A mid-day question and answer session at the Aspen Ideas Festival featured UK ambassador to the United States Nigel Sheinwald in a question and answer session with Nicholas Burns. Burns, a former U.S. diplomat and professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, centered the conversation on the history of American foreign policy and shifts since 9/11. A synopsis of the discussion is below, augmented with direct quotes where appropriate:
Nicholas Burns: what were your motivations for being a diplomat?
Nigel Sheinwald: I was very uncertain when I left university what I wanted to do. I was interested in theater and journalism, but it attracted me to work for the government. When I read the newspaper I always found myself drawn to the international sections. I wasn’t fated to do this.
Burns: In the early part of your career you served in both Soviet Moscow and the U.S. Was the collapse of the USSR visible?
Sheinwald: No, the USSR seemed a very solid structure. “We didn’t realize the vulnerabilities” of the USSR, just as Gorbachev didn’t fully understand capitalism and the economic forces that were on our side.
Burns: you then moved to Reagan’s Washington and saw the big defense build-up, etc. Is the U.S. a difficult and troublesome ally?
Sheinwald: UK had to conduct a very arid sort of diplomacy with USSR. US diplomats, on the other hand, typically said what they thought – too clearly in some cases. There were problems along the way: the Iran-Contra scandal, etc. but “no phase of American policy has been without its difficulties.” Speaking of the Bay of Pigs: “maybe someone could’ve telephoned ahead” and told the UK? On the flip-side, dealing with the Irish terrorism situation, “we couldn’t have done it without America.”
B: Is there a special relationship between the US and UK?
S: It’s not like Churchill and Roosevelt. UK and US power has declined since then. What is unusual is a depth of cultural values the UK and US share. We are also each other’s biggest investors. The relationship is also evident in NATO contributions and a willingness to place troops where needed. The US has other special relationships – with Israel, Canada, Ireland, Mexico.
B: is there anything the US and UK might have done differently in Iraq and Afghanistan?
S: Afghanistan was a “reasonable and proportionate” response. “After 9/11 here, the U.S. embraced the concept of a global war on terror” and the concept of “a long war.” Looking back, there are certainly disadvantages. “Al Qaeda in the long run is not a threat to our societies.” We do not face an existential threat from Al Qaeda, and we shouldn’t have given them the benefit of equalizing them with us via conflict. “Tactical response” and “strategic disdain” would have been more appropriate. While another attack is “highly likely,” it “will not be the end of the world – it will not be the end of America.”
B: it’s fashionable to say the US is in retreat, being eclipsed by China. 30 years from now will the US still be the strongest power?
S: After the decade we’ve had, it’s inevitable that at the end of this period there’s reflection on how countries want to project themselves in the future. It’s striking that US citizens already believe China is a stronger economic power than it already is, and opinions here are starting to get a bit panicky. Panic over American decline is very much premature. China has a long way to go in being just a regional power, let alone a global hegemon. The US also has very strong allies in the region – which does not create a benign climate for the rise of China. The U.S. is singular in its capacity for productivity and innovation, higher education, and economic growth.
B: Some have said that the basic strategic problem for the US is being over-invested in the middle east and under invested in Asia. Is this correct?
S: Looking at the decade ahead, I don’t think America will have the luxury to deal with just one theater. The Arab Spring will take decades to unfold and America will have to be engaged there. This doesn’t mean we have to keep fighting large expensive wars – the bar is higher for intervention.
B: Europe is in financial crisis, leading some to believe that the idea of an expanding Euro is perhaps not feasible. How serious is this crisis?
S: Despite being out of the Euro, the UK also had to tackle its debt. We are very concerned about the Euro-zone crisis. The economics is always overlayed by politics… critical judgements in the end will not be in Greece, Spain, etc. The criticism in the end will be in France, Germany. And while we cannot expand physically to places like Egypt, we can extend favorable economic policies there. Europe has struggled sometimes for unity, has struggled to project itself across the globe.
Question from the audience: Nigel, what manner do you use to influence the US government?
S: The US and UK governments both have a “full court” approach to any issue. Because of the dispersal of government in the US you have to engage all elements – the media, the pentagon, the white house, etc. Throughout 2009-2011, there has been a lot of American receptivity to UK input on these issues.