Spring 2016 Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, Sir Peter Westmacott became British Ambassador to the United States in January 2012. Before that, he served as the British Embassy’s Counsellor for Political and Public Affairs in the mid-1990s. His tour of duty ended in January 2016. During his career, he has also served as Ambassador to France from 2007-2012 and Ambassador to Turkey from 2002-2006. His 40 year career in the British Diplomatic Service has also included four years in Iran (before the Revolution) and a secondment to the European Commission in Brussels.
Harvard Political Review: It was actually seventy years ago, this month, that Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term “special relationship.” How healthy and relevant is that special relationship between the United States and Great Britain today?
Peter Westmacott: Well, I think it’s still very important. I don’t use the term myself very much because I think there is a degree of perhaps presumptive arrogance implied; but if other people do, then that’s great, and politicians often do… Yes, it was forged in wartime during that difficult time that the United Kingdom was on its own, and the United States hadn’t yet joined the war and we needed a great deal of support. Then, of course, the United States joined the war on our side, and we know what happened after that. But, I think what we’ve got now is a very close military relationship and intelligence relationship. We’re doing extraordinary work together on counterterrorism. We are trying to solve a number of the world’s very significant foreign policy and security crises together. We’re working together on issues like cyber security, which wasn’t out there at all just a few years ago but is now a very important common challenge. We are the biggest foreign investors in each other’s countries. There are huge business links. Across the board, whether it’s culture, television, language, our shared heritage… I think there is a great deal that keeps the United Kingdom and the United States together, and it feels to me that the relationship is in good shape.
HPR: How do you think challenges that remain have affected that relationship? Specifically, how do you think the 2013 vote by the British Parliament not to intervene in Syria, affected U.S.-U.K. military relations?
PW: I think that was a political decision. It is often difficult in the United Kingdom Parliament to get business done during August. People go away, and it was a bit of a scramble. Frankly, that is in many ways an indication of how democracy works. Congress doesn’t always do what the executive wants to do in this country, and the British Parliament in that occasion didn’t do what the prime minister wanted. I think that was a decision that was taken. It was perhaps, in terms of history, quite important because immediately afterwards, or just a few days later, the president decided he would go to Congress and seek an opinion before taking military action against Syria. But, I think in terms of the bilateral relationship, that was something that people saw and took note of. It certainly meant that it took a little while for the British Parliament and British government to be able to engage militarily as strongly and as purposefully as we would have liked in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIL, but in fact there were two successive parliamentary votes in Britain, which ensured that we were there… So, I think the United Kingdom has been a very strong player in the coalition.
HPR: Speaking of another vote, we have the referendum coming up in June. Do you have a prediction here? Do you think that the United Kingdom will remain part of the European Union? And if you left, how would you be able to exert meaningful influence in the world?
PW: Well that’s a very good question. I don’t have a prediction. I have a hope. I think that it is in the United Kingdom’s interest and in Europe’s interest, and actually in the United States’ interest, that we stay and that we are part of a process that tries to make Europe work better. Because one of the problems that we’ve got with the British electorate is that there is a sense that Europe isn’t providing solutions to many of the crises that are happening. There’s a huge immigration crisis. The Eurozone crisis isn’t yet fixed. It is a crisis in a way of very high levels of unemployment and very low levels of growth in the Eurozone… Maybe in many ways, less Europe would leave us better equipped to face these crises and troubles. All that said, my own view is rather similar to yours in that I think that we would risk losing a significant amount of international influence if we left the European Union. I think our voice counts for more with our European partners…. And I think, in that context, being a more influential international partner for the United States but also for other partners around the world would help us drive forward more free trade and better international cooperation on many of the other challenges that are out there.
HPR: How do you think that the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul have affected the transatlantic alliance, the European Union itself, all of these institutions that characterize the post-1945 order?
PW: People who are brought up in European countries go and get radicalized in the region and come back and bring terrorism to the streets of our countries. We’ve got to improve our cooperation to find these people. We’ve got to work with Muslim leaders to try to counter the narrative that there’s something Islamic about this depraved butchery, torture, murder, and all the other ghastly acts of terrorism that take place. It is not consistent with any known religion, or belief, or faith on this planet, and we need to work together with all the different faiths and communities to try to ensure that young people are not seduced by this poisonous kind of rhetoric. So that’s a big challenge. Is it necessarily something to do with the future of the European Union? Not necessarily. This is about the national security. It’s about intelligence cooperation. It’s about very good police work. It’s about exchanging data. It’s about acting on the leads that we have got from other countries, like from our friends in Turkey.
HPR: At the same time that we face external threats like the Islamic State, internally, we have very interesting political situations with the rise of nationalist figures like Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump here in America. How do you think that affects the transatlantic partnership and the order that we live in today?
PW: I think there is a strong antiestablishment insurgency going on in many of the Western democracies at the moment. People are nervous about life. They’re nervous about change. They’re nervous that the way in which people have earned a living and run their lives is under threat. You’ve got global organizations and a whole new Internet existence with which we’re all having to face up to. Much less certainty about future employment. Much less certainty about future prosperity levels. And this is what makes people nervous. Not long ago we all used to think that more free trade was a good thing. Even free trade is regarded as something now politically controversial…
You can put all those things together, plus a degree of anxiety about terrorism and cyberattacks, globalization and what it all means, and it’s not surprising that people are worried about life. Then, they feel that politicians are packaged, artificial, bought by big money, not listening to real people, too politically correct, etc… We’ve seen hints of it in the U.K., though not at the national level, we’ve seen hints of it in Spain, we’ve seen hints of it in France, the rise of fringe parties, right wing or left wing. Here, in the United States, you’ve got the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of Bernie Sanders––there’s a bit of left, there’s a bit of right, there’s a bit of populism in the middle. There are a lot of different issues there, which play to the unhappiness of people and their concerns. There’s an awful lot of people who feel that they’re doing no better than tread water, if that. And they are unhappy and they are angry and they are interested in alternative solutions.
HPR: Shifting gears now and turning to China, last October the United Kingdom signed this nuclear deal with China. Many observers thought that this was a way for the British to hedge against a declining America and a deteriorating special relationship. How do you see it?
PW: Not at all in that context. That’s not what it’s about. China is a major power. China is on the rise, again. China is a very large and populous country, which is once again a force to be reckoned with. But it’s an economic powerhouse, although some of the gross levels and the other issues there which we’ve associated with China are faltering. They’re beginning to see that they, too, have an interest in a rules-based international economic system as they join the international global community. So, I think all that the United Kingdom has been doing is coming to terms with the reality, engaging with China, not at all at the expense of principals and these issues where we do sometimes have to differ with the Chinese on human rights and respect for minorities and so on. On international security issues, we have a full and frank discussion with the Chinese. But we are at the level of global currencies, international economy, development and finance, engaging with the Chinese––so are many other governments around the world.
There was a little misunderstanding last year when the British were one of the founding members of something called the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. And there were people here who thought we were signing on for an investment bank, which did not meet the normal principles of international finance and Bretton Woods financial institutions. Actually it did. By joining at the beginning we were able to influence the articles of association on which that investment bank was based, and there are now sixty different governments that have followed our suit. China is, through that bank and through the other member governments, providing an additional institution with infrastructure finance in Asia, which was necessary.
HPR: Now, turning to your long and distinguished career as a diplomat, is there a particular skillset that you found most valuable in dealing with myriad negotiations and world leaders? What do you think is the key to being a great diplomat?
PW: Wow that’s a difficult question… I think there needs to be a readiness to listen to other people’s point of view. Humility, so that you learn, and you don’t always think you’ve got all the answers, that you’re right and the other person is wrong. A grasp of the fact that in negotiation everybody has to go home to some extent as a winner.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Image source: Institute of Politics