The Ambassador John J. Louis Jr Lecture in Anglo-American Relations

“A Lasting Love Story”
Friday May 27th, 2016
Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford


Good evening.   What a joy to be with this great group. Thank you so much to Jay for those wonderful words.

Thank you also to Lord and Lady Rothermere, and Vyvyan Harmsworth: for all that you and your family have done to support this great Institute. It’s an honor to be with you to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

And Jeff and Elizabeth Louis, I’m so grateful to you both for making this lecture possible. After 6 years on the US/UK Fulbright Commission- Senator Fulbright who of course was on the first board here at the RAI- I’m sorry to say Jeff is moving on. Jeff quickly became a champion for its core values, while at the same time interpreting them for a new era. He has acted in ways big and small to make the commission as relevant today as it ever was. Your work has been hugely helpful and deeply appreciated.

Finally, I want to recognize your father- one of my predecessors- Ambassador Louis. In whose honor we are all gathered together tonight.

Think back for a moment to those grainy black and white days of FDR and Winston Churchill. Back to Fulton Missouri 70 years ago to when Churchill first coined the phrase “Special Relationship” to describe our unwritten alliance.

Ambassador Louis’ service here in the early 1980s marks exactly half way- a kind of inflection point- between that year and where we are now: with President Obama in London just last month calling our friendship “unmatched”. And “unbreakable”.

Let’s go back to that time. In 1983, Karma Chameleon by Culture Club topped the charts here in the UK. In America, Michael Jackson was up there with Billie Jean. (I sense I am losing some of you with that. That’s music of my youth but don’t worry. We’ll only stay here temporarily).

The most-watched made-for-television movie of all time aired that year on ABC. Fully half of the nation watched the same show on the same channel at the same time. Families around the country sat together to see a film called ‘The Day After’ about a nuclear conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. It was perhaps the last great national conversation in the U.S. based on a shared viewing experience of something other than sport or breaking news.

At around the same time, McKinsey consultants were asked by AT&T to do some thinking about a newfangled bit of technology. They were asked to model how many of these so-called ‘mobile phones’ were going to be bought by the turn of the millennium.

They did their research, and came up with a figure. They predicted that by 1999, there would be 900,000 phones in existence. By 1999 900,000 phones were indeed bought. In the first 3 days. And the next 3. And every 3 days thereafter.

It was a big year in internet history too.  The TCP/IP internet protocol split off from the Department of Defense and became public. Vint Cerf and his fellow founders began reaching out to other networks in the UK and Europe – asking if they wanted to “Inter-network”. Back then it was a verb not a noun. A behavior, not a thing.

Ambassador Louis was right there when information technology was beginning to proliferate, just as the old walls that separated us – and also defined us – were beginning to crumble.

I had the pleasure of reading his final official correspondence from London to Washington. It not only showed a keen understanding of the state of affairs, but also prescience about things to come.

He celebrated the continued indispensability of the US and UK alliance in a world that was changing technologically and geopolitically. But he said the coming times would need to be met with more of what he called “creative diplomacy.” We would need to find new ways to engage.

When I took this job a few decades later, the nature, purpose, and meaning of the relationship between our two countries was the subject of much opinion and debate.

One piece of advice from a British friend living in America stands out in particular.

“Oh, whatever you do, don’t bang on about the ‘Special Relationship,’” I was told before I arrived at Post. It’s a cliché. It’s outdated. It’s just not special anymore.

And my friend was right- or so it seemed. Not a week into the job (late August 2013) there was a vote in Parliament over military action in Syria. Remember that? Me too.

The next day, the front page of the biggest selling daily newspaper printed this:

“Death Notice- The Special Relationship. Died at home after a sudden illness on Thursday August 29, 2013, aged 67. Beloved offspring of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dearly loved by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, John Major, George Bush Snr. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Funeral to be held at the French Embassy. No flowers please.”

I got an email from that friend: “Well done Matthew. Seven decades in the making and you’ve killed it in seven days.”

The thing is- as keen students of Anglo-American relations will know- this was not the first time it had died.

I looked into this- did my research. And in a room full of academics, I want to be clear: I mean proper research, double-sourced – Google and Wikipedia.

Looking back through the headlines I found:

Protests in ‘46 over the UK sharing jet engine technology with Stalin.

Break up in ’56 over Suez.

Crisis in ’64 over Vietnam.

Dead in ’83 over Grenada.

The Special Relationship was over in 1994, because of a visa for Gerry Adams.

Dead again in 2001 as the UK was allegedly replaced as America’s closest ally – by Mexico – just days before 9/11.  (And a few months after the founding of RAI).

And now – an austere funeral at the French Embassy.

One way of reacting to a headline like this is to go into denial. Smile and hold up a picture of Ike and Monty.

Another way is to get defensive.

Yeah but… yeah but…Just look around…Look at all we are doing together.

Working hand in hand to impose costs and consequences on Putin’s Russia for trying to redraw the boundaries of Europe at the barrel of a gun.

Working together on a historic diplomatic deal to prevent Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.

Working together to lead the world towards the Paris climate accord.

Working together to degrade and destroy ISIS.

And let’s not forget Ebola.

I actually hear my voice go up an octave. Start feeling all tense—

Now as the son of a therapist and the husband of a therapist- I have learned something. Defensiveness is like men my age wearing a bomber jacket – you’re the only one who thinks it’s working for you.

If an issue comes up again and again in a relationship, you will eventually have to do something about it.

Therapists have a great expression: “let’s unpack that”.

Unpack its past: Understand where it came from.

Unpack it in the present to find a way forward.

So this is what I want to do today.

Let’s take out the baggage and face the fears:

Is the magic still there? Do we still have the spark? Is the Special Relationship still special?

And this is the group to do it with.  Not only fellow students of the relationship, British and American. Not only fellow stewards of the relationship. You, we, are all strands in the Special Relationship, people who embody it and give it its strength.

I want us all to go through some couples’ therapy, if you will. So let’s get under way.

The obvious place to start is with our great diplomatic love story, the tale of Winston and Winant.  Winston Churchill of course — and the lesser known but no less important hero of the Special Relationship. A particular inspiration for me personally- Ambassador John Gilbert Winant.

He was a Republican appointed by a Democrat, sent to London by FDR during the darkest hour, in 1941 and he was here through to the end of the war.

He was a humble man. A hesitant public speaker. Someone who nevertheless inspired devotion in all who worked with him.

He was met on arrival by the King- far from normal protocol- and immediately made his position clear: “I’m very pleased to be here.” He said “There is no place I’d rather be at this time than in England.”

He dedicated his whole being during the hardest months of the war to making your fight, our fight.

He did this in the big things: he was there with FDR and Churchill at every important decision and critical moment. He was there at Checkers when the news of Pearl Harbor came through.

And he also showed every day on a human scale that he truly cared about what individual British people were going through.

He refused to live in the grand house. (Bit awkward for me that one). He walked the streets of London during the blitz asking people- air raid wardens, firemen, rescue workers, the women and men in the shelters- if there was any help he could give.

Who Winant was, what he wanted, and what he did is such a part of our shared history now that in retrospect it can all feel fated and meant to be. Yet we have to recognize there was nothing inevitable about any of this.

The opposite point of view had been in very powerful hands – the father of America’s greatest political dynasty, Joseph Kennedy. He was the Ambassador here before Winant. “England is gone,” he wrote. He was determined to keep us out of war. And there were plenty back home who agreed with him.

Gallup polling from the time showed more than eight out of ten Americans would have voted against joining in the war against Germany.

But not Winant. He and Churchill did everything in their power to persuade Roosevelt to join the fight against Hitler.

And when they learned that the attack on Pearl Harbor made that possible, the two literally danced. This sounds odd, doesn’t it? Even uncomfortable with what we know about how many people were killed in that attack. And yet that is what happened. It showed how much both men were invested. And how intimately they worked together.

That dance – that intimacy of shared purpose – began to break out across the Atlantic.

It was there in Bletchley Park in the leap of faith needed to share intelligence with each other.

It was there in the trust and self-restraint that saw big egos submit to a joint-command (albeit with complaints along the way.)

It was there in the baseball playing GIs in Suffolk who tried to understand cricket. And in the Americans back home who tuned in daily to Ed Murrow’s reports from London, hanging on the drama of his delivery: “This…is London.”

But, perhaps even more remarkably, it remained. We kept dancing even when the first song ended.

It remained when one monolithic power, Hitler, was replaced by another, Stalin. And it remained through Ambassador Louis’ inflection point as the world was becoming very different…

We know now from Ronald Reagan’s journals that he was one of the 100 million who watched the Day After – it inspired him to address nuclear proliferation.

That year there was a war in Afghanistan, where the mujahedeen were fighting off a Soviet invasion – supported by a wealthy young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

The monolithic threats of the early days were beginning to give way to more nebulous forces – the forces that we are so familiar with today: so-called non-state actors, and the threats of pandemic and climate change.

And as different as these threats have become – there’s something familiar about them too.

There are still attacks on our people at home and abroad.  And attacks on our values at home and abroad.

There is again a growing temptation to pull back and disengage.

The world still needs — as Ambassador Louis termed it – “creative diplomacy.”

It needs the Special Relationship.

So let’s get back to the therapy couch.

How has this happened? How did we keep dancing? What can it tell us about a healthy future for ourselves?

The great, London-based writer Alain de Botton points out in his book on love that everyone asks couples how they met and fell in love. But they never ask the more important question: What happened next? How did you stay in love?

If Winston and Winant answer the first part, then I want to turn to what I call the parable of the two Jimmies to answer that second question- of how we have stayed in love.

Now, I’m a great believer in the adage that power corrupts. And that PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. So this is not a presentation. This is just one animated slide. And for those who are a little unfamiliar with the idea of therapy. Or uncomfortable. Or both. I am going to use a tool beloved of policy wonks and management consultants the world over:

I will do some more unpacking with the help of a 2×2 grid.

On our way to the first of the two Jimmies, we’re going to begin with a venerable, respected institution: The Encyclopedia Britannica.

Stanford did a case study on the organization that went digital and beat Britannica- any idea which company that was?

Microsoft. Encarta was declared the winner. The world’s richest company brought the weight of its resources to moving the encyclopedia from analog to digital and it beat the world’s best reference book.

Just not for long as it turns out.

Along came a guy from Alabama, called…? Right. Jimmy. Jimmy Wales. And he did things differently.

Instead of finding only experts and tasking them to write articles, he reached out to everyone. And he asked them to contribute.

And because he wanted it to be trusted and accurate, he put in a strict 7-step review process, everything peer-reviewed before it went live.

At the end of his first year, it had produced 21 articles. Now Jimmy could do the math, and he knew that was not going to work. His product at this point was called NuPedia.

Then he came across the idea of a wiki- a digital tool that allowed people to collaborate and edit the same document. Improve it as it goes along. And the rest is history.

Some people did a lot. Lots of people did a little. He did not pay anyone anything. He set a mission and helped empower a huge network of people to participate. This time they published 18,000 articles in the first 12 months.

Between them they had created Wikipedia. The biggest knowledge transfer engine the world has ever seen. 5 million articles in English language alone.  And articles in over 240 languages.

Encarta was discontinued in 2009.

The important dimension here is the not whether the organization was analog or digital.

The critical factor was how the organizations were organized. Instead of a top down hierarchy, Jimmy Wales recognized and tapped into the power and potential of networks.  The power of mutuality.

So, what does this say about us?

Remember my friend, who told me not to bang on about the Special Relationship- he was thinking of the Britannica view. Special Relationship as venerable institution, respected, occasionally cited. It brings warm feelings of nostalgia. It deserves its place on the shelf. And yet it is not what we use for insight day to day.

The digital world is coming at us- what quadrant we end up in matters a lot.

So we must beware the Encarta lesson – a big powerful company with lots of resources. It found temporary success and yet totally missed the big thing which, paradoxically, really came from lots of little things.

We have done this well so far. We have been an alliance, not a bloc.

But it’s something that requires vigilance.

Let’s beware of pre-occupation with our own power and position.  Let’s not fall into a trap of believing our bigness, of bossing others around, and at worst: bullying.

Or one of my least favorite diplomatic expressions:  “no daylight between us” – as if we are puzzle piece triangles that all fit into some indivisible whole.  It’s not realistic. And not even helpful.

Think of friends hand in hand or soldiers shoulder to shoulder (or two people dancing).  There is plenty of daylight.  If there weren’t it would be….kind of creepy.

The Encarta way of combatting climate change would be trying to take the Kyoto protocol approach from 1992 and make it the model for Paris in 2015 – getting everyone to bind themselves to one set of agreements set in one place in time based on where they were in their development.

The genius of the Paris deal is that it didn’t do that.  It got everyone on to same common platform and wound them into a network that could grow and be checked over time rather than being bound to a rigid hierarchy.

Our efforts to combat violent extremism take the same approach – asking for help and including voices from outside of our own governments and our own countries as well as from within our communities – asking them all to contribute in big ways and small.

Encarta was all about tasking others to do the work.  The lesson of Jimmy was about asking, not tasking.

Our success depends on making sure we keep moving up as we travel across, just as Wikipedia did.

Our history puts us in a uniquely strong position to do so.

We have inherited a vastly rich “network of mutuality”- a phrase of Dr. Martin Luther King’s that President Clinton used in his speech here 15 years ago at the opening of the RAI.

That mutuality lives in the daily interactions and connections of academics and businesswomen, chemists, designers, entrepreneurs, farmers, grad students – historians, inventors, journalists…

That’s why President Obama can describe what we have as unmatched, and unbreakable. Unbreakable because it is not some rigid thing, not some fragile thing.

Instead our strength lies in our flexibility – just as the internet was designed to handle disruption, the loss of a connection at one point compensated for by new links, and alternative channels.

Like true friendship, our relationship is resilient. It allows for give and take. It allows for agreement, disagreement, resentment and reconciliation. It means we don’t have to — should not want to — paper-over the cracks. It allows for difference and growth.

All of those premature death certificates for the special relationship I started with are not symptoms of a failing relationship; they are evidence of what makes it so strong.

And it is stronger still for the links that flow and connect out beyond our two countries. Into the wider networks of the world. Into organizations where we sit together- which we built together- in NATO and the United Nations Security Council and the World Trade Organization. And in organizations where we do not sit together: The Organization of American States. The Commonwealth. And yes, the European Union.

How, then, do we strengthen and support what we have? How can we ensure it remains vibrant and relevant? How do we test if these habits and patterns are working and worth repeating?

This is where we finish with the second Jimmy: I recently had the chance to meet the comedian Jimmy Carr. I was able to ask a question I had always wanted to.

“If you’re trying out 10 new jokes for a new stand-up routine, how many will get a laugh the first time?”

“Well…After 20 years of practice” he said “I’m getting pretty good. …I’d say I’m up to 3 out of 10 by now.”

As someone who practices diplomacy, I found that pretty comforting. There is room for trying and failing. For things that don’t work.

And what he said next struck me even more.

“You know, jokes are funny things…I mean they are strange things,” he said.

“If you play a song and no one likes it, it’s still a song…

“If you write a play and everyone walks out, it’s still a play…

“But if you tell a joke and no one laughs, it’s just a sentence.”

This really stayed with me. A joke is not the delivery of words. It’s a connection between people. A completed circuit.

The comedian does his part, the audience does theirs. And together they create something new. It’s no longer just you and me. It is us – engaged.

‎Without that connection, all you have is a sentence.

In our creative diplomacy, we have to keep striving for the connection – and the analogue behaviors that allow for it.

This means employing those habits that worked for Jimmy Wales. The ones that served Winant so well. And adding in some new ones.

We see it in President Obama being driven by a Duke and meeting a Prince in his pajamas.

In sharing a press-conference podium with the Prime Minister and in playing him at a round of golf.

In sitting down with the leader of the opposition. And in carving out time to stand up in front of Britain’s Young Leaders- literally rolling up his sleeves to answer anything they cared to ask.

This was the highlight for me of the visit- and of my time here. Young people asking how they could make a difference. And my President, someone who has lived it, and done it- coming from an authentic place- taking the time to care and share what he has learned.

He summed it all up by saying “You should be predisposed to other people’s power- how can I make the people around me do great things.”

To paraphrase a distinction articulated by C.S.Lewis, it is the difference between propagation – here at the top. And propaganda – down here at the bottom.

These ideas apply to us all. They are the secret ingredients of special relationships.

And Winant in his characteristic halting, humble way leaves us with a recipe in something like a secular prayer. Here is what’s written on his gravestone in Millville, New Hampshire – taken from his memoirs of his time here in this country about what mattered most:

“Doing the day’s work, day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases, wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence.”

Our special relationship is a lasting love story. And the world is crying out for what we have.

It is our job to protect it. And it is also our job to propagate it.

Humbly leading. Boldly caring.

Pre-disposed to other people’s power.

Thank you.