1 February 2021

Kings of Capitol Hill: Britain needs a Royal Trust to strengthen the special relationship

By Dr Azeem Ibrahim

British politicians don’t like to admit it, but America is in lots of ‘special relationships’. France, Germany, Israel and Ireland all have much more visible and impactful diplomatic presences in the United States. In fact, for decades Britain has underinvested in engaging with Congress, Washington’s pivotal thinktank sector and the media. Now, having left the European Union, it’s time to step towards the US and forge even stronger ties with our most important ally.

A new report by Ben Judah, who leads research on Britain at the Atlantic Council in Washington, outlines what we need to do in order to become a pre-eminent player in Washington’s corridors of power. Fortunately, many of the fundamentals are already in place. There is deep alignment between what both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden view as the key strategic challenges, especially climate change and great power competition with China.

Judah is right to argue British investment in Washington will pay off. The UK has enduring strengths it needs to make more of. The United States and the UK share much in terms of political culture, values, outlook, and strategic interests already. We have the same vested interest in an institutionalised and democratic world order, and face much the same tactical and strategic challenges from regimes which are trying to disrupt that order. And finally, the fundamental pillar of both of our defences is Nato, and the UK is poised to re-claim its undisputed second place within it after committing to significantly increase military spending.

As the report outlines, every time the UK has invested in scaling up its embassy in Washington, from the Second World War to during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it has been rewarded. It’s high time for such a renewal. Pre-war the UK embassy in Washington only had a staff of 23; this had grown to 498 personnel including 70 diplomatic staff by 1947. Post-Brexit we need to make a similar leap, and scale up the size and ambition of our diplomatic presence.

There are signs this is already happening. The US has been very pleased with the UK’s positioning on the de facto annexation of Hong Kong, the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, Beijing’s provocative manoeuvres towards Taiwan and the South China Sea, and the Chinese challenge to Western technological sovereignty, especially over the fraught 5G and Huawei saga. It also helps that the new ambassador to the US, Karen Pierce, is very capable and widely respected in Washington. Judah also identifies that the Foreign Secretary has upped his personal engagement with the United States.

But the overall diplomatic mission to the US is currently woefully under-resourced, and hamstrung by undue bureaucratic over-management by ministers in London. In particular, the UK does not have a nearly strong enough relationships with the key players in Congress and the key players in DC thinktanks. The report offers very good recommendations to address these deficiencies. Britain needs the resources in Washington to make Brexit a success.

For one, the diplomatic mission needs more staff who can cultivate direct relationships with all players in Congress, the White House, and the central federal civil service, across political and institutional divides. Critically, the embassy needs a new political counsellor – a post foolishly cut by the FCO in 2016 – to lead engagement on the Hill. Given the importance of Congress to shaping and ratifying any substantive trade deal it should come as no surprise the Canadians, Australians and Japanese all have senior diplomats of ambassadorial level leading on Congress with ample staff.

Secondly, our diplomats in Washington must be given the freedom to speak directly and independently, including in American mainstream and social media. Currently, too many public pronouncements by British diplomats must be vetted and approved by ministers in London, hampering their ability to respond to events in real time. Brexit Britain must be faster and nimbler to succeed. It should also defend its interests more assertively with more creative use of the Foreign Secretary and Ambassador’s Twitter account in a style pioneered by the former French Ambassador Gérard Araud. British diplomats, in one of the densest Twitter environments of the world, often come across as stilted, wooden and too embarrassed to be forthright.

We also need both the diplomatic mission in DC and our own ministers to actively court public attention, using the US the media to represent our perspective and our voice, especially on matters of international relevance from climate change to policing the web, regulating transnational companies, and responding to commercial and political challenges from China, Russia and others. Key to this is more staff. There are currently bigger local UK embassy communications teams in Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing than in Washington. This is an alarming misemployment of resources.

Then, we must recognise the pivotal role that the thinktank ecosystem in Washington plays in the overall governance of the US, especially on matters of foreign policy and global affairs. Here, the UK is once again under-represented by comparison especially to Germany, which has cultivated deep policy ties with the US for decades. It is well past time that political leaders in the UK afford at least as much attention to, and engage actively with these thinktanks, as they do with thinktanks and lobby groups in Britain itself. This must be borne out of a recognition that what is decided in Washington will, from now on, be at least as consequential to life in Britain as what we decide in our own Parliament.

The key reason is that officials of a party out of office often spend their time in opposition in Washington thinktanks. France and Germany made real inroads with Democrats during the Trump years and will now reap the benefits with Biden. The UK already is a substantive donor to DC thinktanks but the money is not strategically spent or organized and is mostly tied to development projects. It must be centralised with the creation of a single foundation with a strategic remit to fund rigorously independent research into the full gamut of policy questions, from the future of a US-UK trade deal to the future of UK-US China dialogue.

France is getting more for less with a more focused and strategic approach. The UK should look to institutions like the German Marshall Fund of the United States for inspiration, a US- headquartered global thinktank endowed by Germany which Angela Merkel says “helps Americans understand our country”. The report suggests a Royal Indo-Pacific Trust of America and a Royal Technology Trust of America as ways to connect Britain into DC: the capital of the world’s policy debate.

And there are a number of other very effective things we can do as part of this integrated and proactive approach to Washington. The report enumerates a great number of these, and goes into a great level of detail. It is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand how we must promote our national interest and well-being post Brexit.

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Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.