Matthew Barzun

U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom

A 200-Year Journey as Important as the Destination

The British are known for wonderful understatement, and after a year as ambassador I’ve developed a better ear for it. As for my fellow Americans and me? Well, as a Brit might say, less so. So I’m okay with boasting a little about the strength of the relationship between our two countries. 

We do indeed share the strongest political, cultural and financial alliance on earth. And we like to think that our bond can be an example for other counties.  I talk about these things proudly and often. But while I don’t understate those things — the happy part of our story — I also don’t understate the hard parts.

All too often we skip our backstory, the long journey that got us to this point. But the truth is that a stark accounting of our nations’ early and not-so-special relationship makes what we have today much more compelling and inspiring.

In fact, one of the lowest points happened 200 years ago today when British soldiers set fire to the White House (it was called the President’s House back then).  They also torched both houses of Congress and destroyed most other government buildings.  Imagine how Americans felt about that kind of attack on our own soil four decades years after the Declaration of Independence.

But our nations did something that we in the global diplomatic community strive for every day: We healed. We forgave. And we built a new and stronger partnership. Over time we set aside our differences, fused our common bonds and built the greatest alliance the world has ever known.  It’s pretty amazing when you think about it: The only country to have captured and occupied our capital is now our closest ally.

So, when we talk about this Special Relationship, let’s make sure the epic chapter on reconciliation is a prominent part of the story. Let’s celebrate the peace, prosperity and justice that it has brought the world for generations, and will continue to bring for generations to come.


The above picture shows charred bricks at the White House which can still be seen today.

Cricket and Diplomacy

This summer I went along to my first cricket match – day three of the 2nd Test between England and India at Lord’s.  It was a wonderful, typically English, experience:  The weather was mixed, tradition and etiquette were in abundance, and there was a delightful air of eccentricity everywhere.  It was everything I’d hoped for.  I LOVED it.

Of course, I had little idea what was going on beyond the basics.  So my companion took time during the day to explain some of the subtleties of this fascinating game.  As he did so—and as I took in the action and the atmosphere—I thought about what my grandfather, Jacques Barzun, once asserted of baseball.

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” he wrote in his book God’s Country and Mine, “had better learn baseball, the rules and realities.”  They even etched that into the wall at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Well, the more I learnt of cricket, the more I realized that one could substitute the word “America” in that quote with “diplomacy”, and “baseball” with “cricket”—especially Test cricket.

With the tempo, twists and turns, and—let’s be honest—occasional tedium of a five-day match, cricket seems to mirror many of our diplomatic efforts.  I had to smile when I was told that when deciding whether to take a run, batsmen call out either “yes”, “no”, or “wait”.

Moments of great activity and excitement can be followed by lulls in the action.  And just when you think you’ve reached stalemate, comes a breakthrough.

Then there are those breaks in play – and captains, coaches and commentators talk of winning “sessions”.  Diplomats recognize fully the advantages that can come with suspending negotiations for a while, allowing everyone time to take a step back, regroup and assess what they have to do next.  (The Northern Ireland peace process was not accomplished in one sitting).  And often a result is reached via small “wins” – and despite some “losses” — along the way.

Cricket is also a team game where specialist players (spinners, seamers, wicketkeepers, slips, batsmen) contribute individually at different times.  That’s true also of diplomacy—although our “teams” are made up of thousands of individuals not all of whom are politicians or diplomats.     

Finally, there is the idea that a draw is an acceptable outcome — even after days of hard work. It’s undoubtedly a frustrating outcome, but, as with diplomacy, there is much to appreciate in the realities of a sport where patience and perseverance are fundamental qualities.

It is not a perfect analogy, of course, and diplomacy is obviously not a game. But it’s a helpful lens for looking at the craft. In diplomacy you sign up to the ebb and flow, and the highs and lows. And you stay engaged for the long haul. 

What Makes a Good Diplomat?

It’s a tough question to answer and a bit like trying to describe what makes a good artist.  It has also lent itself to some decent jokes over the years. For instance, it’s been said that a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing.  Or that diplomats are people who can always make themselves misunderstood.  Then there is diplomacy itself, which has been described as the art of letting someone have it your way.

But, in seriousness, as the global community comes together to address stark flash points in international relations, we are reminded again of diplomacy’s critical role. We need to ensure our diplomats are as knowledgeable, professional and highly-skilled as possible, and there is much we can learn from our allies.  Yet, whereas the U.S. and British militaries have long trained side by side, our diplomatic corps have not.  It’s time to change that.

So as a start, Embassy London has teamed up with the UK’s new Diplomatic Academy.  At our first joint session, the UK’s Ambassador to the U.S., Sir Peter Westmacott, and I conducted a masterclass.  The subjects we covered were how to build a network and the power of asking for help – both essential tools for modern diplomacy.  We’re also now working together to develop a course on Internet governance.  And in October I look forward to attending the UK’s Ambassadorial seminar.

Our countries more often than not look at the world the same way.  We share values that we want to promote on the world stage.  So it makes sense that the U.S. and the UK pursue all means to make sure our diplomatic partnership is as strong and effective as possible – even, dare I say, “special”?