While America Plays Football and Europe Plays Soccer, the UK Sits on the Sidelines
Former British Diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall looks across the Atlantic, and mourns Britain's post-Brexit lack of influence
Alexandra Hall Hall is a former UK diplomat and ambassador with more than 30 years experience. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity.
In this edition of The Supplement, Hall Hall looks at the approaches taken on each side of the Atlantic, and examines why the UK’s international credibility has been so badly damaged by Brexit.
I worked closely with many European and American diplomats during my career.
In the mid-2000s, I spent two years ‘on loan’ from the Foreign Office to the US State Department, working on human rights and democracy. One of my tasks there was to improve cooperation between the EU and the US on human rights at the UN, where relations had become strained over disagreements on the death penalty and the international criminal court.
Immediately afterwards, I became Head of the Foreign Office’s Human Rights Department, working on the same issues from a UK perspective. During that time, I also spent 18 months working on the inside of the EU’s human rights machinery. This was in the run-up to, and during, the UK’s presidency of the EU in 2005, when I was responsible for coordinating EU human rights policy worldwide. These experiences gave me a unique perspective into the differing diplomatic styles of the UK, US and EU, and how the rest of the world saw us.
One of the most revealing moments came when I took part in successive human rights dialogues with Russia.
On the first occasion I was part of a US delegation, then later I was part of a UK-Russia human rights exchange, and finally I was part of an EU dialogue with Russia while Luxembourg held the presidency.
The Russians, who presumably never realised I was present on all three occasions, blatantly tried to play us off against each other. To the Americans, they feigned mock outrage when the US raised concerns about Chechnya and said that the Europeans had a far more sophisticated understanding of the situation there. To the Europeans, they complained about cack-handed American diplomacy and shamelessly flattered the EU representatives over a lavish dinner, involving a lot of wine and many toasts to European friendship. With the UK, they ridiculed the EU, lambasted the US, praised us for not being like either of them, and appealed to us as a “great nation” like Russia to focus on our common interests.
The US ignored the complaints and bulldozed on. The EU, admittedly a bit uneasily, accepted the flattery, the wine, and the toasts. The UK tried to stay focused on the issues at hand, but did not demur at the criticisms of our supposed friends, the US and the EU.
The biggest weakness of British diplomacy has never been the quality of its diplomats but the lack of a clear mission, sense of purpose and priorities. This didn’t matter so much when we were in the EU...
American diplomats tend to be more specialised than most European and British diplomats. They usually become experts in a particular region of the world, or area of policy, such as arms control, or economics. They are scrupulous about observing the niceties of diplomatic protocol, but they never lose sight of the end mission.
In 2003, just before the Iraq invasion, US political analyst Robert Kagan famously described the differing styles of the US and Europeans in his book Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus, in which he asserted Europeans tended to favour diplomacy and peaceful resolution of disputes, ideally through multilateral fora, while the US still believed in a Hobbesian view, whereby some disputes could only be settled by force. Kagan recognised the European achievement in building a “post-modern” supranational organisation but lamented the failure to acknowledge they only had the luxury to do so because their peace and security were ultimately guaranteed by US military forces.
A graphic illustration of this divide came when I was invited to observe a role-playing exercise with US national security officials, who wanted to learn more about how the EU approached foreign policy crises. The scenario they were given was a civil war in a fictional nation, where one party to the conflict had kidnapped a group of Greek peacekeepers. Each US official was assigned to represent a different EU member state and pretend they were meeting in European Council format to discuss their response. The US officials all quickly agreed that the right response would be to send in a special forces team to rescue the peacekeepers and military aircraft to bomb the headquarters of the guilty party. They looked to me for approval.
I told them I thought a real discussion in the European Council would be very different. The Greek representative would be outraged and call for European support. Every other European representative would express their solidarity with the Greeks and then come up with a variety of reasons why immediate military action would not be the right response. Some would argue that we needed more time to establish the facts. Others would argue we needed to avoid exacerbating the conflict, endangering the peacekeepers further, or getting drawn in ourselves.
Some would worry about the humanitarian situation. Others would argue we should consult the UN before deciding what to do. No one would volunteer their own forces for a rescue mission. The meeting would probably conclude with a strong statement condemning the kidnapping, demanding that the peacekeepers be released, and calling on all sides to act with restraint, but no actual action plan. The Greeks would be left steaming… and probably end up approaching the Americans for help.
I later used a slightly different analogy from Kagan’s to describe the differences between the US and the EU when I was invited to lecture at the US Foreign Service Institute, preparing new American diplomats for postings in Europe. I suggested the difference between American and European diplomacy was like the difference between American football (where they throw the ball) and football played by the rest of the world, which the US calls soccer.
Hard Charging Teams or the Beautiful Game?
American football players are big and strong and hard-charging. Strength is as important as speed and agility. The team members are never all on the same field at the same time, but rotate between offensive and defensive teams. Additional, highly qualified ‘special teams’ are brought on for individual plays, such as to kick the ball over the goal after a touchdown or punt it down the field. The aim of the offence is to drive the ball down the field until it makes it over the touchdown line, with runners bludgeoning aside anyone who stands in their way. The aim of the defence is to block any players getting past them. The game is extremely physical. Most plays end when the player holding the ball gets tackled to the ground. The ultimate defensive play is to ‘sack’ the quarterback – who might be described as the commander-in-chief, calling most of the plays – by slamming him to the ground before he can pass the ball.
The version of football played by the rest of the world is regarded by many of its devotees as an art form, often referred to as the ‘beautiful game’. Soccer players are revered for their artistry and skills in keeping the ball and themselves as far away as possible from their opponents. Contact with an opposing player – the bone-crunching norm in American football – is often met in soccer with theatrical falls to the ground and cries of foul. The games are fluid and unpredictable; the ball is in constant motion, kicked backwards and forwards, with team members only gradually coalescing into a position where they can make a final pass and strike at goal. Though there may be star players, there is no single definitive play-maker, equivalent to the US quarterback. Goals can be conjured out of nowhere; or saved at the last minute through magnificent dives. Even a scoreless game can be thrilling.
Crucially, soccer games frequently end in a tie. This is not necessarily regarded as a failure but as an honourable draw from which both teams can draw some satisfaction. By contrast, American football games almost never end in a tie. A draw is a highly unusual outcome. In the post-season, if the game is still level at full-time, they keep going through repeated overtime periods until one side has scored. A win is still a win, even if it is an ugly one.
Extending this analogy to diplomacy, American diplomats tend to be more specialised than most European and British diplomats. They usually become experts in a particular region of the world, or area of policy, such as arms control, or economics. They are scrupulous about observing the niceties of diplomatic protocol, but they never lose sight of the end mission. Social events are business-like. They hold working breakfasts and ‘brown bag’ lunches (where people bring sandwiches to eat while discussing issues of concern). They are backed up by huge resources, including military might. If they have to turn to hard power to achieve their aims, they will do so. Winning is baked into the US psyche so backing down does not come easily.
American drawbacks include that the very size and number of their national security institutions makes coordination difficult. Sometimes, different parts of the system are actively working at odds with each other. One American diplomat told me “in the US, we fight every decision all the way up to the National Security Council, and then we fight it all the way back down again”. Once mobilised behind a particular policy, like a supertanker, America can be less nimble in adapting policy to changing circumstances on the ground. Too often, its version of ‘consulting’ other nations is to inform them what they plan to do and hope allies fall in line. Individual elements of the team can also be so specialised that they lose sight of the big picture.
In the EU, diplomacy is more of an art form – like soccer. There are stronger and weaker players on the team, but no overidingly dominant player with authority like the US president. Issues may be tossed back and forth between endless different committees and meetings, with no clear outcomes. Because EU foreign policy decisions are taken by consensus, it can take hours, days, or even weeks of negotiations to reach an agreement. The process itself is important. The aim is to ensure everyone has had their say and all can agree on a conclusion. A ‘win’ is when everyone has got something they wanted and no one has irredeemably lost face. An honourable draw, you might say. Compromise is baked into the EU negotiating psyche.
Many European diplomats are experts in international law and strongly committed to international treaties and institutions and multilateral diplomacy. They are quick to call foul and are genuinely outraged when other countries don’t play by the same rules. They care about protocol. Their dinners are elegant occasions to eat and drink extremely well, and improve relations, while avoiding overly sensitive topics. They do not have the same military heft as the US, but can leverage the EU’s considerable economic resources, trading might, and presence in international institutions to promote their goals.
Disadvantages include that the EU’s deliberative approach can make it slow to react to fast-moving situations on the ground. The very time and effort it requires to reach an agreed position can make it unwilling to adapt policy to take account of the views of others. Many are the US diplomats who have privately lamented to me the inflexibility of the EU, though the feeling is actually mutual. The EU’s commitment to international norms is commendable and part of the EU’s soft power, but also leaves the EU at somewhat of a loss when countries like China or Russia blatantly violate them. The need to achieve unanimity can lead to weak decisions which fall short of the stated aim.
What about the UK?
Most British diplomats are gifted amateurs who rarely have the same degree of specialisation as either EU or US diplomats but are mostly generalists who learn on the job. They’re usually quick studies. What they lack in expert knowledge they make up for in experience and big-picture vision. They tend to be less hidebound by diplomatic convention or protocol, and can be nimble and creative in suggesting new approaches to old problems.
The relatively small and efficient nature of the UK’s national security institutions means UK officials are particularly good at coordinating internally and presenting a united front internationally. The UK uses its extensive diplomatic network effectively to gauge the views of others and tailor their lobbying efforts accordingly. British diplomats’ entertaining style is informal, with speeches deliberately punctuated with jokes, to help guests relax. Their mastery of the English language means they are often the ones to come up with just the right wording to paper over differences and allow everyone to sign on to an international statement or resolution.
The British are more ready than most Europeans to believe that hard power still matters. But we are more committed than the US to multilateral institutions and to accept we need to play by the same rules as everyone else.
When we were in the EU, one of the UK’s most distinctive diplomatic contributions was working to preserve transatlantic cooperation – above all through getting the US and the EU to play nicely together. This was precisely the role I was assigned during my time in the US State Department, with the explicit task of brokering a US-EU deal on human rights. Both sides knew what I was doing and welcomed it. Working with both teams was baked into the British psyche – and a role which both sides usually appreciated. Acting as a kind of referee.
The UK’s international credibility has been badly damaged both by the incompetent way Brexit was delivered and by doubts over the UK’s commitment to international law.
The biggest weakness of British diplomacy has never been the quality of its diplomats but the lack of a clear mission, sense of purpose and priorities. This didn’t matter so much when we were in the EU – because our viewpoint on international issues was usually somewhere in between the EU and the US, and we were generally able to go along with whatever was acceptable to both. Our role in facilitating agreement between them was genuinely useful, and served both their and our interests well.
Our strategic weakness has only become exposed now that we have left the EU – because we are now on the sidelines of the most important transatlantic relationship, between the US and the EU. We still have a vested interest in them working well together, but are no longer as well placed to act as an honest broker. The UN, NATO, the G7 and G20 remain useful fora for engaging with them. But, since Brexit, the EU and US have learned to work directly together without us. This leaves us on the margins – trying to influence events from the outside. Instead of acting as a bridge between the EU and the US, we are more likely now to annoy them.
Although we are no longer constrained by the need to work closely with the EU, we have yet to define meaningfully what it is we want to do differently. This was brought home painfully during the most recent appearance before Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee of UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. Asked about his priorities, he talked about sustaining support for Ukraine, taking forward the UK’s new “Indo Pacific Tilt”, looking over the horizon to spot upcoming opportunities or problems, engaging with emerging mid-sized powers, and ensuring the Foreign Office functioned well.
There was no effort to explain why they mattered, how they advanced UK interests, or linked back to domestic goals. There was no indication that we were able to do any of these things better, now that we were out of the EU. He was defensive about China. He talked about the UK having many tools at its disposal to promote human rights, including the new Magnitsky Act, but was unable to give any concrete examples of how we were using it. Vast swathes of the world went unmentioned. He said he wanted to “reset” relations with European partners, but didn’t say how or why. He was bland and hesitant, punctuated with meaningless assurances he took certain issues “very seriously” or was “working closely with partners.” He repeatedly dodged efforts to pin him down by saying he wouldn’t “speculate” or that it wouldn’t be “right or appropriate” to say. My suspicion is he simply didn’t know what to say.
UK ministers have claimed that, as a result of Brexit, the UK is now able to act more freely on the world stage as a global force for good. But on our own, we do not have the military capability of the US or the economic weight of the EU. Our aid and military budgets have fallen. Our diplomatic resources are stretched to the limit. Our Government remains distracted and divided. The UK’s international credibility has been badly damaged both by the incompetent way Brexit was delivered and by doubts over the UK’s commitment to international law. There is a huge gap between the Government’s inflated vision of the UK on the world stage and the reality of our actual size and weight.
Some might point to our role in Ukraine to argue we still pack a punch – but it was the EU which led on sanctions and in providing safe haven for Ukrainian refugees; and the US which has led on military contributions. The UK has been a forceful cheerleader and substantive supporter but not a decisive player.
Because of Brexit, the UK has relegated its diplomacy to the second division. We have much less influence and impact than our ministers would have us believe. With ever more thinly stretched resources, we need to make harder choices about where to focus our efforts and develop real expertise in those areas – rather than maintaining the pretence we can be an impactful player on every issue in every continent.
We could even consciously model ourselves on those American football ‘special teams’ who sit on the sidelines for much of the time and let others make the running, but come onto the field to make decisive contributions at critical moments. After all, it is their plays which often win the games.