Skip to main content
Inside the Foreign Office - Hero Banner

Inside the Foreign Office

There’s never been a more significant time to look behind the scenes. 

About the programme

Film-maker Michael Waldman captures the extraordinary world of the men and women working in some of the most complex and sensitive jobs in government. Throughout a compelling and turbulent year, BBC Two has gained privileged access to the private and fascinating world of British diplomats in Whitehall and embassies around the globe, from Burma to Ukraine.  

Read more about the series on BBC programme pages , or learn more about the Foreign office below.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme: 

What is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)?

Dr Edward Wastnidge takes a look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explaining its modern day roles and responsibilities.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, often referred to as just the Foreign Office or FCO, exists to promote the United Kingdom’s interests overseas, and to support its citizens and businesses around the world. It does this by safeguarding the UK’s national security, offering consular services to help British citizens overseas, and by promoting the country’s prosperity through international trade and investment. It employs diplomats and civil servants working overseas and in the UK, and has existed as a government department since 1782.

Why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

A photo of London from the air, focusing on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office building

Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr under Creative-Commons license

This relates to Britain’s legacy as a former imperial power that held territories or dominions across the globe. British-ruled territories started to become self-governing and, in most cases, gained independence by the mid-20th century, though some retained the British monarch as their official Head of State. The Commonwealth came in to being in 1949, as a free association of independent nations, with Queen Elizabeth II acting as its head since her coronation in 1953.


What are the FCO’s main areas of responsibility?

Promoting UK interests abroad

The Foreign Office plays a key role in projecting the UK’s influence overseas through its emphasis on the so-called ‘rules-based international order’. As part of this, the FCO emphasises British values in the UK’s international affairs, such as respect for the rule of law and human rights, and the promotion of democracy and good governance.

How does it do this?

Through its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a relic of its status as a victorious power in the Second World War, the UK wields influence that is perhaps disproportionate to its current standing in world affairs. It uses this position to make sure it has a say in key global issues, meaning that the UK is often involved in military campaigns abroad to support its aims and those of its allies, as well as peacekeeping operations and promotion of stability in conflict zones.


Prosperity

Another priority area for the Foreign Office in terms of the UK’s interests overseas lies in its focus on promoting prosperity through promotion of economic growth and development of trade relationships with other countries.

How does it do this?

This might be done through securing trade agreements and investments with states that are of benefit to UK industries and business interests, both within the UK and abroad. The FCO will also work alongside other government departments to promote UK prosperity, such as the Department for International Trade, and most recently the Department for Exiting the European Union, as the UK seeks to forge new trade relationships in the light of Brexit.


Security

One of the key areas of responsibility for the Foreign Office is safeguarding the UK’s national security.

How does it do this?

Along with the security services (such as Mi5 and the Secret Intelligence Service), it helps defend the UK and its interests overseas through cooperating with the UK’s allies in in countering threats from hostile states and non-state actors in areas such as terrorism, weapons proliferation and cyber security.


Consular Assistance

Much of the Foreign Office’s work centres on the support it provides to British nationals who are travelling, working or residing overseas.

How does it do this?

The consular assistance provided by the FCO is wide-ranging and involves providing support in areas such as: helping British nationals who get into trouble abroad; cases of forced marriage and human trafficking, issuing emergency travel and other documents; offering travel advice; and providing assistance during crises such as civil unrest or natural disasters.


How does the FCO relate to other government departments?

By the nature of its remit, the FCO has to work closely with other government departments including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for International Development (DfID), the Department for International Trade (DIT), and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). For example, UK initiatives on conflict prevention and stabilisation are pursued through the Conflict Pool, a collaboration between the FCO, DfID and MoD; negotiations over Brexit involve the FCO, DIT and DExEU; and work on preventing ‘forced marriage’ is done through the Forced Marriage Unit, a joint initiative of the FCO and the Home Office.


Who works in the FCO?

The Foreign Office employs 14,000 people in a variety of roles. Around a third of this number are UK civil servants, meaning that they are UK citizens working on behalf of the government. The majority of these civil servants are based in the UK working in the FCOs offices, centred on Whitehall, while the rest work as part of the UK’s diplomatic service overseas. The majority of FCO employees are locally employed staff working at the various UK missions abroad. UK-based FCO roles include various political, legal and economic experts along with research analysts who specialise in specific countries and/or regions of the world. UK civil servants working as part of the diplomatic service overseas include the UK’s ambassadors – who represent the UK’s interests in the host country, consul-generals – who are in charge of the consular affairs of British nationals abroad, and diplomatic service officers.


What about the Foreign Secretary and government ministers?

In the UK, the Foreign Office is officially led by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, often referred to as the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary is also served by junior minsters of state for certain regions of the world, such as Africa or the Middle East. The Foreign Secretary is a political post held by a member of the government of the day, whereas civil service posts are non-political, appointed to advise and carry out the policies of the government of the day. Unlike in countries like the United States where there can be a wholesale turnover of government officials when there is a change of president, in the UK the civil service is ‘permanent’ – they do not change with government. To this end the day to day running of the FCO is the responsibility of the Permanent Under-Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service.


A photograph of Dr Victoria Honeyman, Tom Cargill and Dr William Brown

Audio: What are the challenges facing foreign policy?

What are the aims of UK foreign policy and how is Britain hoping to respond to rapidly changing global politics? Dr William Brown, Tom Cargill and Dr Victoria Honeyman discuss.


Tom is the Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a think tank that aims to promote informed discussion of Britain’s foreign policy. Victoria is a lecturer in politics at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, and writes extensively on UK foreign policy. Victoria is also the Chair of the Foreign Policy Working Group of the British International Studies Association.


Inside the Foreign Office: Jargon buster

Jargon is a speciality of corporations and bureaucracies. Dr William Brown breaks down the meanings to some of the titles and phrases used by the Foreign Office below.

Bilateral/Multilateral

International relations and negotiations and agreements are often referred to as either ‘bilateral’ or ‘multilateral’. Bilateral refers to negotiations or agreements between two states. Multilateral refers to relations, negotiations or agreements coordinating relations between three or more states. Multilateral agreements or treaties generally consist of rules that apply to all parties to the agreement. 


Diplomacy

In 1604, Sir Henry Wotton, a UK diplomat and politician, said: ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’.

Diplomacy is the practice of seeking to influence the actions and decisions of other states through dialogue, negotiation and other methods short of violence. It is often seen as seeking to resolve disputes or areas of disagreement peacefully, reflecting Winston Churchill’s view that ‘meeting jaw to jaw is better than war’. However, diplomacy continues to play a significant role even in times of war, being the means by which communications between parties can continue and settlements reached. 

Institutionalised and formalised diplomatic practice can be traced back at least to ancient China and India though the practice of diplomacy in its broadest sense – of managing a societies’ external environment – has been a feature of pretty much every known society. 

Modern forms of diplomacy emerged out of medieval Europe though they were themselves influenced by the practices of Byzantine, Ottoman and Islamic societies. The idea of having a permanent diplomatic presence in other countries spread through Europe from the Italian city states in the 14th and 15th Centuries. 

Modern diplomacy is governed by the Vienna Convention of 1961 which establishes rights of diplomatic immunity, the acceptance or expulsion of diplomats, and the inviolability of the premises of diplomatic missions (embassies and the like). 

Though diplomacy is sometimes associated with delicate, respectful and quiet processes of negotiation (hence the everyday use of the term ‘being diplomatic’) it has also been criticised for its secrecy for example in the run-up to World War One when secret diplomatic alliances were seen to have contributed to the outbreak of war. As the above quote from Sir Henry Wotton (a British diplomat in the 17th century), suggests, it is also sometimes associated with underhand or duplicitous practice. 

After the second world war, the idea of diplomacy as a careful, formal and understated practice has also come under challenge with bellicose and blunt exchanges in the United Nations. Diplomatic practice has also had to adapt to the rise of social media and modern communications. 


Diplomatic immunity

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 sets out a range of immunities for diplomatic staff including inviolability of the person (they cannot be arrested or detained) and immunity from prosecution for a  range of civil and criminal acts, depending on their status and role. Article 29 of the Vienna Convention (1961) states that: ‘The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving state shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.’

The principle has its roots in the practice of affording hospitality and respect to envoys from foreign states. It serves the mutual interest states have in being able to conduct diplomacy with each other without fear that their representatives will be subject to imprisonment or coercion while performing their duties. 

Though diplomatic staff cannot be prosecuted, this is dependent on them being accepted by the host state. If the host state wishes, it can declare a diplomat ‘persona non grata’ (unwelcome person) at which point the sending state is expected to withdraw them immediately. 


Diplomatic Note, Note Verbale, and Aide Memoire

In conducting their business, diplomats have an array of forms of diplomatic communications to draw on. These vary in terms of what the communication is for as well as the status – how formal – the communication is. For example: 

A ‘First Person Note’ is used for the most important communications and used for correspondence between the head of mission (the Ambassador, say) and the head of the foreign ministry or foreign diplomatic mission to whom it is addressed. 

A ‘Note Verbale’ is less formal than a First Person Note, it is an official communication but written in the third person (hence also known as a ‘Third Person Note’). It can be used to convey an official position on a subject, or sometimes to communicate much more mundane diplomatic affairs.

An Aid Memoir is less formal note, unsigned and without the formal mode of address used in a First Person Notes or Note Verbales. They can be used for recording a conversation or sometimes as a basis for discussion in negotiations containing draft text for a treaty. 


Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates

Embassies and High Commissions are the UK’s diplomatic missions – the groups of personnel who represent the UK in foreign countries. The practice of having diplomatic missions can be traced back to medieval times when monarchs would have trusted representatives in each others’ courts. Overtime this practice became more formalised and codified. Embassies, headed by an Ambassador, are diplomatic missions in non-Commonwealth countries while High Commissions, led by a High Commissioner, are diplomatic missions in Commonwealth countries. Embassies and High Commissions are usually permanent and based in the receiving country’s capital city. The words Embassy and High Commission also refers to the building in which the diplomatic mission is based.

Consulates can be based in the capital city or in other major cities. Consular activity includes work such as issuing passports and emergency documents, helping British citizens detained abroad, working on cases of child abduction or forced marriage and registering births and deaths. 

The immunity and safety of diplomatic missions has been undermined by violent physical attacks, such as in the bombing of the US embassy in Lebanon in 1983 and the UN assistance mission in Iraq in 2003.


Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, commonly called the Foreign Office, is the UK department of state managing the UK’s external relations. Responsibilities include ensuring national security, building UK prosperity and supporting British nationals abroad. It includes the headquarters in St James’ Park, London and over 200 diplomatic offices overseas, including 14,000 employees. 


Foreign Policy

A simple definition of foreign policy would that it is the externally-facing policy of a state designed to serve the national interest. 

A more complex way to put that would be to say that foreign policy consists of the publicly-stated goals, actions and directives undertaken by a state or its official representatives that are directed at situations, goals or actors that are outside the territory of the state. 

To unpick this a little bit: 

• It is a ‘public’ policy area, that is it is produced by and through the state, rather than the actions of private citizens or organisations independent of the state or government;

• It is a publicly-stated set of goals and actions whether those are stated in formal documents (such as government strategies or white papers), speeches or government directives and so on;

• And it is ‘foreign’ rather than ‘domestic’ because it is aimed at achieving goals, or influencing the actions of others, or at responding to or changing situations, beyond the territory of the state.

The purpose of foreign policy is often seen as furthering the national interest traditionally seen as a country’s security and prosperity. However, it may also include various political, social or cultural aims as well. For example, the pursuit of religious aims may form part of foreign policy, as was the case in the divisions between catholic and protestant states in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, or the Islamic Republic of Iran in the period after the 1979 Iranian revolution. States may also pursue certain cultural or political values through foreign policy such as the promotion of human rights, or matters of social or economic justice abroad. 

Globalisation means that countries are ever more linked together through trade, travel, modern communications and so on. Deciding what is ‘foreign’ and hence the focus of ‘foreign policy’ becomes less easy to define. For example, states may pursue foreign policy through collaboration with non-state agencies such as businesses or charities. Multiple actors may have input into debates about what foreign policy goals and actions should be. Policy areas traditionally seen as ‘domestic’ such as health care, may include ‘foreign’ goals (such as the need to respond to pandemics). And what is included in the notion of ‘national interest’ has expanded considerably, creating cross-overs between foreign policy and other areas of policy. 


Head of mission

A head of mission is a person in charge of a diplomatic mission. The exact title of a head of mission will depend on the status of the diplomatic mission in question: 

  • Ambassador for embassies; 
  • High Commissioner for High Commissions; 
  • Consul or Consul General for consulates; 
  • Chargé d’affairs, in charge when an ambassador is not present; 
  • Permanent representative for the head of a diplomatic mission to an international organisation. 


International Organisations

International organisations are organisations that operate internationally and whose membership is international. Usually a difference is made between international governmental organisations (IGOs, whose members are states) and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs, whose members are organisations or private individuals). There are thought to be around 250 IGOs and over 6,000 INGOs. International organisations might be global in scope (as with the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation), continental (as with the African Union), regional (such as the European Union), or sub-regional (such as the Southern African Development Community). International organisations cover a dizzying array of different issue areas from particular sectors of business to health, trade, cultural or religious associations or particular policy areas such as environmental cooperation or security. 


National Interest

A claim to be pursuing the ‘national interest’ is commonplace in politics. Indeed it is rare for any policy not to be presented as in a nation’s interest. However, the implication that it is obvious and agreed as to what the national interest amounts to, is misleading. Though generally seen to encompass a country’s security and prosperity, national interest might also include various other social or cultural aims such as the promotion of certain religious views or the protection of human rights. 


National Security

Like many other terms in politics and international relations, the meaning of the term ‘national security’ is contested. In its most restrictive sense, national security refers to the survival and independence of the state. Traditionally, threats to a states’ survival were seen to come from foreign powers (other states) and their military might. Defence of national security therefore meant having the military means to repel or deter such threats. 

In modern times, the notion of national security has expanded considerably with threats from economic change, terrorism, organised crime, environmental problems and migration all being cited as dangers that need to a response. What is claimed to be a security threat, who is claimed to be under threat, whether such claims of a threat are convincing and what policy response is called for, are all crucial parts of understanding debates about national security. 


Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

NGOs are non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which are organized on a local, national or international level. Some are organised around areas of shared interest, policy areas or areas of social or humanitarian concern or activism.


Secretary of State

In the UK, Secretary of State is the title given to a Cabinet Minister in charge of a government department such as the Department of Health or the Ministry of Defence. The full formal title is Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State. The head of the Foreign Office is the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, though is often referred to as the Foreign Secretary. This UK terminology is distinct from American usage where ‘Secretary of State’ refers to the President’s chief foreign policy advisor. 


Sovereignty

Sovereignty is one of the trickier terms in international relations. Like some others (e.g. national interest) it is a term of everyday language and politics as well as formal legal and diplomatic practice. As such, users can convey a range of different meanings. 

Sovereignty is often used in an everyday manner, as referring to a country’s ability to control its own destiny. States who are being pressured by external powers or international organisations to undertake some course of action or adopt some policy might claim that their sovereignty is being infringed. This makes the use of the word ‘sovereignty’ rather broad and all-encompassing – there are many things that constrain a states’ ability to achieve particular outcomes. 

A narrower definition focuses not on what a country can control but on where the recognised authority to make decisions – the right to rule – lies. Within the UK, it is Parliament that is the supreme legal authority and it decides whether, for example, to create a particular law or to agree to an international treaty (or to join or leave the European Union). It is important to note that this right to rule is one that needs to be recognised to be effective – there needs to be some degree of acceptance of the claim to sovereignty by those to whom it is made. That recognition has to come from actors within the given country – the population recognises who can legitimately rule over them – and externally by other states. A claim to be sovereign therefore faces both inwards, to the political community over which rule is to be exercised, and externally, in claiming that no other state or actor has a superior authority over its people and territory. 


United Nations (UN)

The UN is an international organisation formed in 1945 in San Francisco and charged through its founding Charter with maintaining international peace, security and cooperation. Its headquarters is in New York, with major offices in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi. Originally it had 51 members and this has grown to 193 plus two observer states (the Holy See and Palestine). Its main bodies are the Security Council and the General Assembly though it has numerous regional bodies, and specific agencies and committees dedicated to particular issue areas such as human rights, refugees, health, environment and development. 


UN Security Council (UNSC)

The UN Security Council is the most senior body of the United Nations consisting of 15 member states each of whom has one vote. Five are permanent members – the ‘P5’ – who carry veto powers: the US, UK, France, China and Russia. The other ten are elected for two-year terms and cannot veto decisions of the Council. Decisions of the Security Council are binding on all UN member states. 


UN General Assembly (UNGA)

The UN General Assembly (UNGA), is an organ of the United Nations consisting of all member states and in which each member state has one vote. Resolutions on important issues relating to peace and security require a two-thirds majority to be passed. Decisions of the UNGA are not binding on member states except those concerning contributions to the UN budget. The UNGA discusses a wide range of issues relating to peace and security, environment, development and international law. It meets annually in September in the UN headquarters in New York. 


Meet the OU experts

Dr William Brown - Senior Lecturer in Government and Politics, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Dr William BrownSenior Lecturer in Government and Politics, Faculty of Arts and Social SciencesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr William Brown - Senior Lecturer in Government and Politics, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Dr William BrownSenior Lecturer in Government and Politics, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

William is a Senior Lecturer in Government and Politics at The Open University. He joined The Open University in 2000, after lecturing at Portsmouth and Leeds Universities. William has published in the field of International Relations and was a founder of the British International Studies Association (BISA) Working Group on Africa and International Studies. He researches on Africa, the international politics of development aid and UK Africa policy. His current research explores the international relations of African development and questions of statehood and sovereignty. 

Dr Edward Wastnidge - Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University
Dr Edward WastnidgeLecturer in Politics and International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social SciencesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Edward Wastnidge - Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University
Dr Edward WastnidgeLecturer in Politics and International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Edward is a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at The Open University, and is also in charge of the university’s International Studies programme.  He joined the Department of Politics and International Studies in 2013. Prior to this he held positions at Manchester Metropolitan University, Keele University and the University of Manchester. He also previously worked for The Open University as an Associate Lecturer.

Edward’s main research interests concern the politics and international relations of the Middle East and Central Asia, with a particular focus on contemporary Iranian politics and foreign policy. His current research explores the intersection of ideas and foreign policy, soft power, cultural and religious diplomacy, and the role of identity in international relations.

Explore politics...

The House of Lords in session

Meet the Lords

Series following the larger-than-life characters that populate the House of Lords, one of Britain's oldest, most idiosyncratic and most important institutions.

Read Article
Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story Brexit Storm - Hero

The Brexit Storm

Laura Kuenssberg’s inside story.

Read Article
Ed Balls with miners in Poland

Travels in Euroland with Ed Balls

Ed Balls explores national identity and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe. 

Read Article
President Donald Trump and VP Mike Pence

Trump Takes on the World

Donald Trump’s top advisers and the leaders who clashed with him lift the lid on the critical moments of his foreign policy.

Read Article

Explore the OU

A cropped photo of students with documents scattered in front of them.

Open University courses

An image of the OU poster for 'A Perfect Planet'

Order a free OU Poster

A young woman on a computer in a cafe

OU subjects A-Z

A photograph taken in a cafe. A mug is in focus in the foreground, and a man using a laptop is out of focus in the background.

The latest OU news

A photo of a person using a laptop and notebook, and a small dog resting its head on the user's arm

About distance learning

A top-down picture of a man using a laptop at a desk

Free courses

A photo of a man wearing a red hoodie and headphones walking away from the camera, on a busy path by a road

Hear from students

About our BBC partnership

For over 50 years The Open University and the BBC have worked together; co-producing hundreds of hours of programming and bringing learning to life for millions. Find out more about our unique partnership.

OU website