A post-imperial diplomat

Ehsan Masood
30 May 2006

In May 2006 at Wilton Park, a large government-owned country-house near England's south coast, officials from European Union countries met over two days with counterparts from countries with a Muslim majority.

The idea was to begin healing wounds and discuss what can be done to combat mutual stereotyping, particularly after the cartoons crisis. One of the heaviest contingents was from Denmark. A nation that gave the world a master storyteller, a Shakespearean character, pastries and Lurpak, is mortified to think that its global legacy may well turn out to be none of these. Denmark's policy-makers, from the office of the prime minister downwards, want to learn from the experience, and to make amends.

Under the rules granting journalistic access to such meetings, I cannot tell you who said what. But I can tell you that all sides went home with a better grounding in each other's perspectives, and feeling more optimistic about the future. I can also tell you that the meeting took place at the request, not of Denmark, nor of the United Kingdom, but of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Moreover, a newish department in the British foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) – called Engaging With the Islamic World Group – played an important catalytic role.

The world through others' eyes

The Engaging With the Islamic World Group was established in 2004. An eighteen-strong team of civil servants based in London provides assistance and advice to the different country-sections that take the lead in British foreign policy-making, according to Frances Guy, the department's chief.

We met in her office in the FCO's imposing King Charles Street building. She has been in the job for two years, following a stint as Britain's ambassador to Yemen, postings in Ethiopia, Thailand and Sudan, and two years as head of the Iraq section in the mid-1990s. Scots-born, she is fluent in Arabic and a regular viewer of al-Jazeera television. "On the whole its coverage of Iraq is good. Everyone makes mistakes, but it important to be able to see a different view to the BBC or CNN."

The work of Guy's department can be summed up as being able to see the world through others' eyes. In the past, she says, diplomats in Muslim countries tended to meet "people like ourselves, or people who we were comfortable talking to." Not any more. One of the groups that Guy and her staff spend a lot of time getting to know is Islamists. Engaging with Islamists happens in different ways. For example, British ministers and civil servants visiting Muslim countries take time to meet members of political parties, NGOs and journalists sympathetic to Islam in politics. This can, in turn, lead to joint activities, such as the Nazra festival in Cairo, organised by the British embassy, sponsored by the oil company BP and widely covered by Islamonline.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books to be published in 2006: Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO"
(December 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Ziauddin Sardar: paradise lost, a future found" (May 2006)

The staff of the Engaging with the Islamic World Group includes British Muslims. Its remit includes providing consular services to some 20,000 Muslims who make the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia; and educating younger Muslims in Britain about Islam. The group, for example, supports an initiative of three Muslim organisations, which arranges lecture-tours of Britain by overseas-based Islamic scholars, and takes ministers to meet local representatives across the country.

All this suggests that Britain's foreign office understands that something quite profound is taking place across the Islamic world, which will have a global impact. It is also a response to a political phenomenon: the election to national or local administrations of political parties sympathetic to (different visions of) Islam in an array of countries – Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and now the Palestinian Authority. It is significant too that such parties form the main opposition in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco. You don't need to read tarot cards to figure out that if an election were to happen in these countries tomorrow, Islamist parties would be in office the next day.

If the political map of the Islamic world is turning green then, according to Frances Guy, the European Union could do worse than to steer it in the direction of a democratic green, for no other reason than that "the past fifty years in western Europe shows that democracy makes for more stable and effective government." This, she says, underpins Britain's strong support for Turkish membership of the EU. However, outside of the union she concedes that it would be unwise to proscribe any particular model of governance.

In a speech at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 May 2006, she went further: "Western governments should promote the values of democracy in the wider sense and of good governance. They should not impose any particular models; Westminster models or otherwise."

It is hard to find fault with any of this. There is a vision, and a plan. What Guy is powerless to do, however, is to remove the twin obstacles which could undermine all her careful work. She concedes that Britain's presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is always high on the minds of those she engages with. "The feedback we get is that it is great to have all these lovely meetings with the minister, but your foreign policy is still the same, so what's the point."

A memo to Margaret

But I do think that it is too easy to be cynical.

Frances Guy is an innovator in a difficult job. But she is not the first. In the past ten years, the suits who run UK foreign policy have made a habit of finding and promoting people who think in less predictable ways, and it has mostly been for the better. The best example I know of is John Ashton, former head of the environment policy department, with whom I worked closely when we were colleagues at Leadership for Environment and Development (Lead).

When the late Robin Cook became Labour's first foreign secretary for eighteen years in 1997, he encouraged his senior team to be creative and to think big. One new idea was to place an iconoclastic thinker to head up a new environment policy department. An environmental department inside a foreign ministry is still a rarity. But Ashton (later co-founder of the project Third Generation Environmentalism [E3G]) had the foresight to see that environment would become a major future foreign-policy issue; he drew on the belief that thorough research leads to better policy to advise his superiors that the foreign office needed to build its expertise in areas such as climate change and biological diversity.

The gamble paid off. It meant, for example, that British foreign-office civil servants understood better than their United States counterparts that global action would be needed when the world's climate scientists issued early warnings about human-induced climate change. It helped the European Union broker agreement on the Kyoto protocol, despite strong United States reservations.

Ashton brought in other innovations that encouraged knowledge-sharing. For example, he encouraged professionals from business and civil society to undertake short-term secondments inside the department. This allowed them to witness policy-making from the inside, but at the same time it gave civil servants direct access to the complexity of views and opinions they would otherwise read mostly through sensationalist media reports.

In the same way, Ashton threw open the doors of the foreign office and invited staff from environment ministries in other countries to work in his department. The aim here was to be able to build agreement around a global issue such as climate change between officials from nations (such as Pakistan and Nigeria) who might otherwise not agree with British foreign policy.

Frances Guy is cut from the same cloth. She understands a core truth: that better knowledge can improve how policy is shaped and implemented. This is the foundation of smart policy-making. As I got up to leave, I asked her how often she sees the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw. She smiled and said: "perhaps once every two months".

This suggests that her work is still at the periphery of the making of UK foreign policy. It needs to move closer to the centre. Perhaps then it is fortunate that Britain now has a new foreign secretary, the former environment secretary Margaret Beckett. So here's a memo for her in-tray: the work of Frances Guy's department is a good thing. Its head deserves more of your time.

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