The UK: A Very Special Friend Of The U.S.

Saturday, January 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Sir Philip Thomas, Britain's Consul-General in New York.

Editor: Sir Philip would you tell our readers about some of the high points of your career at the Foreign Office?

Thomas: One of the advantages of being a member of the British Foreign Service is that you have a series of mini-careers lasting three or four years. changing location. often language. and certainly subject matter. I've spent many years working on relations with the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet Union world. and on issues as diverse as nuclear weapons. arms control. counter proliferation and conflict. My last job was British ambassador to Nigeria. the largest country in Africa. with some 140 million people. Trying to make a difference in challenging circumstances was a fascinating experience.

Editor: What are the principal responsibilities of the British Consul-General in New York?

Thomas: I have two. One is representing the UK to the States of New York. New Jersey. Pennsylvania and Fairfield County. Connecticut as a kind of ambassador (in no way diminishing the UK ambassador). Responsibilities include visa. consular. political and public affairs. My second job is nationwide responsibility for the economic relationship with the U.S: trade and investment promotion on behalf of the UK. Our consulates-general and consulates throughout the U.S help British companies develop their business in the U.S. and encourage foreign direct investment from the U.S.

Editor: Are there any particular challenges that accompany the position?

Thomas: There are always challenges. The U.S. has a special relationship with all countries. The U.S. and the UK have a deep historical background to our relationship; we have strong contemporary links. But nothing can be taken for granted in a globalized world. particularly in the economic sphere.

The other thing I would mention is this extraordinary city. Competing for attention in New York is a very real challenge.

Editor: As British Consul-General in New York. you are one of your country's principal spokesmen in this country. Could you describe the central themes of British foreign policy?

Thomas: British foreign policy has gone through an important transformation over the last year. We have eight strategic priorities. ranging from countering global terrorism; weapons of mass destruction; illegal immigration; drug trafficking and other international crime; the overall rule of international law; our relationship with the EU. pivotal in our national well-being; the promotion of national economic interests in a global economy; and promoting sustainable development. On the latter. I point to Nigeria. where 90 million people live below the poverty line of one dollar a day.

A new focus of British foreign policy is the security of British and global energy supplies. now that we have moved from being a net exporter of oil to a net importer of energy resources. We also have continuing responsibility for a number of overseas territories.

Editor: One of the themes of our publication concerns the progress of the rule of law in places around the globe where it has not been well recognized. Can you comment on Britain's commitment to this undertaking?

Thomas: There has been a focus on the rule of law. and on human rights generally. during the whole term of the Labor Government dating back to May, 1997. This is as important for us as it is for your readership. We pursue it through a number of different bodies. including the UN and the UN's Commission on Human Rights. We also work through various organizations in Europe. The EU is spreading the rule of law to Central Europe through the accession of ten new members this year. an enormous step forward in the post-Soviet world. In addition. we use the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE) in monitoring elections in places like Uzbekistan or Georgia. where these principles are at a rudimentary stage of application. The Prime Minister is personally committed to putting Africa center stage during the UK's G-8 presidency in 2005.

Editor: The Prime Minister recently spoke about Britain's place in the Transatlantic Alliance and in Europe as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe. With a foot in both camps. you are at times in an uncomfortable position. Can you comment on the tightrope that a British prime minister and his foreign policy must at times walk?

Thomas: You are referring to the Guildhall speech which he gave a few weeks ago. I thought it one of the best articulations of the challenges and the tensions in British foreign policy. Integrating into Europe or forming a trans-Atlantic relation with the U.S. has often been posed as a zero-sum choice. What the Prime Minister said in that speech is that this is a false choice. We must have both. We cannot dispense with the extraordinary links that we have with the U.S. in defense. intelligence. economic. industrial and many other sectors. Equally. we cannot be an offshore island disregarding the EU. That debate is still being underway. but Tony Blair is determined to see it resolved.

Editor: How do you see Britain's special relationship with America evolving? Specifically. is Britain in a position to influence and perhaps mitigate America's unilateralism?

Thomas: There is concern about some trends in American foreign policy. The Prime Minister's links with President Bush constitute an important channel for private and frank exchanges designed to influence the direction of American thinking. That refers not just to Iraq and Afghanistan. but also - and crucially - on the Middle East peace process. global warming. WTO issues and trade disputes as well as the U.S. posture towards China and other emerging economies.

We believe that Britain can have a positive influence. without exaggerating our importance. We hope that we can work effectively with the new administration as we have in the past. facing up to the challenges that abound.

Editor: You also serve as Director-General for Trade. Would you give us some idea of the responsibilities this entails?

Thomas: The U.S. is by far Britain's most important economic partner. The British government helps UK companies develop their businesses in the U.S. through a variety of ways. For us. the fact that we exported over $50 billion to the U.S. last year is crucial. The trade in services. especially through the connections from Wall Street. Chicago. and San Francisco with London and other growing financial centers in the UK. is extraordinary. The same is true in the legal field. Tourism is also essential for us. The U.S. is the largest source of inbound tourists to the UK. Finally. the U.S. is our biggest source of foreign direct investment. A million people go to work in each country every day working for companies from the other country. That is a symbol of the integration of British economic interests with those of the U.S. and of the importance of the U.S. economy for us.

Our interests are absolutely linked to the strength and stability of the U.S. economy. From a British tourist's point of view. it is nice to have the dollar at $1.93 to the pound. But it is in no one's interests for the U.S. economy to weaken as a result of the slide of the dollar. Our hope is that the new administration will be in a position to address some of these structural issues facing the economy. not the least being the current account deficit.

Editor: Could you tell us about some of the current issues that British trade policy seeks to address?

Thomas: As your readership will know. the European Commission has full competence over international trade policy. which is one of the important aspects of the EU. It is what has given us a negotiating strength vis-a-vis the U.S. because we are no longer confronting the U.S. as individual countries. but rather as a trading bloc of comparable size. The terms of negotiation have changed. The success of the Doha Round is a common interest for both the EU and the U.S.. but getting there over the next year or two is going to be the real struggle. which includes addressing things like agriculture supports. investment. intellectual property. and so on. There will always likely be trade disputes between the U.S. and the EU because of the size of the economies and because both of us are facing structural changes. What matters is that these disputes be resolved in a way that does not undermine our shared economic interests.

Editor: What other areas of trade problems do you note?

Thomas: I would single out two. One is air services. where the old bilateral agreements between the EU member states and the U.S. have been replaced by a EU-wide mandate to negotiate with the U.S. We believe it is unsustainable for the U.S. to prevent foreign airlines from operating within the U.S. market. We want to have full and equal access to the U.S. market. just as the U.S. wants to have full and equal access to the European market.

In terms of Sarbanes-Oxley. a number of foreign companies have indicated that. given a choice. they would delist from the NYSE. This is not an option. but the complaint does indicate that compliance with Sarbanes. and the associated costs. constitute a growing burden.

Editor: Is the process of globalization irreversible at this point in time?

Thomas: No country can resist globalization. The astonishing growth of China and now India and Brazil shows how quickly the structure of the world's economy is changing. It is important that Africa does not lose out in this rapid development.

Editor: As more and more countries join the global economy. what are the implications for the multilateral discussion?

Thomas: This three dimensional game of chess - which attempts to regulate international trade and business relations and sort out disputes where they arise - will become even more critical to everyone's economic interests. As more people join the discussion. it is crucial to prevent conflict from being a destabilizing factor.