Keeping the Relationship Special

Don’t underestimate the importance of continued U.S.-U.K. collaboration, a senior British diplomat says in reviewing his trans-Atlantic experience.


Working closely with the U.S. Foreign Service is the bread and butter of most British diplomats. My own experience was no different. Over almost 25 years in the British Diplomatic Service, I worked extensively with U.S. diplomats around the world. It’s fair to say that something would have been seriously wrong with the “special relationship” if that had not been the case.

Working together as the ally of choice has been hardwired into British and American diplomacy for decades. But as both our countries face unprecedented political turmoil at home and growing challenges from abroad, the importance of continued U.S.-U.K. collaboration should not be underestimated or its inevitability assumed.

A Working Relationship, and Much More

During my first posting to Rabat as a junior political officer in the mid-1990s, I worked hand-in-glove with U.S. colleagues on a concerted push to try to resolve the Western Sahara conflict—one of the United Nations’ longest-running peacekeeping missions. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was heavily engaged as United Nations Special Envoy. As a close ally, the U.K. was doing everything it could to support his efforts against significant resistance from Morocco, backed by France. I traveled with my U.S., German and U.N. colleagues to the Moroccan occupied territories of Western Sahara and to U.N.-supported refugee camps in the rebel-controlled desert of southern Algeria. We jointly lobbied the Moroccan and Algerian governments to cooperate more closely with the U.N. and encouraged other allies to get behind the efforts to resolve a conflict that felt like no one’s priority.

Ultimately, James Baker’s efforts were unsuccessful. But it was impossible not to be impressed by the drive and hard work of those American diplomats who were trying to find a solution to a dispute that had blighted the lives of thousands of people over more than two decades. I learned a great deal from their example. I also began to understand the sometimes-frustrating limits to diplomacy, particularly when all the U.N.’s five permanent members do not agree.

When back in London in the early 2000s, I was private secretary (deputy chief of staff) to two Foreign Secretaries—Robin Cook and Jack Straw. I was one of the officials in the back of the room in their regular meetings with their U.S. counterparts, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. And I was the guy who often took the records of their multiple phone calls at all hours of the day. As a relatively inexperienced British foreign service officer, I don’t think I understood until that point just how extensive our cooperation was with the United States across all the main global issues, and just how important personal relationships at every level were to our work together.

When I met Colin Powell again in Washington in 2013, it felt remarkably familiar even though it had been 10 years since I was listening in to his calls with Jack Straw in the run-up to the second Iraq War. I developed huge respect for the “behind the scenes” professionals of the State Department Operations Center, too. I spoke to them on a regular basis to set up calls between our Secretaries of State or to track down senior U.S. officials to discuss the agendas or logistics for meetings. They seemed to be able to fix anything at any time of day. It was a model the Foreign and Commonwealth Office soon worked to replicate in its Global Response Centre, albeit on a smaller scale.

As deputy head of mission (DHM) in Poland in the mid-2000s, I worked closely with my U.S. opposite number. We routinely shared analysis of the country as it grappled with post-communist transition, joined the European Union and began to dabble with the kind of populism we now see gaining strength in many Western countries. I have no doubt that the advice I sent back to London was better as a result of this cooperation. But more than that, the U.S. deputy chief of mission and I also shared our experiences of how we tackled many of those “DHM headaches” of running an embassy, including working within the constraints of obscure local laws and finding yet more “efficiencies” in the operation of our missions. We joked at times about our “mutual therapy” sessions.

Tackling shared global challenges is, of course, front and center of the work Brits and Americans do together. But the relationship is much more than that. A wider sharing of best practices and supporting each other was a key part of my experience of working with U.S. diplomats throughout my career. This collaboration, born out of the depth of the relationship and mutual trust, helped to make our diplomatic services more effective and, ultimately, made us all better diplomats.

Tackling shared global challenges is, of course, front and center of the work Brits and Americans do together.

In my last London-based role before moving to the United States to be deputy ambassador in 2013, I traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., as head of the Foreign Office’s Near East Department to coordinate the international response to the unfolding crisis in Syria. In partnership with the United States, we were trying to work out how to bind Russia into a peace process to stop the fighting. And we spent many hours constructing sanctions that might garner enough international support to be widely implemented and therefore increase the pressure on the Syrian government to come to the negotiating table.

We weren’t successful: Russia instead chose to step in and prop up the Assad regime. But the experience reinforced my view of the United States as a huge force for good in the world; even if it doesn’t always get it right, its diplomats play a leading role in trying to make the world a better place by plugging away at the most intractable global problems.

Differences and Challenges

The only time in my career when I didn’t work routinely with American diplomats was while posted to Iran in 2009-2010. The United States, understandably, had not had a presence in Tehran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis that had the world on tenterhooks for more than a year until the American hostages were released in January 1981.

But being in Tehran did not stop coordination altogether. I simply shared my experiences and insights with American colleagues whenever I traveled outside the country, to help ensure our closest ally had an accurate picture of developments inside Iran. There was an insatiable appetite for information in Washington, particularly as Green Movement protesters turned out in the tens of thousands to demonstrate against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s stolen re-election in 2009 and were violently suppressed by a brutal regime.

My last posting in Washington, D.C., took working with the United States to another level. Like everyone in the embassy, I engaged with U.S. colleagues across the whole administration and on Capitol Hill. With our foreign policy teams, I worked with State on all the hot global challenges and many issues that didn’t make the headlines, as well—from Syria to Iran, from Russia and Ukraine to North Korea, and from nonproliferation to human rights. But more than that, our State Department colleagues helped us to understand the United States, too.

Many British diplomats arrive in America unwittingly unprepared for the differences between the U.K. and U.S. systems. The closeness of the relationship and our shared history and language tend to lull us into a false sense of security. But the differences can be profound. I often turned to State Department colleagues to help navigate my way through the U.S. system or to explain what was happening in U.S. politics. Their help undoubtedly made me better at my job.

From all my experience of working with American colleagues, I have no doubt the United States has some of the best diplomats in the world, with an impressive capacity for hard work and dedication to service, an unbending commitment to tackling some of the world’s most difficult problems while advancing U.S. interests, and a profound belief in the value of working with allies. In the U.K., we can sometimes be more nimble in reaching an agreed government position on a particular foreign policy issue. Working across government departments is also arguably a stronger part of our DNA. Much of this is simply a matter of our smaller scale, which makes reaching agreement between departments easier and working across government essential to make the most of more limited resources. But no other Western country can match U.S. resources and capabilities when the administration mobilizes behind a chosen course of action to address a foreign policy problem.

The “special relationship” isn’t without its challenges. Tony Blair’s decision to support George W. Bush in the 2003 invasion of Iraq set Britain on a collision course with its two largest European Union partners, France and Germany, who opposed the war. While the decision reinforced Britain’s position as the United States’ ally of choice, it set back Blair’s efforts to strengthen Britain’s relationship with the European Union and to reinforce the U.K.’s role as a bridge between the United States and Europe. Blair’s reputation at home was seriously damaged as the war unfolded; for some, it never recovered.

A wider sharing of best practice and supporting each other was a key part of my experience of working with U.S. diplomats throughout my career.

Being the “smaller partner” can occasionally have its frustrations, too, including when assumptions are made about U.K. support for a particular course of action or consultation is left to the last minute. But the frustrations are not one-sided. When David Cameron asked the British Parliament to back airstrikes in Syria in 2013 and lost the vote, Barack Obama had little choice but to go to Congress with the same question. With the memories of the Iraq War still fresh in the minds of people on both sides of the Atlantic, it soon became clear there was little public support for renewed military action in the Middle East despite President Bashar al-Assad having brutally used chemical weapons on his own people. The West blinked, with consequences we are still feeling today.

In most cases the “special relationship” gives the U.K. unique access to U.S. decision-making and the ability to influence American thinking as policy options are developed. It’s a privileged position that most other U.S. allies would love to emulate, whatever their posturing about the U.K. being a “poodle” of Washington, D.C.

New Trials

It’s fair to say that the last three years have been difficult for many British and American diplomats, as developments at home—and around the world—put new pressure on the relationship and the trans-Atlantic alliance. The United States has been on a political rollercoaster since 2016, with many Americans fearing the country they love could be about to hurtle off the rails with profound consequences for the future. At the same time, the U.K. has been grappling with its own seemingly unending political crisis, with Brexit likely to infect British politics for years to come. Both countries are facing increasing division among their diverse communities, with populists trying to capitalize on understandable frustrations over the growing gulf between rich and poor and uncertainty about the future. It’s an anxious time.

But this period of political uncertainty just reinforces the case for British and American diplomats to work together. We know the West’s enemies are actively seeking to destabilize our countries by interfering in our elections and weaponizing social media to amplify divisions in society and increase distrust in our institutions. These same enemies will also seek quickly to exploit any weakening of the trans-Atlantic alliance on the back of the populist-driven inwardness of America First or Britain “taking back control.” Our alliance has secured peace in the West for more than 70 years, fostered huge economic progress and helped to spread democracy to many countries that had fallen under the yoke of Soviet communism after World War II; this should not be put at risk. We must double down on working together to defend ourselves from these threats, including by finding a way to regulate the social media giants who are doing untold damage to our democracies.

Diplomats, like all public servants, must always be guided in their work by the priorities of their political leaders—that is how our democracies work. In the current political climate, this has meant we have sometimes diverged from long-held positions and been put at odds with traditional allies, which has been uncomfortable and unsettling. Public servants on both sides of the Atlantic have also found themselves under personal attack from politicians and the media simply for doing their job. Some have had little choice but to resign.

These attacks have been unprecedented and shocking. Not long ago, they would have been almost unthinkable in Western democracies. But away from the spotlight, in the day-to-day work of diplomacy, there is still much we can do to underpin the values and beliefs we hold dear—those of freedom, democracy and human rights—even when there is a fire burning in our own backyard.

With enduring poverty in many parts of the world, growing regional tensions in the Middle East and North Asia and the existential threat from climate change, there are plenty of problems needing solutions. Only by working together can we hope to continue to shape the future direction of world events and bolster the liberal world order.

The dedication, integrity and impartiality of our diplomats are more important than ever if we are to tackle these problems. Indeed, they are arguably essential if we are to get through these unsettling times intact. I have no doubt that the best of diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic are up for the challenge.

Patrick Davies was deputy head of mission at the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Washington, D.C., from 2013 to 2018. Over a 25-year career in the British Diplomatic Service, he also served in Morocco, Poland, Iran and the U.K. Currently on a career break, he is writing a book about the United States.