THE new US Ambassador to the UK says healthy debate between its citizens is vital to ensure the “special relationship” remains strong. During his first visit to the North, he spoke to Mark Tallentire.
AS diplomatic postings go, it must have seemed like a plum job.
So when Matthew Barzun woke up just a few days after taking over as US Ambassador to the UK to The Sun’s front page screaming ‘Death Notice: The Special Relationship’, it’s perhaps no surprise he got a few teasing emails from friends back home.
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But sensationalist headlines aside, there is perhaps more London leg work to be done than one might imagine.
Transatlantic differences have emerged not just over Syria but also terrorism, surveillance and climate change. And that’s without even mentioning Iraq.
Perhaps that’s why Mr Barzun is keen to get out from behind his London desk and meet Britons for himself.
He spent much of his two-day North-East visit chatting with sixth formers, asking them for their feelings towards the US.
“We’re famously the best of friends,” he says, sipping – fittingly – an Americano coffee following a guided tour of Durham Cathedral.
“But it’s not a perfect relationship. There has always been room for disagreement.
“So let’s not paper over the disagreements. Let’s not go onto auto-pilot assuming we’re always going to be great friends.
“The foundation of the relationship is trust amongst citizens of both countries.”
If anyone understands the Special Relationship, it should be Mr Barzun.
He is a descendant of English Puritan and US founding father John Winthrop and his brother-in-law, Robert Donnelly, is from Hartlepool.
Asked his feelings on the current state of London-Washington relations, he replies unceasingly: “Strong”.
“It’s very strong. But we shouldn’t take that for granted.”
Our countries’ shared history makes it strong, he argues, having just been shown a Durham Cathedral plaque dedicated to John Washington, a 15th century prior of Durham Abbey whose descendants would later give their name to the new world’s new capital.
But it’s also “totally relevant today”, he adds.
“Secretary of State John Kerry visited four times in my first four months (as ambassador) and I’m sure he’ll visit many times more, engaging with the Foreign Secretary on the issues of the day, be it Syria, the Philippines or climate change – name the issue that’s on the front of the papers and we’re engaging and working together.”
The 43-year-old, who marshalled a huge “citizen fundraiser” army said to have given Barack Obama a huge push towards the White House in 2008, says he finds “lots of support” for the President across the UK, but the governments and people of the two countries also need to talk about issues where they disagree.
So he’s happy to explain Washington’s take on the use of so-called drone planes (“It’s important to dig a little deeper”), surveillance (“We ask that question in the workshops”) and even Iraq (although he says it “doesn’t come up” any longer).
But although a Democrat, the New Yorker, whose wife Brooke Brown Barzun is heiress of the Brown-Forman Corporation distilling empire behind brands like Jack Daniel’s, is firstly a diplomat, having spent four years as Uncle Sam’s man in Sweden.
So asked the US perspective on Scottish independence, he – to use a particularly un-American idiom – plays it straight.
“We are watching carefully but it’s an internal matter,” he says.
On whether Britain should remain in the European Union, he is a little more forthcoming.
“It’s an internal matter,” he says initially.
“But if you ask (I had), it’s our position that we value a strong UK in a strong EU, because Europe is the first place we turn as a country when we’re trying to figure out ways of making the world more peaceful, prosperous and just.
“Europe is our first and indispensable partner as we try to do that.”
And with that, Washington’s man is off to his next appointment: charming as ever, thanking cafe staff personally as he exits.
“I love the job,” he comments.
“It’s a true honour to serve our country and a true honour to serve here in the UK.”