more than aid. That line has been commonplace for decades, and is reflected, for example, in the Centre for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index, or the EU’s work on policy coherence for development.  Some observers even argue that development is hardly any more even about aid at all – except in the small remaining number of low income countries. I have suggested that the EU, for one, is moving in that direction, in its recent policy on financing for development.

The more interesting question is where the thread ends. We can agree that trade, finance, disease control, intellectual property, tax havens, the war on drugs, security policy, CO2 emissions control and a myriad other items all influence welfare and human development in ‘developing countries’ (and we will come shortly to what that phrase might mean). We are reminded by this book that those items in turn, sometimes more, sometimes less, are themselves embedded in wider geo-strategic landscapes. If TTIP is a device to ensnare China in a liberal world trade regime, and if R2P, backed up by force, is a means to build a political coalition to support transition in fragile states like Libya, and if the geopolitics comes home to roost in the Security Council or the G8, then the thread is long indeed. Theseus needed a whole ball of thread, provided by Ariadne, to navigate the labyrinth. We may be in the same position. To be effective in international development is to be able to ‘work the system’, not just in aid, but more generally. By the way, this is a lesson we have learned in the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (which I chair), in our work on climate diplomacy: a key strategy is to broaden the constituency, by positioning action on climate change, not as a technical issue, but as a strategic national priority.

What is the future of multilateralism?

Second, what is the future of multilateralism when international institutions are imperfect and hard to reform? It is easy to say that global problems require multilateral solutions. I have said that myself, many times. It is also easy to say that multilateral solutions would be easier to achieve if multilateral institutions could only be reformed, in this way or that. I have been guilty of that, too. Much more interesting and difficult, I think, is to focus not on the ‘why?’ or ‘what?’ of multilateral reform, but on the ‘how?’. I had hoped to find some solutions in this book, not least in three chapters on power and influence, respectively by Lawrence Korb/Max Hoffman, Alec Ross/Ben Scott and Robin Niblett. They are all interesting chapters, covering different aspects of hard and soft power, and the UK’s asssets in different realms, but I would have liked to see systematic application to specific international examples. In this, the authors could have benefited from a reading of the literature on global governance: see, for example, Ian Goldin’s recent book,  ‘Divided Nations: why global governance is failing and what we can do about it’ – and my review, which contrasts the prescriptions of Ian Goldin with Ngaire Woods (WG classic), WG Plus and my own eight-point programme for improved global governance. Trust plays a big part in all these lists; so do incentives and disincentives to good behaviour.

This is probably not the place to discuss reform packages in any detail, but certainly we could do better on both the EUEuropean Union and the UN by being more sophisticated about the how as well as the why and what. In the case of the EU, and from a specifically development perspective, my money would be on building much better conversations among EUEuropean Union Member States, in order to create a broadly-based epistemic community. In fact, we are doing that through the European Think-Tanks Group and our work with European Change-Makers. I would also keep the Commission on a shorter leash, reducing the seven-year financial planning period to five years, and building in strong financial incentives to recognise change. In fact, I would treat the EUEuropean Union institutions much as they in turn treat developing countries: not with detailed conditionality, but by agreeing high-level results frameworks, backed up by significant rewards for good performance. A similar strategy would work for the UN: I would try to consolidate all funding into core budgets rather than trust funds, hold those budgets centrally for the whole of the UN, introduce medium term rather than short-term budget horizons, and use the financial weight of these changes to negotiate for institutional reform.

But, I agree: this is hard.

How should development ministries change?

The third question, and the hardest, is this: should development ministries like DFIDDepartment for International Development become ministries of global affairs, and in that case where does it leave ministries of foreign affairs?

This is currently a question of some global interest. The UK, of course, still retains an independent Department for International Development, led by a minister of cabinet rank. This was always the exception rather than the rule, and has become more so. Canada and Australia have recently made significant changes to their aid administrations, merging aid administration into foreign affairs. In those countries, and in others, like Denmark and the Netherlands, development is also closely linked to trade. In the Netherlands, for example, Liliane Ploumen is Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. France has a Minister for Development within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the technical functions are embedded in a ‘Directorate-General of Global Affairs, Development and Partnerships’, which includes work on business support and international economics. Germany, we were told at our Changemakers’ conference in June, ‘is considering two options: a ministry for global issues, based on cooperation rather than aid, and covering issues such as food security, technology, poverty, resource efficiency/management and agriculture; or a strengthening of international departments in all the relevant sectoral ministries’. The EUEuropean Union is engaged in a debate about the role of the External Action Service, and the remit of the Vice President/High Representative, who leads the EEAS, vis-à-vis the Development Commissioner: this will need to be settled before a new Commission takes office in 2014.

Underpinning these actual and potential changes is a sense that aid, while necessary for now, is an instrument of declining relative, sometimes absolute, value. This is because other instruments are growing, not least trade, remittances, other financial flows, and more general cultural links; but also because the number of low income countries that can be considered potential aid recipients has declined quite rapidly and will decline further. There are currently only 36 low income countries on the World Bank list, and that number will inevitably decline. If development were only about aid, then someone would be bound to ask whether we need a Cabinet-level minister to manage aid to twenty or thirty mostly small low-income countries.

More important, if development is about more than aid, someone is bound to ask where the boundaries of the constituency lie: do development ministries deal with aid and non-aid issues only for low income counties and fragile states, or for some wider group, and if wider, how defined? Are upper middle income countries in Latin America included in the development remit, for example? And how, then, does the development minister work with colleagues dealing with trade, defence or foreign affairs more generally?

These issues are not discussed in Alexander and Kearns’ book, which is a pity. Douglas Alexander, after all, was Secretary of State at DFIDDepartment for International Development in a former life, and someone very committed to the wider development brief created when DFIDDepartment for International Development was established in 1997. I would love to know what he thinks.

Personally, I think there are two options for DFID.

The first is to merge DFIDDepartment for International Development back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where it sat until 1997. In those days, the development minister had a range of responsibilities: Lynda Chalker, for example, was Africa minister as well as the minister for development, presumably well placed to take a broad overview of the UK’s strategic purposes and instruments. There would have to be some conditions if this were to happen: preserving the poverty-focused purposes of the aid programme, as defined by the International Development Act of 2002; protection of DFID’s skilled cadres; a senior ministerial post; and probably a redefinition of the purposes and culture of the FCO, to make it more focused on delivering global public goods. The last condition is not trivial. Some have suggested not a merger of DFIDDepartment for International Development into the FCO, but rather a ‘reverse take-over’ of the FCOForeign and Commonwealth Office by DFID.

This option is worth discussion, but is politically difficult, and quite high risk.

The second option is to draw on German and French ideas, maintain DFIDDepartment for International Development as a Cabinet-level department, but re-focus its work on global issues, with a remit to work in partnership across Government. In practice, this is what already happens. DFIDDepartment for International Development is represented on the National Security Council. It has many joint programmes with other ministries, like the Conflict Pool, shared with the FCOForeign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, or the International Climate Fund, shared with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the FCO. At some periods, it has shared ministers with other Departments, as when Gareth Thomas was a minister in both DFIDDepartment for International Development and the then Department of Trade and Industry. As Alex Evans and David Steven remarked in a monograph for Chatham House in 2010:

‘ .. .  international departments’ mode of operation is becoming more complex. Risks cut across issue and organizational silos. Few can be managed effectively without collaboration between complex networks of state and non-state actors. ‘

The question for the future is what it would take to do this well. I commented on this earlier this year in response to the annual report of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, which looked at the Conflict Pool, and also at cross-departmental collaboration during the Arab Spring. To cut a long story short,

‘There seem to be several elements conducive to success, apart from goodwill and flexibility: a clear cross-Government strategy, an effective inter-Departmental Board, a dedicated Secretariat, a series of Programme Boards on different topics, and specialised in-country teams.

. . .

Some further questions also follow:

  1. It would be interesting to ask what the difference is between a joined-up pool and a forum or mechanism for coordination between ministries? And when is one preferable to the other?
  2. How does ministerial leadership and accountability work when cross-cutting programmes are established? Does it work better when the National Security Council is involved? Are Cabinet committees the right mechanism? Or is there some advantage in having a shared minister?
  3. Is there a reason why DFID cannot just implement all programmes – it has much better capacity and experience than the FCO and in some ways the British Council. Would this not guarantee better joined-up thinking?
  4. Are there other cases where it would be useful to consider a joint approach – for example, Nepal, where DFID seems to have acted independently. 
  5. Finally, one is left asking what the case is for cross-government initiatives. If they are important on e.g. conflict, why not also trade, migration, technology, finance, and many other issues.’

Looking at this list with the benefit of hindsight, I could have added to the questions. For example, what kind of staffing is needed, in numbers and competences, to fulfil a networking role? Remember my work back in 2005 on the archetypes of development professional: ‘spyglass, spigot, spoon or spanner’. This option also does not quite settle the question of the geographical and substantive boundary between DFIDDepartment for International Development and the FCO.

Anyway, it seems to me that Alexander and Kearns bring us back to this territory, but leave us without a detailed roadmap. Perhaps that will be the next stage of their work? In the meantime, they have done us a service in opening up an important discussion for the future.


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