The Pacific Council recently organized a Country Dialogue delegation to the United Kingdom and France to explore Brexit and British and French foreign policy. On the very day that Boris Johnson was elected prime minister of the United Kingdom, we sat down with Pacific Council President and CEO Dr. Jerrold D. Green, delegation head, to get his takeaways from the visit.
What stood out to you during the delegation?
Jerrold Green: It was noteworthy that in the UK, people were simultaneously fascinated and repelled by Brexit. It was all Brexit, all the time. Our interlocutors were apologetic about bringing Brexit up at every meeting, while repeatedly telling us that they were bored by the whole topic and had nothing new to say about it. Brexit has become like a traffic accident—eyes are constantly drawn to the horror even though one would like to avert them as staring seems somehow in poor taste and inappropriate.
What immediately became clear is that no one in the UK has a compelling Brexit plan. And no one is confident that this is going to be handled well. Thus, people are at once blasé, wary, frightened, bored, and apprehensive. Brexit is inevitable; it is definitely going to happen. Yet no one in the UK knows what it is going to look like.
There is a serious crisis of leadership in the UK. People are really worried; they are almost paralyzed. It is not an encouraging situation.
While in London, the European elections occurred during the visit of our group. What was noticeable is that the Tories and the Labour Party performed quite poorly, while the smaller peripheral parties did well. There is a serious crisis of leadership in the UK. People are really worried; they are almost paralyzed. It is not an encouraging situation.
What stood out from the Paris discussions?
In Paris, the gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) phenomenon seemed to be winding down, so there was not an enormous amount of discussion about that. Unsurprisingly, there was considerable discussion about Brexit within the larger context of what it means for the future and stability of the EU as well as relations between the UK and France. As a consequence of Brexit, as well as other political and economic problems in Europe, the EU may be in for some rough times.
Did the British or French officials talk about their countries’ relationship with the United States?
Yes. We were in London immediately before President Trump’s arrival there. In fact, we had a country briefing at the new U.S. Embassy on the other side of the river. Incidentally, we found the building quite remarkable in size and design as most of us had yet to visit it. Although we were scheduled to meet with U.S. Ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson, he was called away at the last moment to Buckingham Palace to work on preparations for President Trump’s visit.
Fortunately, we were able to meet with his very impressive country team. We asked about the president’s strategic objectives for the visit and the team did not really have an answer, ultimately saying that it was primarily a ceremonial visit which reflects what we subsequently read in the press. I personally found this more than a little disconcerting because this is not how state visits normally operate.
In both the UK and France we met with highly sophisticated, experienced, and polished diplomats all deeply informed about the United States both in terms of our domestic politics and culture as well as our relations with their respective countries.
We got a better answer to this question in Paris when we met with U.S. Ambassador to France Jamie McCourt—who incidentally is a Pacific Council member from Los Angeles—as the goal of the France visit was to commemorate D-Day and the liberation of France with President Trump visiting Normandy. In France, they had a better sense of the goals of the visit than they did in the UK.
French President Emmanuel Macron has worked hard and effectively to establish a positive relationship with President Trump, whereas in the UK Trump has commented more than have most U.S. presidents about domestic British affairs—he once said Nigel Farage should be named British ambassador to the United States and that Boris Johnson would be a good prime minister. President Trump has not made similar comments on French politics as far as I can tell.
Did President Trump’s visit influence the tenor of any of the conversations there?
Because President Trump was on his way to both the UK and France during our visits, there was heightened interest in our discussing broader bilateral relations in both countries. We visited the British Foreign Commonwealth Office in London as well the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, the French Foreign Ministry.
In both places we met with highly sophisticated, experienced, and polished diplomats all deeply informed about the United States both in terms of our domestic politics and culture as well as our relations with their respective countries. In both ministries we engaged with senior officials responsible for relations with the United States. And it was only after our return to the United States that the unflattering musings of the British ambassador to the United States about President Trump were leaked to the press.
Did Paris’ Deputy Mayor for Sports and Tourism Jean-François Martins talk about whether Paris and LA are working together and learning from each other in the lead-up to the 2024 and 2028 Olympics?
Yes. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has visited Paris and they are hoping to have him back again. Paris has a young, dynamic mayor in Anne Hidalgo; we have a young, dynamic mayor in Eric Garcetti. And London as well has an equally as dynamic and youthful mayor in Sadiq Khan, so in both cities there is a natural affinity with Los Angeles. The meeting at the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s city hall, was very positive and warm, and it was quite clear that the city leadership regards us as being a strong Olympics partner.
Did you get a sense of how members felt about the delegation and what their takeaways were?
I think our delegates found the experience informative and interesting. Some of the places we visited were truly remarkable. Many of our delegates had not been to the Quai d’Orsay (which houses the Fresh Ministry of Foreign Affairs), for example, so just experiencing such a building filled with so much history was quite special.
The British Foreign Commonwealth Office is no less impressive. We walked through a courtyard and were able to look through a gate seeing 10 Downing Street just 20 feet away. Delegates met with Hugo Shorter and Adam Bye, director and deputy director for the Americas, respectively, at the Foreign Commonwealth Office. We were thus privileged by the opportunity to peer out from their vantage point at a world punctuated by uncertainty. The U.S.-UK relationship was front of mind for them, and while they were pleased to share their well thought out take on everything from 5G to Iran, they were no less eager to hear our take on U.S. foreign and domestic policy as well as the 2020 election.
We also had a variety of other meetings including one on global cities with Dr. Richard Sennett, Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE). Our visit with Dr. Sennett was an enjoyable change of pace that provided us a walking tour of the storied LSE campus. As we moved about the school, Dr. Sennett delivered an astute rundown of the evolution of the city of London.
As much as I wish I could say that our discussion teased out the answer to Brexit, I am unable to do so. Instead, our conversation further highlighted the hurdles confronting Theresa May’s successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Our meeting at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy institute based in London, was also highly informative. Delegates met with Thomas Raines, head of Chatham House’s Europe Programs, and Dr. Leslie Vinjamuri, head of Chatham House’s U.S. and Americas Program. Thomas and Leslie walked us through the likelihood of a hard Brexit, as well as the potential second and third order effects such an outcome would have on the UK and the United States. As much as I wish I could say that our discussion teased out the answer to Brexit, I am unable to do so. Instead, our conversation further highlighted the hurdles confronting Theresa May’s successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
At the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)—a research institute based in London that focuses on international affairs and is perhaps best known for convening Asia’s premier defense summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue—we met with its deputy director-general Kori Schake, a fellow Californian originally from the Hoover Institution who has spoken at the Pacific Council. As always, Kori and her colleagues did not disappoint. Invoking Francis Fukuyama’s seminal work, The End of History and the Last Man, they reminded us that without a clear foe, democracies are prone to hyper-fixate on their own shortcomings. This factor, in concert with the disenfranchisement brought about by the UK’s unitary system of government, were identified by Kori as powerful undercurrents contributing to the country’s decision to exit the EU.
People especially enjoyed our visit to Ditchley Park, not far from Blenheim Palace and Oxford, not only due to its remarkable physical setting, but also the participation of very impressive and accomplished speakers. Ditchley Park is a country estate that has long been used as a retreat for British leaders including Winston Churchill during World War II. Our delegates met with Elizabeth Linder, founder and CEO of Conversational Century; Jonathan Lord Hill, former European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services, and Capital Markets Union; and James Arroyo, director of the Ditchley Foundation, which focuses on the promotion of international understanding and especially Anglo-American relations. While at Ditchley, our time was split between marveling at its bucolic green pastures and navigating the evolving financial and security landscape of Europe.
What concerns me both personally and as an international affairs practitioner is the purposeful diminution by Washington of America’s global role and its traditional position of global leadership.
In the UK, delegates also met with Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the UK’s Department for International Development, which is responsible for administering overseas aid; Jonathan Marcus and colleagues at the BBC; Allen Simpson, director of strategy and corporate affairs, and Feeroza Patel, head of corporate communications and public affairs, at London & Partners, a firm that represents London Mayor Sadiq Khan; Haras Rafiq, chief executive at Quilliam, a London-based think tank that focuses on counter-extremism; and Gregory Katz, London correspondent for the Associated Press. Each and every meeting added incrementally to our understanding of the complex challenges currently confronting the United Kingdom.
In France, delegates met with Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, an independent French think-tank; Henri de Castries, president of Institut Montaigne, a nonprofit, independent think; and Fredéric Doré, head of the Directorate for the Americas at the French Foreign Ministry. Discussion of U.S.-French security cooperation and political relations were central to these meetings. Many in the United States are unaware of how intertwined U.S.-Franco interests are, particularly in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where France regularly supports U.S. counterterrorism efforts. It is not widely known in the United States that it was France, not the United States, that was the staunchest advocate for a more comprehensive and robust nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.
What encouraged you from what you learned there, what concerned you, and what else would you like our members to know about from this delegation?
Although I cannot speak for the other members of our delegation, what concerns me both personally and as an international affairs practitioner is the purposeful diminution by Washington of America’s global role and its traditional position of global leadership. Our abandonment of the multilateral in favor of the bilateral, our no longer valuing traditional international agreements and institutions be they NATO, the EU, the climate change accords, etc., is of great concern to me as well as those with whom we met. Most of our British and French interlocutors share my view on this evolving and troubling new U.S. policy orientation.
What remains of concern to many people with whom we met is the future of U.S. foreign policy, the future of the EU, what the world will look like after Brexit, the ripple effects of Brexit for the EU, and the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.
What is most positive is that despite lingering differences between the UK and France and the United States, the fundamentals are very strong as are our core relations which are enduring and positive. These are uniquely important and long time allies of the United States and we were received with great warmth and considerable good will. There was special interest everywhere in meeting with prominent citizen diplomats from Los Angeles, a place that evokes endless fascination, admiration, and interest. Being from Los Angeles is the gift that keeps on giving as everyone everywhere is mesmerized by southern California. As a consequence, we were able to organize high-level meetings with prominent people who were quite enthusiastic about meeting with us.
What remains of concern to many people with whom we met is the future of U.S. foreign policy, the future of the EU, what the world will look like after Brexit, the ripple effects of Brexit for the EU, and the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election. We find ourselves in a worrisome time and our apprehension grew rather than diminished as a consequence of our visit.
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