I am an American and have been living in Britain for decades, but my heritage is in the USA, where I was born. I know Americans well and have been joking about the hubris of my fellow citizens from my earliest days in the UK. Inevitably, whenever I meet visitors from the States coming to the UK, it is only a matter of minutes from the time they walk off the plane until they start telling me what the UK should do to solve its problems of the moment.
Today, I read that a ‘US team flies to the UK to try to calm tensions over Northern Ireland trade’ (The Guardian 20 May 2020) and another about them arriving in Europe for talks on Northern Ireland and Brexit. Trust me, they are well intentioned, but they know not what they do. Nancy Pelosi is pictured on the team of nine delegates. They justify their intervention on the basis of the role of the US in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, which virtually all stakeholders in the UK wish to save.
My concern is that their interventions are unlikely to solve problems and more likely to fail in making a positive contribution to the complex historical web of agreements, personalities, and loyalties across the nations and regions of the UK intersecting with the EU and Brexit. Even before the delegation arrived, President Biden already threatened to block any trade agreement if the UK does not follow the American instructions on grappling with the protocol with the EU. Threats like this are almost guaranteed to be counter-productive, as no self-respecting leader would acquiesce to such blatant American demands.
To my UK friends, neighbors and colleagues: please realise that the Americans are well intentioned. The Americans really do think they know how of fix these problems as they have such – they believe – obvious solutions. However, the Americans are remote from the dialogues taking place and inevitably have an overly simplistic understanding of what these problems entail and the approaches and solutions that have been repeatedly discussed. Perhaps the delegates have more local aims, with likely to have promised some constituent or lobbyist that they will take care of their concerns. However, the UK should take this as a teaching opportunity. Try to bring the Americans into the interdependencies and countervailing factors that make these interrelated issues so difficult to resolve.
To my US friends, former neighbors, and colleagues: please have more humility. The UK is a smaller country, but leaders and publics in the UK are every bit as knowledgeable, intelligent and perceptive as Americans and, what’s more, they have been embedded in these issues for decades. They value US support, such as in the war in Ukraine, but do not value naïve interference in whatever progress is being made on such delicate issues as those surrounding the nation of Northern Ireland. To roughly paraphrase the advice Dirty Harry might offer: A delegation from the US has to know its limitations.
A couple of days after blogging, I have read in the Financial Times (20/21 May 2022: 2) that Congressman Richard Neal, heading the US delegation, believes the UK was not sufficiently dedicated to the Good Friday Agreement. Of course, concern over conforming with the agreement is a major reason why the UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and the PM are exploring ways to accommodate the DUP. I hope Congressman Neal gets a tutorial during his travels.