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.