Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On 9 April, the University of St Andrews hosted the Honourable Matthew Barzun, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. His lecture was titled ‘America’s Role in the World: Hands On or Hands Off?’ and it addressed the value of American intervention.

As an American diplomat, he obviously favors a more hands on approach when it comes to foreign policy. However, he was frank about instances when American intervention did not work so well. For example, he spoke about the Vietnam War and how it represented a conflict in which a hands off approach would have been better.

But he was quick to add that a hands off approach can be just as damaging, depending on the issue. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, America took a passive stance when a more active one could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

His short lecture focused American intervention throughout history, but during the question and answer session that followed he addressed America’s role in ongoing diplomatic issues, such as the nuclear deal with Iran, the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and the growth of ISIS. In each of these examples, he stressed that America was taking a proactive approach – imposing sanctions against Russia, for example.

However, when he asked the audience what they thought, the response was mixed. America is the world’s superpower, but not everyone is convinced that the country is wielding its authority well.

As an American student at St Andrews, I’m often asked how being away from home has affected me. Weirdly enough, I feel that being abroad has made me both more patriotic and more critical of America at the same time.

Whenever I go home, I have to readjust to the loudness of my fellow Americans after being around Brits for so many months. Their gregariousness is always something I miss. On the other hand, the distance allows me to see another way of doing things. The UK’s stance on gun control, for example, is the polar opposite of the American way, but I think it is a much better (and safer) approach.

Ambassador Barzun is also an American abroad, and I wanted to ask him about how the experience of being a foreigner has shaped his experience. Read on to learn about what he thinks the UK does best and how America can learn from the Special Relationship.

The Saint: What does the UK do well when it comes to diplomacy?

Ambassador Barzun: The U.S. considers the UK a diplomatic superpower.  It has a seat at the table of every important international institution, and the Commonwealth gives it reach into parts of the world that no other nation can match.  London is a primary global hub for finance and media, and the BBC has unrivaled reach.  These are some unique and exceptional assets that help the UK influence global attitudes and shape the policies of the international community.  That leadership is incredibly highly valued by America. Indeed, the feature that I think we value above all else in this indispensable partnership is the UK’s unique and active role on the world stage.

TS: Is there anything the US could improve upon by following the British example when it comes to foreign policy?

Ambassador Barzun: It’s important to be self-critical, and we are both humble and confident enough to know that we don’t have all the answers.  So we’re constantly looking at ways we can get better in our engagement around the world.  And, naturally, we look to our closest partners and allies on that front. For instance, we at Embassy London have been closely involved with the FCO’s new Diplomatic Academy*, which is giving us both a chance to share best practice and explore new ideas and approaches.

* The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) launched the Diplomatic Academy in February, a centre of excellence to help all staff from across government working on international issues to share expertise and learn from one another.

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