Former Ambassador to the U.K. Says Partisan Divide Threatens Democracy

In a visit to the National Churchill Library and Center, Matthew Barzun said the special relationship remains strong, but divisions inside both countries are frightening.

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Former U.K. ambassador Matthew Barzun said he appreciated the way diplomacy removed him from "partisan trench warfare." (Harrison Jones/NCLC)
September 25, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

As Britain prepares to exit the European Union, former ambassador to the United Kingdom Matthew Barzun said he is not worried about a rift in the longstanding relationship between them and the United States.

That relationship “is magical, it’s going to be okay,” he said.

What Mr. Barzun does worry about, he said, are the deep partisan divisions within both countries.

“On both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Atlantic people are talking at each other, they’re talking past each other, or worse yet, not talking to each other at all,” Mr. Barzun told an audience at the National Churchill Library and Center Wednesday night. “That’s what scares me for their democracy and ours.”

National Churchill Library and Center director Michael F. Bishop moderated the conversation, which focused on the “special relationship,” a term Winston Churchill coined to describe the ongoing friendship between the United States and the United Kingdom after World War II.

Mr. Barzun, who visited the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2016 during his tenure as U.K. ambassador, gave an hour-long talk that ranged from embassy life to the difficulty of stepping outside partisan bubbles and bridging ideological gaps.

One of his challenges as a diplomat, he said, was trying to identify buzzwords that might further antagonize those who disagreed with him. “What are the words I’m using as a diplomat that I think are kind of benign and neutral, but are pressing other people’s buttons?”

And at the moment of the Brexit vote, Mr. Barzun said, much of the standard-issue diplomatic language about international relationships triggered animosity in nationalist or isolationist-leaning segments of the population.

“I must have said ‘multilateral free-trade deal with the European Union to protect intellectual property, the rule of law and international rules-based order’ so many times,” he said. “This is the kind of diplo-gobbledygook that I did a brisk trade in. And clearly, big groups of British citizens, and big groups of my fellow citizens here in America” felt ignored or threatened by that language, he said.

Still, Mr. Barzun said he believed the relationship between the two nations was as strong as ever. There is almost a cottage industry in declaring the special relationship “dead,” he said, and as ambassador he even had some such declarations framed in his office.

But even as Mr. Barzun emphasized the ongoing strength of U.S.-U.K. relations, he said he objected to some of the established diplomatic language often used to describe it.

“The phrase that is often used is ‘There is no daylight between us,’” he said. “I think that’s a ludicrous standard that is unattainable, and more still, it doesn’t account for real life between nations and between people. Of course there’s daylight, and we shouldn’t fear daylight between us.”

Asked whether the historical moment was one in which people are looking backwards for leadership models—to Mr. Churchill, for instance—Mr. Barzun pointed out that the original meaning of the word “nostalgia” was as a wasting disease.

“It is an unhealthy homesickness, largely for a time that never really existed,” he said. “So we always have to be wary of sepia toned ‘wonderful’ pasts. In many ways it may have been wonderful, but in many ways that we don’t know or maybe paper over it wasn’t wonderful for big chunks of our fellow citizens.”

Now that he is no longer a diplomat, Mr. Barzun said he has received offers from journalists to air his “real” opinions on issues of the day. But the offer, he said, doesn’t tempt him.

“I didn’t think that diplomacy was a shackle,” he said. “It was nice not just getting into partisan trench warfare.”

Upcoming events at the NCLC include a discussion of the future of the British monarchy and a conversation with novelist Mark Helprin.

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