After spending three months working at the British Embassy, Washington, I have several takeaways that I feel are worth sharing. By necessity, I am going to be quite general to avoid disclosing any sensitive information, but hopefully this reflection is still interesting. Some of my comments might seem critical, and there were definitely aspects of the FCO and MOD that I found wanting, but I want to be absolutely clear that I was immensely impressed by the knowledge, professionalism, and competence of the diplomats, soldiers, and locally engaged staff at the Embassy. It is easy to be captivated by scandals and failures within the government, but it is also important to remember that the vast majority of government workers care deeply about their work and their country.
1. The overclassification problem is real – Almost every document I produced or read was marked at least at the Official level, meaning that it was deemed sensitive enough to withhold from the public. Of course, I cannot share the contents of these documents, but suffice it to say that almost nothing in them would have surprised a knowledgeable reader of the news. Indeed, even my personal observations of public think tank events were deemed sensitive, despite the fact that they were nothing more than the musings of a college intern. I think the reason for this rush to classify everything has more to do with preventing scandal than actually safeguarding national security, and there is certainly some value in this approach. After all, sometimes policymakers need to have frank, non-politically correct conversations. That being said, my personal assessment is that this overclassification does more harm than good by utterly hamstringing public diplomacy efforts.
2. The pricipal-agent dynamic is alive and well in the bureaucracy – I was quite amazed at the influence that my team had on Anglo-American defense cooperation. Indeed, it frequently was the case that documents or decisions made at the Embassy were adopted wholesale by London. At one point, in fact, my team leader jokingly informed me that I was now a member of the dreaded “deep state.” I can certainly understand why this might be concerning to people, but I think it is ultimately for the best. The people I worked with were experts on the U.S., and it is probably far more efficient and effective for elected leaders in London to delegate to Embassy staff than try to personally manage the nuts and bolts of the U.K.-U.S. defense relationship.
3. British English has some great slang that simply does not exist in American English – Yes, this has nothing to do with embassy work, and I am far from the first American to have this realization. Nevertheless, it’s worth reiterating.
4. The canteen in the Embassy reifies stereotypes – The lunches served in the Embassy were mediocre at best and unpleasant at worst, which more or less confirmed my priors on British culinary abilities. By comparison, the Italian Embassy’s cafeteria is probably superior to most restaurants in D.C.
5. The U.K. adds a lot more value to American defense efforts than I realized – Americans, I think, tend to underestimate the value derived from our alliances. Of course, different countries contribute in different ways – providing forward basing, supporting logistics, helping cover costs, deploying combat units, etc. – but I think it is safe to say that the U.K. punches significantly above its weight. From helping fund joint R&D to supporting U.S. defense industries through purchases to maintaining a capable set of capabilities, Britain meaningfully supports American defense efforts. I think that some of the people in the Embassy overestimate the capabilities of the British military, especially given some of its appalling readiness shortfalls, but I know that most Americans underestimate the British military and all that it contributes to U.S. national security.
6. While Americans think about platforms, Brits think about capabilities – In other words, the U.K. is much better at abstracting defense problems in a way that allows them to focus on the ends rather than the means. Whereas the U.S. typically seeks one to one replacements for particular vehicles and aircraft, the U.K. is more flexible. In all honesty, I don’t see much evidence that this leads to significant gains in practice, but I still think it is a better way of planning the future force. What is important is the ability to achieve certain national objectives, not the particular platforms used to achieve those objectives.