Are ambassadors important? Are they even necessary? Not as much as they used to be. When presidents and prime ministers can talk directly on secure “hotlines” in a crisis, an ambassador actually makes fewer significant decisions than when diplomatic letters took weeks to shuttle back and forth between capitals. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter at all. If a president respects his ambassador’s political acumen, his view of a foreign government and its policies will be influenced by ambassadorial advice. Still more important, an ambassador with a strong public personality can be an effective spokesman for his country’s policies abroad.
Few ambassadors are really good at this second role. They’re happier negotiating quietly behind the scenes than making bold statements on public platforms. But Woody Johnson, the businessman and philanthropist who is Trump’s current ambassador in the United Kingdom, is shaping up to be an exception. Though Donald Trump and his policies are not always the easiest sell in the U.K., especially in fashion-conscious and politically correct London, Johnson does more than defend them well. He also offers frank criticisms of British policy when he thinks it’s drifting in the wrong direction.
He did exactly that three weeks ago, just at the point when U.K. politics was entering its latest downwards spiral on Brexit. That was supposed to reach some sort of weary climax with a parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s deal with the EU last Tuesday. It didn’t. Though voted down by the single largest vote against a major proposal from a U.K. government in British history, the deal is still around. Mrs. May wants to tweak its controversial features and present it yet again to Brussels and the Commons. Latest estimates suggest it will be finally decided in early February, maybe seven weeks before Brexit Day, the 29th of March, when Britain is scheduled to leave the EU. But no one is certain that will happen. Resistance to it and other routes to Brexit continues among Remainers in Parliament, but May’s deal is unpopular with most Brits even in her own Tory party, in part because it would more or less prevent U.K. free-trade deals with non-EU countries such as, well, such as the United States. And this was the issue that Johnson took on during the BBC’s regular morning radio show with both barrels.
As the Telegraph report put it:
Britain is “in need of leadership”, Donald Trump’s ambassador to the UK has said, as he warned a “quick, very massive” trade deal with the US would not be possible under Theresa May’s Brexit plan.
Woody Johnson said Mr Trump was “looking forward to and hoping” a post-Brexit bilateral trade agreement will be able to be struck between the US and the UK.
But he cautioned the Prime Minister’s current plan to take Britain out of the European Union would likely make such a deal impossible.
Tough stuff. And here’s the money quote:
“I have been all over Wales, I have been all over Ireland and Scotland and also England and I feel like the country is in need of leadership.”
Downing Street responded diplomatically by vaguely insisting that all would be well in the end. Its problem, however, was that almost everyone outside the British government — except perhaps Mr. May — agrees with the ambassador’s diagnosis. Even those who take the view that the prime minister’s deal is slightly better than the available alternatives realize that her leadership is the reason that Britain now faces only few (and restricted) bad choices. Naturally, ministers try to obscure this reality. Ambassador Johnson is doing both Britain and the U.S. a service by raising it forcefully in public debate. His candor might well influence its outcome and the kind of Brexit (or not) that eventually emerges.
That wouldn’t be the first time a U.S. ambassador has played a fruitful role in British politics. In fact ambassadors to the Court of Saint James’s from the U.S. are probably all exceptions to the declining importance of ambassadors. American and British politics take place in the same cultural and political world. So, because life in London starts five hours before life on the East Coast, Your Man in London has to be ready to deal with any Anglo-American disputes on the BBC morning shows when Washington is still fast asleep in bed. And he’ll be facing interviewers who can follow the twists and turns of U.S. politics in their own language and in real time — and who, unfortunately, are likely to be well versed in the liberal-Democratic critique of GOP presidents imbibed from their counterparts in the Washington press corps. It takes a very skillful operator to this job well.
In my political lifetime one man was particularly good at it. Charles H. Price, the Missouri banker and businessman, represented the Reagan administration for most of the president’s time in office, which meant he had to handle the Grenada intervention; the U.S.–European dispute over the Soviet gas pipeline (plus ça change . . .); the final stages of the Cold War; and particularly Reagan’s installation of cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe that was opposed by a large and influential “peace movement.” On most of these issues, not all, he and the Thatcher administration saw eye to eye, but there was a large segment of British opinion, mainly on the left, that was anti-American. Charlie had to respond to their concerns too.
My memory of those years has Charlie bounding into and out of television studios to present the case for Reagan’s policies in very robust terms. He succeeded in this for two reasons (in addition to the fact that the policies were both largely correct and in the U.K.’s interests). He was personally very likeable, a large, buoyant, friendly bear of a guy whom the Brits saw as the kind of outgoing, good-natured American they recognized from John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart movies. Also he seemed to go everywhere an ambassador should go (and can’t always). He was first on the scene in Lockerbie, Scotland, after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 (which he described as the worst terrorist attack on America, since two-thirds of the passengers were Americans), and he turned up early in the morning after the bombing in Brighton to personally express Reagan’s concerned good wishes to Mrs. Thatcher. Those gestures (which are also more than gestures) go far beyond the generous socializing now seem as the main duty of many U.S. ambassadors, but Charlie and his wife Carol carried out those tasks very well too. When they left London in 1989, they left many friends and a “special relationship” that was more diplomatically strong and popular with ordinary Brits than at any time since the end of the Second World War.
As it happens, over the Christmas holidays I was reading about two very different U.S. ambassadors in that earlier time: Joseph Kennedy in the period covering appeasement and the opening years of the Second World War, and his successor, John “Gil” Winant, from 1941 to the war’s end. Most Americans have at least a sketchy knowledge of Joe Kennedy and his time in London. He and his large family were initially popular, both with the British government, then led by Neville Chamberlain, and with British society at all levels. Kennedy was a strong supporter of appeasement and of Chamberlain, both publicly and in his advice to FDR, and his older children threw themselves enthusiastically into the high-jinks of London’s high society. John F. Kennedy became a lifelong Anglophile, and his sister, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, went further and became the Marchioness of Hartington, which is assimilation on stilts. Notwithstanding that, their father’s popularity dissolved in rapid stages when the Brits ditched appeasement, entered the war, replaced Chamberlain with Churchill, and fought on after the fall of France, while Joe adopted attitudes that smacked more of defeatism than of appeasement, saying at one point that “democracy is finished in England.” In the U.K.’s Finest Hour, a.k.a. the Blitz, America’s ambassador was criticized as “Jittery Joe” by Londoners because he moved nightly to the countryside to avoid the bombing. There were few tears in Britain when he resigned and returned to the U.S. in early 1941.
My guess is that few Americans today remember his successor, John “Gil” Winant, and perhaps not many Brits either. My own knowledge of him was modest — I knew he had been ambassador, a very close friend to Churchill, and the prime minister’s constant guest at Churchill’s country house of Chequers. But he was much more than that, as I discovered from reading Lynne Olson’s very fine book Citizens of London, about three Americans who shared the lives and risks of Londoners in the Second World War and helped to forge the wartime Anglo-American alliance almost as much as did Roosevelt and Churchill. Ms. Olson’s three American heroes are Ed Murrow, the CBS correspondent who reported the Blitz fearlessly and eloquently; Averell Harriman, who was Roosevelt’s special representative on Lend-Lease (and much else); and Winant. Ms. Olson also has a fourth hero (or heroine) in the city of London itself, which was the capital of free Europe in the war years, where the uniforms of every European country jostled on the city’s streets, bomb shelters, cocktail parties, and bedrooms. Two of her heroes, Harriman and Winant, had love affairs with members of Churchill’s family, which was probably taking the special relationship rather further than even Churchill intended. But it was an extraordinarily exciting time, in which people facing death abroad cast aside the usual restraints of home, and Ms. Olson describes the changing life of wartime London — with its dangers, tragedies, courageous deeds, sacrifices, friendships, intrigues, and love affairs — with an equally extraordinary vividness. Her book has a historical surprise, a heartwarming anecdote, and a brilliantly apposite quote on every page. The reader lives in that place and that time alongside her heroes.
Both Murrow and Harriman are well known, their exploits and achievements chronicled elsewhere. Let me concentrate on Ms. Olson’s third and forgotten hero. Gil Winant was a liberal Republican governor from New Hampshire who supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president in 1940 and was sent to replace Kennedy in 1941 at a low moment for Britain in the war. Though the Brits had the unstinting support of their empire and Commonwealth and were therefore not entirely “alone,” and though the victorious Battle of Britain was a decisive moment in world history because it prevented a Hitler victory, the Brits had their backs to the wall. They suffered a string of defeats until mid 1942; shipping losses in the Battle of the Atlantic threatened them with starvation; they had lost or were losing all their continental allies as they either fell before the Nazis or retreated into neutrality; Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program was initially modest, slow in coming, and granted on quite tough terms (the Brits made their final payment in 2006); the weariness of war on food rations that kept everyone hungry all the time was grinding them down; and Joe Kennedy’s defeatism had left a nasty taste in their mouths. When Winant arrived in Britain, therefore, there was acute interest in who he was and what he would say. Addressing a battery of microphones after getting off the plane, Winant said: “There is nowhere I would rather be than in England.”
These very simple words went round the country and in some odd way told the Brits that he was their friend and ally. They prompted a wave of relief and pro-American feeling. And they reflected the reality of his diplomatic mission and personal commitment on both official and popular levels.
Winant very quickly became a close friend of the top British political and military leaders. That’s not hard to explain. While the U.S. was still out of the war, Winant shared their view that America must enter it, and in the meantime he lobbied Washington hard for more generous aid under Lend-Lease. He was a regular guest in Downing Street and Chequers, and he was with Churchill when the news of Pearl Harbor came through. On the one hand, he had ready access to British secrets; on the other, he was as much Churchill’s ambassador to Roosevelt as America’s man in London. And through a kind of political osmosis — and because he toured Britain giving speeches and seeing the impact of the war on its cities — his commitment to the British cause communicated itself to the British people. On one of the worst nights of the Blitz, he left the U.S. Embassy, where he had been working late, and helped emergency services to rescue people from bombed and burning buildings. That became known to ordinary Londoners and, of course, it made a nice comparison to “Jittery Joe.” Within a short time, Winant had become so popular in wartime Britain that when miners threatened a strike in the north of England, Clem Attlee, the deputy prime minister, asked Winant if he would go north to ask them to call off any industrial action. Winant doubted they would listen to him, but he made the trip, was heard sympathetically by them, and to his surprise succeeded in persuading them to stay at work. That must be a unique achievement for any ambassador at any time.
Winant remained in his post when America entered the war, and he became a close colleague of Eisenhower’s. Both deserve enormous credit for creating and sustaining the joint Anglo-American military command that won the war in the West while managing to keep temperaments as fiery and combative as Patton and Montgomery more or less on the same side. And, of course, Winant was on the winning side in a world war for decency as well as interest. When that war ended, he was the most popular and admired man in England. His departure for America in 1945, where his achievements were much less known, was inevitably a comedown as well as a welcome return home. It was made worse by the fact that Truman, who didn’t really know him, failed to offer him the high-profile job that would have suited his particular gifts at the infant United Nations. Some investments failed, leaving him depressed by debts. Sarah Churchill, to whom he proposed following her divorce, decided that she didn’t want to surrender her new freedom and turned him down. And in 1947 he committed suicide.
But that should not be how we end his story. The last words on Winant should record the weeks before he left Britain in 1945, when every day saw him receive the freedom of a city, an honorary degree from a great university, the praise of both solemn and popular newspaper editorials, the testimonials of the leading British statesmen at grand dinners, the personal thanks of a sovereign, and the cheers and shouts of ordinary English people whenever he was recognized in public. There was no one they would rather see in England.
Woody Johnson would hardly want such a splendid elevation, because it would mean he had faced a baptism of fire first. Britain’s current troubles, though highly complicated, are much less dire than that. They are less concerned with external attacks (thought there have been some verbal ones from Paris and Brussels) than with internal divisions, which of their nature require more careful handling. In particular, some of those seeking to prevent Brexit do so in part because they want to detach Britain from its close relationship with the U.S., which they regard as an illusory diversion from its “natural” European destiny. A U.S.-U.K. free-trade deal is thus something they would like to avert, but they are unable to say so candidly. Its practical advantages for the Brits are just too strong to be argued away by Euro-sophistry. Mr. Johnson has his work cut out — but, as in 1941, the long-run gains from being in the Anglosphere outweigh any short-term dislocations. There is nowhere he should wish to be than in England. Now.