UK foreign policy undermined by poor strategy - MPs warn

18 October 2010

A lack of strategic thinking at the heart of Government threatens the UK’s national interests, the Public Administration Committee has warned in a report out today. The MPs note Whitehall’s tendency to ‘muddle through’ and point to the UK’s military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, as examples where there has been a lack of overarching strategy

The report says clear strategic leadership is indispensible to advance British interests in an increasingly fast changing world. But it raises serious concerns about Whitehall’s capacity to support the Foreign Secretary’s aspiration to extend the UK’s ‘global reach and influence’ with the necessary strategic analysis and assessment. This applies particularly to the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review and the MPs question how far this can actually be ‘strategic’?

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of PASC said:

"We welcome the new Government’s aspiration to think more strategically, but when we tried to find out who actually does UK National Strategy, virtually all the evidence we took suggests the answer is ‘no one’. Ministers are in danger of announcing a Strategic and Security Defence Review that is anything but ‘strategic’. 

 Whitehall has fallen out of the habit of strategic thinking.  Different departments think about strategy in different ways, often at cross-purposes.  The National Security Council is a step in the right direction, but its remit and capacity is limited.

 While the Foreign Secretary has said he ‘rejects strategic shrinkage’, all the evidence suggests that Whitehall lacks the capacity to make strategic sense of defence policy, while reducing spending on diplomacy and defence. To secure the safety and prosperity of the UK, it is critical that the Government relearn the lost art of national strategy."

The report draws on evidence from witnesses including the Foreign Secretary, the National Security Adviser, the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, historians and leading military thinkers.

The Committee is calling for: 

  • Ministers to invest more time and energy into strategic leadership;
  • The creation of a ‘community of strategic thinkers’ across Whitehall, to provide ministers with the capacity for strategic analysis and  assessment, which in time could become a new national strategic assessment agency; 
  • The National Security Council’s remit to encompass National Strategy;
  • Greater emphasis to be placed on strategic studies and training both within Whitehall and in academia;  
  • Parliament’s Joint Committee on National Security Strategy to extend its remit to include National Strategy; 
  • For a small central budget to be established to fund central coordination of departmental contributions to National Strategy. 

Image: PA

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