Global Security: UK-US Relations - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


The US Network

147. The UK Network of diplomatic Posts in the US comprises one of the largest FCO operations in the world, as can be seen from the following table:

148. Lord Hurd, referring to the UK as the "junior partner" of the US, commented in his written submission that "the US Congress, American think tanks and at any rate parts of the American media play a greater part in the forming of American policy than anything comparable here. The junior partner if he is to be effective has to cover a very wide waterfront".[246]

149. Although the British Embassy in Washington DC is, in many respects, the public face of the UK in the US, a considerable amount of work, whether it is political, trade or consular, is undertaken in the FCO's ten subordinate Posts in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Orlando and San Francisco. Three of these posts—Chicago, Los Angeles and New York—process visa applications.[247]

150. The FCO's largest consular operation in the US is based in Washington where the North America Passport Production Centre is based. It deals with applicants from the US and Canada, and in the near future will be expanded to cover the rest of the Americas and the Caribbean. In 2008-09, the Americas and Caribbean region issued over 52,000 of the 380,000 UK passports issued overseas. British nationals account for the second largest number of international travellers to enter the US after Canadians. A total of 4,565,000 British nationals arrived from the UK in 2008, an increase of 67,000 from 2007. The FCO's written submission explained in detail the work of the ten Consulates-General, supported by a network of Honorary Consuls, which provide assistance to British nationals. In 2008-09 alone, North America handled 1,972 assistance cases.[248]

151. The Posts in the US Network aim to be the British Government's eyes and ears in their regions. Part of their role is to develop relations with key local figures, including governors, state legislators, heads of Fortune 500 companies and university vice-chancellors. As the FCO explains in its written evidence, "no US president in the modern era has come from Washington DC [and] presidential candidates usually cut their political teeth in the regions".[249] The Consulates try to build relations with them before they become national figures as well as developing links with large US businesses which are not generally based in or around Washington DC. The Consulates also play a role in fostering links between science and innovation bodies. The FCO argued that it was important to have this presence spread across the continental United States, not least because the country is simply too large to be covered effectively from Washington alone. The FCO noted that the US regions, within which the Consulates General are situated, were important centres for business, science and innovation, venture capitalism, tourism and higher education. It concluded that "without a local presence, we could not form the relationships we have with senior figures and key institutions in those fields, which we cultivate in order to promote Britain's interests".[250]

152. As well as promoting foreign policy objectives and providing consular services, the Network provides a platform for some eighteen other UK government departments and agencies, including the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), UKTI, the Bank of England and the Department of Work and Pensions. As a consequence, the Network is engaged in almost all areas of public policy from public health to trade policy, from transport to immigration and civil liberties, from aid policy to financial services and banking, from welfare to education, and from drugs control to policing.[251]

153. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, formerly British Ambassador to the United Nations, told us that the Network provided the British Government as a whole with a real understanding of American public opinion and that it was vital for the Embassy to have a good feel for what was going on outside the Washington Beltway:

    That doesn't mean to say you have to cover every single base in the United States, but the British Embassy and its system have a huge reach in the United States. That is not just commercial or a service to British citizens in the United States, but a very real aspect of the British ability to do business in the United States in every way.[252]

Influencing decisions

154. The FCO gave us some key priorities for its work in the US and for British relations with the US:

  • Economic: promoting an open, high-growth global economy
  • Political: building deep and lasting relationships with the Administration, the Congress, State Governors and their administrations, the Mayors of big cities and senior figures in the business community throughout the country in order to influence US policy in priority areas for HMG. Encouraging the US Administration to sign up to an ambitious post-2012 climate change treaty and the Congress to ratify it, and to strengthen UK/EU/US co-operation on energy issues.
  • Security: co-ordinating all counter-terrorist activity and strengthening co-operation with the US in the prevention and management of conflict and instability in regions of key national interest to the UK, in particular Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Middle East, areas of conflict in Africa and in the European neighbourhood.[253]

155. The FCO has to operate in the US within a complex federal political system and foreign policy-making process.[254] Sir David Manning, former British Ambassador to the US, emphasised to us the importance of recognising the differences between the US and British political structures. There was sometimes a tendency to think that "the United States is the UK on steroids; that it is just like us and that if you go across there and you talk to the White House and they say yes, that is the end of it". [255] Both Sir David and the FCO highlighted the fact that although the UK may "get a yes from the Administration, […] we then have to work the Hill extraordinarily hard to try to get what we want".[256] For this to work, in Sir Jeremy Greenstock's view, the FCO needs "sharp elbows":

    Americans do not do self-deprecation, so you better get up there, make your case and say why it is a really good one. […] If you are going to get it heard, there is a lot of competition from within the American system itself, as well as certainly from other countries. Having access to the Hill, having access to the White House and having access to the media to make sure that you can get your message across to the whole of the United States through a network are all very important. It will not get any easier, particularly when the regime has changed in the United States. We now have a Democrat who is not familiar with us, so making such arguments again is very important. […] [W]e have to have something important to say and something to offer on the big issues.[257]


156. For historical reasons, almost all the diplomatic transactions between the two governments are conducted by the British Embassy in Washington rather than the US Embassy in London.[258] The effectiveness of the FCO's operation in the US, therefore, is of critical importance. We asked our witnesses for their views on the value of the FCO's US operation and its ability to protect and project British interests. A great number of our witnesses in response commented on the high regard in which the FCO's diplomats are held in the US.[259] We also received evidence from a variety of US academics and think-tanks which suggested that the FCO is adept at gaining access to key US opinion formers. For instance, former US Ambassador Robert Hunter commented that:

    The British Embassy in Washington has consistently had excellent access throughout the US government, as well as having one of the best information operations on Capitol Hill (it is one of the few foreign embassies whose role in managing relations with the US rivals that of the US embassy in the opposite capital).[260]

157. In a similar vein, Frances Burwell from the Atlantic Council stated that: "In Washington, British Embassy officials have access to US government officials with a regularity that is unmatched by other embassies",[261] while Ian Kearns of BASIC contended that "advice from the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, if not politicized, is said to be considered the best in the world by Washington".[262]

158. Lord Hurd commented that, "if the right brains are available and deployed the Embassy is able to penetrate the US decision-taking process high up stream at a fairly early stage of discussion within the Administration. If the necessary brains can be found and deployed, this gives Britain a considerable edge".[263]

159. Within the United Nations, the US is also said to value the tactical support that the UK is able to provide. By way of example, Sir Jeremy Greenstock told us:

    The United States would want something in the Security Council, but the United States tends to walk around with quite heavy boots, and there are sensitive flowers in the United Nations [...]. The UK is a lot better at the tactical handling of other delegations and of language in drafting texts and tactical manoeuvring. […]. The United States, which has to conduct policy formation and implementation in an even more public environment than this country, tends to be very sensitive about short-term losses and presentational difficulties, whereas we get on with it. When we agree with the United States, we can be very helpful to it in that kind of subterranean tactical handling, which doesn't come out in public. The Americans appreciate that, because it brings them something they don't normally have. We of course gain from being on the coat tails of the immense power operation of the United States, which brings us into places that we wouldn't reach if we were just on our own and we wouldn't reach, frankly, if we were just with the European Union.[264]

160. When we asked our witnesses whether the access previously alluded to translated into influence, there was less consensus. The Government maintains that staff at the Washington Embassy and other British officials contributed to many of the reviews that the Obama Administration conducted immediately after entering office, particularly those on Afghanistan/Pakistan, nuclear disarmament and the Middle East.[265] The FCO also highlighted the joint work undertaken by the Prime Minister and President Obama, and by their respective officials, ahead of the G20 summit in London in April 2009, and claims that the Government had established strong working links on climate change with the incoming Administration.[266]

161. We received a different perspective from some of our other witnesses. Dr Robin Niblett, for example, argued that historically it had been difficult for the UK to exercise influence over the US "even in the hey-day of US-UK relations".[267] He continued:

    There is no doubt that British diplomats and certain Ministers and the Prime Minister have an intimate relationship and a more regular relationship than just about any other diplomats across the broad area. This gives them the opportunity to influence how the United States […] thinks about a problem. [This] is where we can really make a difference. Sometimes, influencing how it thinks about a problem can lead us to influencing the decision, but we cannot assume that the former leads to the latter.[268]

162. Some of our witnesses argued that British influence varies depending on the policy area in question. For instance, Professor Clarke claimed that while strong and practical instances of UK/US co-operation could be seen in the fields of defence and intelligence, "it is harder to discern how this pays off in other, more general, fields of transatlantic diplomacy".[269] He argued that British officials regularly reported that they exerted subtle influences on both the substance and presentation of US security and foreign policy, but that hard evidence of these assertions is difficult to find.[270]

163. We asked Ivan Lewis, Minister of State at the FCO, to give examples of areas where the FCO had been able to influence US political views to the benefit of the UK. Mr Lewis told us that the UK's stance on "matters such as Iran is taken very seriously by the Americans", and that the new Administration has taken "very seriously Britain's views on the Middle East Peace Process".[271] He also claimed that there were a number of examples where "we, as a result of the special relationship, can say that we have moved, or contributed toward moving, American policy".[272] Sir David Manning referred to the FCO's work on climate change that was undertaken during his tenure as British Ambassador in Washington:

    When the then Prime Minister made it one of our G8 presidency objectives, this was not greeted with enormous enthusiasm in Washington, but it did not mean that we gave up because the Administration didn't necessarily like it. We, because of this network across the United States […] were able to do quite a lot of work on climate change, for instance, in the states themselves. I think, probably, opinion changed pretty dramatically in the four years that I was there […] I am not going to claim that that was because of the British Embassy, but I am quite sure that making a big effort across America to influence these opinion formers on climate change was worth it, and I think we probably contributed.[273]

164. Dr Robin Niblett acknowledged that the Administration may have been influenced on the issue of climate change by the British Government, but went on to argue that because of the nature of the US system of government and the need to gain the support of Congress it was unlikely that President Obama would be able to "deliver America on this". Referring to other foreign policy areas which are of importance to the UK, he continued:

    On Afghanistan, we have been intimately involved, as I understand it, in the review process. But now the final decisions are going to be made. […] [M]y sense is that President Obama is going to have to make a call based on all sorts of aspects, including US domestic politics, where our influence is going to have to step back.[274]

165. Sir David Manning told us:

    The truth is we can go and talk to the Administration about any issue that we want to, if it matters to us and we want to discuss it with the Administration or on the Hill, we have access. We are very fortunate, and I think it is the case that we probably have as good access as anybody, and probably better than most. Access doesn't necessarily mean that what you ask for you are going to get, of course, and I think we need to be realistic about that. This is an unequal relationship in the sense that the United States is a global power. We are not; and one of the things that I think we have to be conscious of is that, on a lot of these issues, there's not much we can do by ourselves. But if we are successful at getting access and influencing the Americans, it may have an effect.[275]

166. We asked witnesses what impact the creation of the European External Action (EEAS) Service would have on the UK's ability to influence. Our witnesses were in agreement that it was too early to provide a definitive answer, but they also agreed that there was no likelihood EU Member States would in any way downgrade their bilateral relations in Washington DC as a result of there being an EEAS presence in the city.[276]

167. We conclude that the FCO's high reputation in the US is well-merited and that the FCO's diplomatic staff undertake valuable work in the UK's national interest through the US Network of Posts. Staff necessarily cover a wide remit in their attempts to exercise influence, and cover it well.


168. The FCO told us that "to achieve our policy objectives in the United States we need to influence not just those who make decisions, but also those who shape the environment in which those decisions are made".[277] The Department's overall aim in regard to public diplomacy is to "shape American perceptions of the UK as the US's partner of choice across a range of issues important to both countries", bearing in mind that "effective public diplomacy can be as much about shaping the discussion where ideas are formed and generated as it is about promoting already established policy viewpoints".[278]

169. In financial year 2009-10 the FCO focused on four priorities: the global economy; Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Middle East and climate change. The Department's submission provided some examples of the ways in which this work is carried out:

    Our Consulate-General in Boston used the Prime Minister's drive for comprehensive reform of international institutions to engage the policy community at Harvard. […] The Prime Minister called publicly for reform of the international institutions before an audience of international researchers, US policy-makers and Democrat strategists. The Prime Minister then invited Professors at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (including advisers to the then Presidential candidates) to analyse a range of options for international institutional reform, and to report their findings before the next US Administration took office. As the late-2008 financial crisis developed, the Consulate-General worked with Harvard to focus these efforts on reform of international financial institutions, and on the planned G20 response at the London Summit (April 2009). Harvard Professors, and their graduate students, held online debates on the UK's London Summit website to discuss and promote their views. This work was in turn picked up […] by traditional media. […] Meanwhile the arrival of several key Harvard figures in President Obama's new Administration meant that the ideas generated in the university environment were transferred into the thinking of the new team in Washington. [279]

170. The FCO in the US is also attempting to capitalise upon what it describes as "internet savvy" US audiences through its use of digital diplomacy.[280] In addition to the website, the FCO has a strong and active following on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit on climate change, it ran a "100 days, 100 voices" campaign with a new video blog every day from a range of people interested in climate change, while encouraging others to submit their own videos and comments to the site. On Afghanistan, certain foreign policy blogs are highly influential in shaping and breaking stories and points of view that later gain traction in more mainstream media. The FCO has engaged these bloggers both in person for policy briefings, and by commenting on and linking to their blogs and participating in online debates. UK Ministers including the Foreign Secretary regularly engage with the US online foreign policy community during visits.[281]

171. The FCO told us that it attaches importance to working closely with the US media at both a national and local level to try to secure positive coverage for UK policy priorities. Activities range from placing opinion and editorial pieces and securing coverage of important Ministerial and other speeches, to rebuttal where necessary (for example when faced with attacks on the NHS in some parts of the US media during the summer of 2009, during a period when President Obama's proposed health reforms were dominating the US domestic agenda). The FCO also seems to benefit from Royal and Ministerial visits to the US. For instance, the New York Consulate-General used the opportunity of a visit by HRH Prince Harry to the city to draw attention to the UK's and US's shared endeavours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visit generated some 2,500 press articles.[282]

172. We asked Ivan Lewis whether it was possible to define how successful these approaches have been in shaping American public perception on specific policy goals. Mr Lewis responded that, in relation to climate change, "arguably, Britain has played a very important role internally in the United States in helping to change the nature of the public debate about where America needs to stand on climate change".[283] He also used the example of the Middle East peace process, "where we have really pushed and pushed the argument for the urgency of a two-state solution. While we are all very concerned at the lack of progress in recent times, the fact that in a sense it is now conventional orthodoxy in America to believe that the only way forward is a two-state solution […] is an important change".[284]

173. The FCO's desire to build networks of long-term influence for the UK in the USA is largely channelled through its investment in the Marshall Scholarship programme. Unlike other FCO-funded scholarship programmes which have been reduced in recent years, these have not been adversely affected. Under the programme, around 40 of the most talented US students each year are selected to study for Masters-level programmes at UK universities. The British Council is also heavily involved in fostering educational connections between the UK and US. Of the 47,000 Americans enrolled in courses in the UK, 73% of them have interacted with British Council USA, primarily via its website. The British Council USA works directly with 80 UK universities through its 'country partner' programme—commissioning and providing market intelligence, and provides professional development programmes for over 150 visiting British teachers each year, supporting best practice exchange and school linking opportunities.[285] Ivan Lewis told us that "a number of eminent people were part of the Marshall Scholarship programme, and that as a result of that they are often commentators in America about the importance of the relationship between our two countries".[286] In addition, a high proportion of the Obama Administration studied in the United Kingdom. Although Mr Lewis said he would like to see more investment in this area, he acknowledged that any such decision would "have to be taken in the context of tough financial decisions".[287]

174. We commend the FCO for its US public diplomacy work and conclude that the societal and educational links that it promotes add significantly to the overall effectiveness of the Department's operations in the US.

Financial constraints and their consequences for British national interests

175. During our visit to the US we received briefing on the implications for the US Network of Posts of the serious financial situation that the FCO finds itself in as a result of Treasury budget cuts and the removal of the Overseas Pricing Mechanism, which had previously helped to protect the FCO's US budget from the vagaries of currency fluctuations. We comment in detail upon these matters in our annual Report on the FCO's Departmental Annual Report.[288]

176. Although this is a problem which is affecting FCO Posts around the world, the US Network has been particularly badly affected, both because of its size and because it necessarily spends most of its budget in US Dollars. During our visit we were given detailed information about the measures the FCO has been forced to take to ensure that running costs were met across the Network, and the impact these have had on day-to-day activities. The scale of the cutbacks is very great. They have included (but are not limited to) a cessation of further programme spending for the rest of the financial year, redundancies of locally-engaged staff, asking staff to take unpaid leave, freezing recruitment, and the suspension of some employer pension payments. All non-core training has been cancelled, travel and entertainment budgets reduced and only urgent and essential maintenance work is to be conducted on the estate.

177. Our impression was that the measures are making the work of the UK's Posts in the US considerably more difficult. As Sir David Manning, former Ambassador to Washington, told us, if the FCO has to decide on the number of people it has in US posts "according to the fluctuations of the exchange rate, we will certainly be in trouble".[289] He predicted that the UK's influence will shrink if key people are lost, particularly those who were working in areas of real interest to the US. Sir David argued that this was not only the case in the political and military fields but also in relation to individuals working in the fields of science, crime and international terrorism. He added that:

    We have really got something to offer. If we are forced to continue closing our network across America, or cutting back in salami slices, so that it is almost a virtual network, we will find it very much harder to influence the Americans in the ways that we want. Then, if the European External Action Service is there building itself up, we will be leaving something of a vacuum.[290]

178. Many of those who gave evidence to our inquiry warned that further cuts could have a serious impact on the FCO's ability to pursue the UK's national interests. Dr Dunn stated that "pound for pound, you cannot get better value for money than spending money on diplomats in Washington […]. The influence that Britain gets in terms of trade policy and pursuing the national interest from our skilled and highly regarded diplomatic service is extraordinary. To cut it back would be extraordinarily short-sighted".[291]

179. The views of Heather Conley and Reginald Dale were equally trenchant. They argued that cutbacks in the UK's "Rolls Royce diplomatic service, still the envy of most other countries" would be a cause for concern in Washington, and could reduce Britain's weight in Washington more than in any other capital—not because of a reduced effectiveness at the British Embassy itself but because of "a wider scaling back of Britain's global clout".[292]

180. We asked Ivan Lewis about the impact of the removal of the Overseas Pricing Mechanism. Mr Lewis agreed that there has been a negative impact and that the FCO has been forced to make "difficult choices and we will have to make further difficult choices in the period ahead".[293] He continued:

    I am not sure that many British people would say at a time of financial hardship that cutting back on the odd reception is a bad thing for Governments to do when ordinary people are having to make difficult choices too. It is a difficult balancing act […] All I can say to contextualise the matter without lessening its significance is that it is fairly usual in America, when seeking to reduce spend, to give staff unpaid leave. […] But if we have budgetary, fiscal responsibility, we must find ways of exercising that responsibility and staying within the allocated budget. We ask people to make difficult choices.[294]

181. Commenting in December 2009 on the situation for the FCO across its entire range of operations, Sir Peter Ricketts, Permanent Under-Secretary, told us that, "we have been living on pretty thin rations for at least a couple of spending rounds, and we have, therefore, cut fat and are having to prioritise our activities".[295] During the 2008-09 period the UK Mission to the UN cost £22,478,210 while costs for the Embassy in Washington amounted to £12,817,750.[296] We asked Sir Peter whether the FCO had any flexibility to change the conduct of the British effort in the United States. He responded:

    We have a degree of flexibility about the priority that we can give the US network over other parts of FCO work. For example, Ministers could decide that they wanted to devote more of the available money to the US and that money would have to come from somewhere else, which would imply that there would be less money for somewhere else. Therefore, we would have to do that as part of setting the budget for the next year.

    Those are very difficult choices because, as I said, I think that we have already removed the excess. Therefore a decision to give more money to one part of the overseas network means a decision to take money away from somewhere else. There are no obvious candidates for that. So our flexibility is limited [...] if we are going to accept the current range of responsibilities that the FCO has.[297]

182. As we concluded in our Report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2008-09, the FCO as a whole, like so many other public and private sector organisations, is facing very difficult decisions due to current budgetary constraints. We commend the FCO for the considerable resourcefulness it has shown in making required budgetary savings for this financial year following successive waves of real-term cuts to the FCO's budget by the Treasury. We further conclude that the severity of the spending cuts already being imposed, as evidenced by those being experienced by the US Network, let alone those which are still in the pipeline, gives us grounds for serious concern about the impact they will have on the FCO's future effectiveness in the US.

183. We conclude that the FCO's US Network is facing unacceptable financial pressure due to a double whammy of Treasury imposed budget cuts and a depreciation in Sterling. Having previously shed fat and muscle, the FCO's US network is now being forced to cut into bone. We further conclude that additional cuts will diminish the FCO's ability to exercise influence in the US and have a knock-on effect on the UK's global standing. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the FCO provide us with an update on the current situation in relation to the US Network and its future plans with particular reference to the specific areas of concern we have raised in the Report and the minimum funding it considers necessary to effectively discharge its functions and obligations in the US.

246   Ev 84 Back

247   Ev 75 Back

248   Ev 76 Back

249   Ev 75 Back

250   Ev 75 Back

251   Ev 58 Back

252   Q 138 Back

253   Ev 58 Back

254   Ev 58 Back

255   Q 128 Back

256   Q 128 Back

257   Q 132 Back

258   Ev 83 Back

259   Ev 119; 120 Back

260   Ev 86 Back

261   Ev 115 Back

262   Ev 101 Back

263   Ev 83 Back

264   Q 134 Back

265   Ev 57 Back

266   Ev 57 Back

267   Ev 121 Back

268   Q 21 Back

269   Ev 139 Back

270   Ev 139 Back

271   Q 178 Back

272   Q 178 Back

273   Q 136 Back

274   Q 21 Back

275   Q 136 Back

276   Q 49; Q 142  Back

277   Ev 77 Back

278   Q 78 Back

279   Ev 78 Back

280   Ev 78 Back

281   Ev 78 Back

282   Ev 77 Back

283   Q 168 Back

284   Q 207 Back

285   Ev 79 Back

286   Q 208 Back

287   Q 208 Back

288   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2008-09, HC 145 Back

289   Q 142 Back

290   Q 142 Back

291   Q 22 Back

292   Ev 106 Back

293   Q 201 Back

294   Q 207 Back

295   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2008-09, HC 145, Q 15  Back

296   Committee of Public Accounts, Third Report of Session 2009-10, Financial Management in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HC 164, 17 December 2009 Back

297   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2008-09, HC 145, Q 17 Back

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