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George Osborne: The UK should heed the wise words of an American master diplomat

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
27 July 2020

couple of hours drive from Washington DC there’s a beautiful creek next to a cornfield, with a very bloody history. It’s the site of the battle of Antietam in the Civil War. In and around that cornfield more Americans lost their lives or were wounded on a single day in 1862 than any other day in that country’s entire military history. It’s a reminder of the terrible price paid when politics fails.

One Saturday, five years ago, I visited Antietam after an IMF meeting in the capital. I took with me one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know; someone who could walk me through the battle, but also explain the diplomatic efforts by President Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward at the time to keep Britain from entering the war on the Confederate side.

My guide’s name was Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank and perhaps a future Secretary of State if the Republicans ever choose a mainstream candidate for President again. This month, Bob is publishing a book called America in the World.

It’s the story of his great country’s engagement with other nations, from the moment when Benjamin Franklin signed the new self-proclaimed republic’s first treaty, the vital military alliance with France that ensured its survival.

He wore for the occasion, Zoellick tells us, the same old velvet blue coat he had on four years earlier when enduring a humiliating ticking off from a British minister. Foreign policy has always been personal.

America in the World will be a must-read for students of international relations. It should also be an essential summer read for current British politicians and mandarins. For Zoellick is no academic bystander. He was right-hand man to Reagan’s Secretary of State James Baker, then became the US trade representative who brought China into the World Trade Organisation and then Deputy Secretary of State during George Bush’s war on terror.

Britain risks the biggest act of protectionism in our history at the end of this year if there is no EU deal

It was in the latter capacity that I met him 14 years ago, along with William Hague and Liam Fox, making up a Shadow Cabinet delegation sent to repair strained Tory relations with the Bush administration. With his Mid-Western courtesy, Zoellick laid down the law: if we were going to be the next British government, we had better understand some hard facts about what America would expect from its ally.

It was an unusual start to what has become a real personal friendship, and a lesson for me in the realities of US power — one the current British Government is learning again as it struggles to get a trade deal it once promised us was “oven-ready”.

In his book, Zoellick reminds America — and those who deal with it — of five traditions when their foreign policy is conducted successfully: the cornerstone of good relations with neighbours Canada and Mexico; the centrality of strong economic ties, especially free trade; the advantages the US gets from the international order and enduring alliances rather than mere transactional deals; the dangers of underestimating the importance of domestic and congressional opinion; and the value in a pragmatic pursuit of lasting international engagement.

The rebuke of everything that Trump has done to undermine these traditions is thinly disguised. There’s a message for Britain too, whose “post-Brexit power” is, he writes politely, “a question mark”.

What, he is asking, is our role in a world where the post-war western order is being replaced by four big power blocs: the US, China, India and the EU? In the space of six months, we’ve withdrawn from one, and sent relations with another into the deep freeze.

We would do well to remember our own traditions of successful British foreign policy. It starts, as America’s does, with our own backyard.

The integrity of the United Kingdom, and our relationship with our continental neighbours have been the central dynamic of our history — and will remain so. Both are frayed and need urgent repair.

Like Zoellick’s America, we have a deep interest in the system of post-war alliances — yet we have just unilaterally pulled out of one of the most important ones. What replaces it? We have championed free trade, but we risk the biggest act of protectionism in our history at the end of this year if there’s no EU deal.

We in Britain could do with a dose of the pragmatism in pursuit of long-term strategy that Zoellick recommends to our friends across the Atlantic.

America in the World by Robert B Zoellick is out 13 August (Twelve)