Former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, explores how the FCDO responds to crisis and considers the challenges for the UK system of coping with two international crises simultaneously.
The Foreign Office does crisis underground. For as long as I worked there, the FC(D)O had a crisis centre somewhere in the basement. After the team responding to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 emerged into daylight in the middle of 1991, plans were initiated to upgrade facilities, partly to give officers better conditions but also to allow them to handle more than one crisis at a time. These days, the suite of rooms sprawling over two floors in Downing Street East looks more like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise than the Cabinet War Rooms.
Another justification for the upgrade is the increased frequency of crisis. One of the duties of the permanent secretary is deciding when the FCDO moves into crisis mode. In my five years (2015 – 2020) that happened thirty-eight times. We were in crisis for a total of 343 days, coping with everything from the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria (September and October 2017) to Russia’s poisoning of the Skripals (March 2018) to Covid-19 (we were between lockdowns when I left in September 2020).
The British government has been dealing with the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. When a crisis is big enough, involving multiple ministries, the centre leads, through the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, which coordinates the work of the FCDO, Ministry of Defence, Treasury, Home Office, agencies, and other ministries as required.
The system had been running hot for more than eighteen months when, on 7 October, Hamas attacked Israel slaughtering over 1,400 civilians in cold blood. At least a dozen Britons were among the dead. Scores of Britons are trapped in Gaza and Brits are also among more than two hundred hostages Hamas terrorists took back to Gaza. Suddenly the international community was pitched into a second massive crisis.
Can the British system cope with two international crises simultaneously? In short and in the short term, the answer is ‘yes’, the key ministries are large enough, expert enough and drilled enough. They also have long experience of dealing with several crises at a time.
Right now, Kosovo and Serbia are teetering on the brink of renewed conflict. Lord Peach, the Prime Minister’s special envoy, has visited the region three times in the last ten days, as part of a coordinated effort to reduce tensions. Further East, on 19 September, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale military attack against Nagorno Karabakh, an enclave within its territory traditionally populated by Armenians. After a ceasefire brokered the next day, ethnic Armenians began fleeing westwards in large numbers. By October, more than 100,000 had made their way to Armenia; the UN estimates that fewer than 1,000 remain in Nagorno Karabakh.
British and other diplomats work tirelessly on multiple crises, even when their work fails to attract the column inches or broadcast minutes it might objectively deserve.
It is also relevant that the two most prominent crises in eastern Europe and the Middle East are staffed by different teams, in London as well as overseas. At the top level, the relatively small number of officials who have to be across the detail of both, is able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
But I make three provisos. First, although the system is resilient, it is not endlessly so. Over months, the rostering of crisis centre, the need to strip talent and resources from other parts of the operation, gets increasingly wearing. If the Ukraine and Gaza/Israel crises extend far into 2024 (which right now is my assumption) either something else will have to give or new resources will be needed.
Second, neither of these wars directly involves UK forces, nor is either likely to. British military deployments – in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and the Balkans in my career – add hugely to the stress, complexity and expense of any crisis.
And, third, the system will devote the hard work and imagination needed to help the international effort pick its way through to a solution or stalemate but public, press and political attention might not. The last three weeks have been as grisly as any of the previous eighty in Ukraine and yet international attention has been strikingly absent. It is not only public officials but also journalists and public who need to maintain their interest in more than one crisis at a time.
By Lord McDonald, former Permanent Under Secretary, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2015-2020).