First published in Arab News 12th February 2020 https://arab.news/g8mxd
The news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had appointed Dame Karen Pierce as the UK’s new ambassador to the US was greeted with acclaim by her Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) colleagues and, I am sure, with much approval from her diplomatic colleagues worldwide. The appointment builds upon an already stellar career, which has seen Pierce most recently hold key positions such as the political director at the FCO and the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, first in Geneva and then in New York. With these posts, particularly the latter with the UN Security Council, she wrestled first-hand with the tragedies of Syria and Yemen, the complications of current Middle East and North African issues, and the frustrations of a Security Council too often crippled by vetoes to be truly effective. Nonetheless, she made her mark in all of them as a fearless and skilled diplomatic force.
She will need to continue in the same vein. The context of her appointment sees the UK’s relationship with the US as difficult as it has been for decades, at perhaps the time it needs to be the most secure. Both countries are in the process of political upheaval, which has much to do with their respective leaders. President Donald Trump’s remorseless take-no-prisoners attitude has left most pundits gasping for air since 2016, with no let-up in sight. I detect little evidence that he wears a chapeau branded “Make Great Britain Great Again” as he ponders his part of the special relationship. He is met by an iconoclast of a different stamp, who has taken the UK out of the cover of the EU and will be coping with the forces released, many of which will not be immediately clear. The first and most obvious place will be trade talks, where those beyond politics hope for speedy conclusions that favor everyone — which cannot be, so hard bargaining will take place.
Pierce will play a key role. She will promote the UK to wider America, well aware of the depth of our relationship in intelligence, defense, security, business and people. These broader common interests go beyond the here today, gone tomorrow of politics, but she will need all her diplomatic skills to ensure the best possible relationship between the two administrations and their respective leaders.
Two things should be noted. Firstly, she will be conscious of the termination of her predecessor’s tenure, when leaked emails revealed Sir Kim Darroch’s unflattering opinion of personalities in Washington. The chance of her being intimidated by the affair or the president’s response is precisely nil, and she will communicate her opinion with customary honesty, albeit more securely. Secondly, she will need to disabuse some commentators of alleged similarities between president and prime minister. Johnson is no Trump, and can be expected to stand his ground in support of UK interests. But he will not do so simply to make a point. The contrast between a prime minister bringing his divided country together — reaching out to his opponents to urge a sense of unity from the weariness of the last few years of division — and a president who revels in polarization and sees it as a necessary backdrop to his drive for re-election is clear. The British are smarter in not always seeing negotiations, or politics, as a zero-sum game.
Persuading the US to once again act in concert with others, to shore up the international order, would be a success indeed.
A standard bilateral relationship is of little interest to others, but the relative positions of the US and UK in world affairs, and the tables around which they sit, add significance. Perhaps the UK ambassador’s greatest achievement could be in using her years of multilateral experience to persuade Washington that reckless disregard of international norms and structures has a very short half-life, and that there is much more for it and the world to gain by turning to strengthening such processes rather than weakening them. From climate change to Libya and the Middle East peace process to the seizure of territory, the architecture painstakingly built on the back of the tragedies of the 20th century is proving unable to bear the burdens, as its foundations are chipped away by those prepared only to work within them when it suits their own interests. Persuading the US to once again act in concert with others, to shore up the international order, would be a success indeed.
To acknowledge the achievement that Pierce is also the first woman to secure the position of UK ambassador to the US — as she was a similar pioneer in a number of her roles — is not an afterthought. She joins a small number of others in Washington, including Arab envoys, reflecting the need for London to do more catching up. But she is there because her personality, her extensive knowledge of the world and its workings, and her wit and judgment qualify her uniquely for such a pivotal role at a crucial time. A revived partnership could turn out to be special for more than ourselves. I hope both president and prime minister listen well.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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