When I first moved to Washington, D.C., I couldn’t get the special relationship out of my head. I kept thinking of Margaret Thatcher in the Rose Garden, and the smile of Tony Blair. I was utterly sure I’d get special attention here, with everything I knew about Westminster, simply because I was British.
But a few years living in this town, watching American eyes glaze over the moment I mentioned Brexit, taught me some hard facts about British influence in D.C. The past was another Washington.
Britain isn’t especially good at navigating the American capital. The British embassy, for all its dinners and charming diplomats, is nothing like the mini State Department that Whitehall imagines it to be, feeding and editing U.S. policy. In fact, it has been genteelly fading in influence for years.
So I can hardly say I was shocked by the hounding of Kim Darroch, the British ambassador who has now resigned. Darroch was ridiculed as a Bertie Wooster–like figure (“a pompous fool”) on Twitter by Donald Trump, then blackballed by the White House, after his president-critical cables leaked. His disposability to the administration sits very firmly on this arc of decline.
Whatever happened to the special relationship? It’s not so much Britain that has changed, but Washington—a fact that painfully few in Westminster really grasp. Most members of Parliament think that American foreign policy is still made the same way it was when special relationship was coined by Winston Churchill.
The Washington they are thinking of was the sleepy, still-southern-feeling town, dominated by the old WASP elite, where foreign policy was made by the select few, bound tightly to diplomatic and military channels, its consensus closely tended at martini parties at the Georgetown mansions of “wise men” such as Dean Acheson and W. Averell Harriman. And it is long gone.
But Westminster likes to imagine it is still there. In this historical Washington, the embassy excelled, with its privileged nuclear and intelligence ties. British diplomats imagined themselves the “Greeks,” as Harold Macmillan so infamously put it, in the dining rooms of these new Romans.
And gone, too, is the Washington that replaced it, the D.C. ushered in by Henry Kissinger, dominated by men such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Holbrooke, where the making of foreign policy passed into the hands of a warring technocratic elite, tied into the party establishments, its partisan nature nurtured in “red” and “blue” think tanks.
This was the Washington where those Barack Obama derided as the “the blob” were the main force that shaped foreign policy, and where—if it got lucky—Britain could really matter. It was the world where Thatcher met Reagan, and Blair met Bush.
But in the frantic Washington of today, where the boundaries between foreign and domestic politics are breaking down, Britain is all at sea. This is a new D.C. Trump has ushered in: where those in the blob, just like the WASPs before them, have now lost their monopoly.
In this chaotic and unregimented Washington, the Trump administration has ushered in a pay-to-play system, and television and Twitter drive the conversation. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has her own Israel policy, Facebook its own China policy, and Jared Kushner is fixing the Middle East.
Here the United Kingdom has slipped far behind the close ties of the special relationship—the real one, that is—between the United States and Israel. Neither is the United Kingdom the superpower’s tightest economic partner—a role filled by Canada—and in the tightness of its security ties to the United States, it is now being overtaken by France.
The United Kingdom’s problems are much bigger than some leaked cables, or the abrupt resignation of its ambassador. Britain needs to learn from the other countries that now have closer, more special ties with the United States, and not assume that the mechanisms of yesterday are delivering what tomorrow requires.
It starts at the most basic level. Time and shifting demographics have produced a less Anglo America; White House staffers and congressmen may have stronger emotional ties to countries such as Ireland or Israel than to Britain.
But when it comes to influence, Britain’s cultural superpower—its special ability to be matey, shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, which Britain imagines only “our men” in D.C. can achieve—has been flattened, if not eliminated entirely, by globalization. Millennial diplomats from all over the world, with international schooling and Ivy League degrees, fit in just as well—if not better. Britain can’t afford complacency when its natural advantage has become wafer-thin.
And then there is the game itself. Getting what you want as a foreign country in the new D.C. isn’t simply a matter of appointing a more Trumpy ambassador—a celebrity, say, or an enthusiastic Brexiteer. As the boundaries of foreign and domestic politics blur, ambassadors can’t afford to restrict themselves to formal channels. And this is, mostly, what the British embassy has been doing.
In post-blob Washington, Britain needs less policy and more politics. And this means it needs to work Congress. It needs to watch how Israel, or even tiny Ireland, assiduously works the Hill. It has been clear since 2016 that post-Brexit Britain would sooner or later seek a trade deal, which Congress would need to ratify, yet Britain has not done enough to build support on the Hill.
The embassy has failed to build out an Anglophiles caucus, never mind seriously cultivate the members of Congress who have served alongside the British army in America’s wars. A committed British caucus on the Hill could stand up for the United Kingdom’s interests or petition for special treatment.
Ireland has done better. Dublin has nurtured ties with Irish American members of Congress and pushed them to stand up for Ireland’s interests in Brexit—to the extent that Nancy Pelosi in London reiterated her support for the Irish position over the fiercely contested Irish “backstop” bedeviling Parliament.
And Britain shouldn’t stop at Congress. It should look at how Canada has pursued a thick regional strategy of reaching out to states, cities, and mayors to protect the North American Free Trade Agreement. These stakeholders will make demands on American negotiators when it comes to any future trade deal. The foreign and the domestic can no longer be so elegantly split.
And in Trump’s pay-to-play Washington, think tanks still matter. But here again, Britain feels absent. France sponsors scholars; the Gulf states fund centers. Norway and Japan are major research sponsors. All have tried to build echo chambers and ecosystems for their national-security priorities. But the United Kingdom, despite knowing that America would inevitably reach for an understanding on Brexit, did nothing to build a Brexit policy cluster. Would doing so have been unseemly? Perhaps. Was it essential? Yes.
Abiding by the old decorum no longer guarantees you a hearing—in fact, it all but assures that you’ll be ignored.
Washington is a social-media city of Instagram politicians and Twitter-addicted political operators and journalists (possibly the most social-media-dependent professional population in the world) but the British ambassador has operated a wooden feed. Israel’s aggressive pivot into a fighting social-media position, or the former French ambassador’s exuberant Twitter presence, is a calculated affair. Like it or not, politics is now made this way, fought between Ocasio-Cortez’s live feed and Trump’s mentions. When you have something to say, or a narrative of any kind, you need to fight for it there.
These moves are all the more important as Britain’s traditional military partnership with the United States is weakening. The changing geography of America’s operations—shifting toward Africa—means France is increasingly the leading fighting partner. Britain’s tighter budgets, greater reluctance, and smaller footprint are all adding up to less access, less input, and even less say, and leaving British officials, at times, struggling for access they thought was theirs by right.
Britain just isn’t a pocket superpower anymore. But even the core of the special relationship, the “five eyes” intelligence-sharing system the United States runs with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, is not what it seems. Actually, states such as France that are outside the five eyes tend to cultivate their own sources, and so are often actually more useful to the Americans.
The truth is that Trump’s Washington is no city of nostalgics, or romantics. Americans, Britons never seem to quite understand, are always more interested in what you’re doing than in where you come from, and always more infatuated with the new than the old. And the longer I lived in D.C., the more I realized how little Churchill stories and D-Day parades helped Britain extract from the administration.
What counted were resources and authority. The most effective ambassadors, such as the Israeli emissary, were the most empowered. Britain’s once-regal Foreign Office has been pruned back; authority for trade, aid, and leaving the European Union all now lie elsewhere. And the diminished standing of Her Majesty’s ambassadors reflects this.
Reduced, both in resources and authority, Britain’s once-vaunted “gold standard” Foreign Service has left others to fill the diplomatic void. But although more cash and more staff can multiply an ambassador’s effectiveness, they cannot make her effective on its own. What counts is having a clear objective, and pursuing it in every possible way. France has been single-minded about the Iran deal, Australia about Huawei.
It comes down to this: The U.K. embassy must do more to build its presence on the Hill, partner with state and local governments, invest in think tanks, and enliven its social-media presence. Together, these moves can make British diplomacy far more effective, and more fit for the politics it faces.
But there’s still one challenge no amount of structural reforms can solve. Effective diplomacy can’t compensate for the fact that Britain doesn’t know what it wants, or what Brexit means. Does it wish to leave the EU completely and strike trade deals independently, or stay in a customs union with the EU, to avoid splitting Northern Ireland off into a different customs territory from the mainland?
That answer cannot be found in Washington. But when the United Kingdom decides what it actually wants to accomplish, it will need to adapt to the new D.C. in order to pull it off.
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