British Ambassador


Reveals U.K's


Foreign Policy Priorities

His Excellency Sir Peter Westmacott

With the second-largest NATO troop contingent in Afghanistan and the third largest economy in the EU, British Ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott explains the United Kingdom's role at the NATO and G8 summits.

03.20.12

Overview

Sir Peter Westmacott , the newly appointed British ambassador to the United States, was in Chicago last week to speak to a Council audience on the British perceptive at the upcoming NATO and G8 summits. Sir Peter underscored the continued importance of these two institutions, the status of Afghanistan as the allied pullback nears, and the joint United States and British commitment to the transatlantic alliance. Full video of the speech can be seen here.

Before the event, Sir Peter and I discussed a range of other issues, including the state of the U.K.-U.S. relationship; the British opposition to military action against Iran; and why the British government has relied on austerity measures to combat their recession.

Q:

Richard Longworth

The Prime Minister has made clear his opposition to military action towards Iran. President Obama feels the same but seems to be having trouble getting the Israelis to listen. What is the U.K. doing to influence this crisis and keep Israel from taking unfortunate action?

A:

Well, the first thing is that the President of the United States’ speech to the AIPAC conference a couple of weeks ago was, I thought, very clear. He said he didn't think the time had come for Israel to take military action against Iran, but at the same time he said that the United States shared the same objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and was prepared to assume its responsibilities without taking any options off the table. I think that is a pretty clear message, and it is also the message that the British government has also been conveying privately and publicly to the Israeli authorities.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that we all want the same thing, which is that Iran should conclude, for itself, that it should change course and stop the development of a nuclear weapons program. We’ve got a number of different ways that we can try to pursue that strategy.  We are applying sanctions. We have made very clear we’re ready to dialogue with the Iranians if they will change course.  And I think we must continue to do that while making clear that the United States and the international community is ready to assume its responsibilities.

Q:

Richard Longworth

Now, both the President and the Prime Minister have rejected the idea of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. Why not? We contained the Soviet Union and China, both nuclear nations in their time. Why is Iran different?

A:

There are two reasons why we do not think that containment is the right policy. First of all, the Iranian authorities have repeatedly said that they would like to remove Israel from the map of the world. That is clearly a threat to the existence of a country which is member of the United Nations, and therefore unacceptable to the rest of us. Secondly, there is the concern that we all have: if Iran acquires nuclear weapons there will be a real proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the region. We already have more nuclear weapons than is safe in that part of the world—we do not want anymore. 

So for all those reasons, and the risks of nuclear blackmail and the possibility that terrorist groups might get their  hands on nuclear weapons, we think that containment is not the answer. The right answer is for the Iranian government to conclude that it should change course and stop developing military weapons of a nuclear nature.

Q:

Richard Longworth

To talk a bit about the EU—the euro crisis—Prime Minister Cameron has said that Britain is setting the agenda in the EU. It doesn’t really look that way from here, not after Mr. Cameron isolated the U.K. from the eurozone by refusing to sign onto its fiscal pact. The real concern here in the United States is what’s going to happen to the eurozone and the impact on our economy. Doesn’t this weaken the British-American relationship, if Britain waives any influence over an issue as vital as this?

A:

I don’t think so, because what the Prime Minister was doing last December was making clear that he could not sign onto a particular way of trying to ensure that fiscal discipline was applied in the future—in other words, by modifying the treaty of Lisbon, which is the essential treaty now for the European Union. We couldn’t accept that treaty without a certain number of safeguards about the single market and about the financial services sector in Britain which our partners were unable to give us.

But that does not mean that Britain was in any sense turning its back on Europe. It does not mean that we do not fully support the efforts of the eurozone governments to resolve the sovereign debt crisis. It does not mean that we don’t have every bit as much interest as they do in fixing this problem, because half of Britain’s foreign trade is with the rest of Europe. 

So we still have an influence and we still are engaged very closely with the other European leaders on the resolution of this crisis, but we are not inside the eurozone and therefore we are not directly involved with the particular measures that need to be taken right now to eliminate the sovereign debt crisis.

 

Q:

Richard Longworth

We hear much about the special relationship between Britain and the United States. We hear about this especially in London, but much more rarely in Washington. Douglas Hurd, after he was foreign secretary, once told me that the special relationship amounted basically to a one-sided deal, with Britain backing the U.S. in return for American promises that seldom get fulfilled. 

In truth, there seems to very little daylight between American and British policies anywhere. Wouldn’t the relationship be better served by being less special; that is, by some robust British criticism—even opposition—that might slow us up when we’re about to do something stupid?

A:

Well, I think that could be the essence of a special relationship. It is so close that you do have the courage to tell your close friends when you disagree with them or when they are doing something which does not serve your own national interests. 

I think the message that President Obama gave us last week during the official visit and state dinner that he offered to the prime minister was very clear. He talked about a relationship which was the strongest it had ever been between Britain and the United States. He talked about a relationship which was essential and of vital importance—I think those are the words he used—to both countries. And the discussions President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron had last week did bear witness to the real substance of that relationship, and the fact that there are a lot of international bilateral issues on which we have to do business together. 

We’re also of vital importance to each other’s economies. We are the biggest foreign investor in America.  America is the biggest foreign investor in Britain. One million jobs in each country depend upon those investments and on bilateral trade. So there’s real meat to this. 

I don’t think it’s about a one-sided relationship in which one slavishly follows the lead of the other. I think we have a relationship which is based on a great deal of mutual respect, where we really do talk Turkey when we need to on tough issues that we need members of Congress or the administration to take a different view on or where we need to ask them to take account of united interest, or where we need them to engage in different ways on large international issues. 

So I think the relationship is actually in very good heart, and that’s not just because we had an excellent visit last week, which we did, but because it’s based on a very robust and honest and transparent perception of where each others' interests lie.

Q:

Richard Longworth

I’d like to ask about Britain’s general position in the world. It’s been almost exactly fifty years since Dean Acheson gave his famous speech in which he said, “Britain has lost an empire, but has not yet found a role.” To many Americans, honestly, that still seems to be true: Britain is an off-shore island halfway between Europe and the State that plays few roles beyond supporting whatever Washington wants to do. That is a very cruel analysis, I admit, but is it inaccurate? What is Britain’s role?

A:

We think that we still have an important role to play in several different domains. We are a key member of the European Union even if we’re not inside the eurozone. We have every interest in the sovereign debt crisis being resolved. Furthermore, we are in constant contact with our European friends on a whole raft of other issues. 

We take our responsibilities as a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations seriously, along with the four other governments—including the United States government, of course, who have the same responsibility. We have a very big role in the international community, thanks to the Queen—not the United Kingdom but the Queen, the head of the commonwealth—which is an ever-growing group of more than fifty different countries with shared values about human rights and democracy and respect of individual liberty, which is very important.  

We continue to have a diplomatic network and a set of armed forces which are capable of acting on a global level. And we have been very active in a number of different domains, Libya being one of the most recent. We can play a huge role in trying to defuse some of the big crises facing the world such as nuclear weapons in Iran. We are right there with the most important other players trying to find a way through this crisis.

Yes, we are a small country—a little population of just sixty million offshore continental Europe — but we believe that we have an important role in pursuit of exactly the same values that matter to the United States of America.

Q:

Richard Longworth

One last question on the economy. We’re both going through tough economic times. We’ve met it with stimulus, the Cameron government has met it with austerity measures. From everything we hear, the result so far is a lot of hardship and possibly not much progress. Is this accurate? And if so, how long before we see a real upturn in the British economy?

A:

You’re quite right that there’s a lot of hardship. When the present government came to power just over eighteen months ago, we were faced with a spiraling parcel of debt. We had an annual deficit of above 11 percent following the financial meltdown of 2008/2009 which was triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and various other problems that arose from there. 

The government felt it had no choice but to address the issue of spiraling debt and a very large deficit. We didn’t have the luxury of being a reserve currency, and we aren’t member members of a eurozone, where some of the weaker economies are protected by the stronger economies.  We’re on our own. And therefore, we have to assume our responsibilities. 

If we had not done that, then the cost of the British government borrowing, which is very considerable because we do have a lot of debt, would have continued to increase. The rating agencies would have marked down the value of our national credit, our creditworthiness, and investors would have had less confidence in the determination of the government to address our structural problems. 

All that is, however, balanced with a series of measures which are designed to boost economic activity, to create a more business-friendly environment. In the budget just this week the Chancellor of the Exchequer has further cut corporation tax to make it more attractive for businesses to come to Britain. And we have some very good, new stories in the aerospace and automobile sectors where there is real growth, where large numbers of jobs are being created more rapidly in the private sector than in the public sector—a sign of a healthy recovery.

We’re not where we want to be. Our growth is still very weak. Last year it was minimal, though this year we hope it’ll be about 0.8 percent. Next year we’re looking at economic growth of 2 percent.  It’s about striking a balance. And the judgment of our government, which is after all a coalition government of Liberal Democrats and of course Conservatives, is that this is the right strategy, painful though it is and even though it involves a number of difficult choices being taken at all times.