Sir Nigel Sheinwald, British ambassador to the United States, spoke at Sterling Memorial Library on Tuesday about the political climates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, emphasizing the importance of balancing military efforts with diplomacy. Sheinwald served as foreign policy and defense adviser under former Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2003 to 2007 and now represents Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government in Washington, D.C.
Sheinwald’s visit to New Haven comes at a time when Yale is strengthening ties with the United Kingdom: Blair teaches an annual class on globalization and faith, and the Yale School of Medicine recently entered into a partnership with University College London. In an interview with the News, Sheinwald emphasized the importance of political and academic relationships between U.S. and U.K. and praised Yale’s long record of producing public servants and policy makers.
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Q. What brings you to Yale?
A. For the British government, a key part of the job of the British ambassador in America is to interact with America’s top universities and make sure that the linkages — academic and human — between the universities and British institutions are in good health, and that’s undoubtedly the case with Yale, which has centuries of close links with the U.K. in all areas—in the humanities, science, law and so on. It really is an encouraging thing. What I said to President Levin is that we want to be involved as much as we can. You’ve got Tony Blair here; we’re very ready to help with the speakers for the courses and events; we want to talk to you about maintaining Yale’s extraordinary success at getting scholarships to British universities through the Rhodes, the Marshall and other programs. We can help with these and other issues students occasionally have with visas and so on. We’re interested in conducting policy dialogue with a great policy institution — which Yale is — about things like [the Middle East]. We’ve got a lot expertise in the area of climate, economics and so on, and we’d like to have the chance to talk to others about that. We have the possibility of a very wide-ranging partnership. Governments don’t need to become too involved in these things but at the margins, and that’s what I’m here to do.
Q. What was it like working with Tony Blair? Are you still in touch with him?
A. I am still in touch with him. He visits Washington pretty frequently as part of his new life as a public speaker. He spends about a week a month working on the Middle East peace process. He comes quite frequently to see the U.S. administration when he is in Washington, and he’s working with some American firms as well … I was his equivalent to national security advisor for four years, starting just after the Iraq conflict in 2003 up to the time when he left office in 2007, so I worked very closely with him.
Q. What do you think of the Yale Medical School’s new partnership with University College London?
A. It’s an example of one of the many very close institutional connections that Yale has with British institutions. UCL is a great institution, and that’s exactly the kind of collaboration that I’ve come to Yale to try to promote.
Q. How would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K.?
A. It’s of course different than the 1940s. When you think of the 1940s you think of the heyday of the special relationship, Churchill and Roosevelt disposing of world affairs after dinner. It’s different today for a number of reasons, but mainly because there are so many other powers in the world — China, India, Russia. Of course it’s different. But what the U.K.-U.S. relationship has is first of all a huge amount of positive history and human links, and second, a really strong investment in an economic relationship. Our firms provide over 900,000 jobs in this country; your firms provide about 1 million in the U.K. There’s a lot of economic interdependence. And in the area of foreign policy and international security we have the most intimate relationship of any two countries on a global basis because our defense interests and our intelligence interests are actively involved, and in terms of our foreign policy dialogue, we have an enormous amount of candor. We don’t just go through the motions when we’re talking about Iran or Afghanistan or Palestine. We really get down to the brass tax, roll our sleeves up and have a real discussion. That informality and candor, which has been built up over a long period of time, really is important. And of course we always have very strong relationships at the top.
Q. How would you compare the Bush/Blair dynamic to the Obama/Brown dynamic?
A. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have placed an enormous amount of importance on their relationship with the American president of the day. That’s a hugely important part of the job description of any British prime minister, and particularly for these two. They’re both personally very committed to America; they have a huge understanding of America and want that strong link to continue. Obviously the times have influenced those relationships. For Tony Blair it was very much about 9/11, about the Iraq War. For Gordon Brown it is very much about Afghanistan and also very much about the international economic crisis. And for President Obama and Gordon Brown the thing that they are spending most of their time on is the economy: recovery, jobs, growth. They have spent a lot of time in the last year, and indeed before President Obama came into office, talking about the international aspects and that need for international cooperation. And the work they are trying to do together on climate change … this is all part of developing a new more effective economy as we’re coming out of this recession. So you add to the traditional subjects of Anglo-American cooperation — security, foreign policy, geostrategic affairs — you add to that the economic relations and climate. The agenda, if anything, is expanding.
Q. And do you feel that our countries still see eye to eye on this expanding agenda?
A. I think our countries see eye to eye. We don’t on everything. We disagreed with Bush administration about climate change, and we’ve been very open about that. Disagreements do happen, often on trade issues. We would like the U.S. to show a strong lead on trade issues. But by and large we see eye to eye. The Obama agenda is a good fit for the U.K., and we’re working very closely together on these issues.
Q. In a memo to your government leaked during the Presidential race in 2008, you expressed feelings that President Obama was not the most experienced candidate. How do you feel having worked with him?
A. I didn’t express any concerns. It was actually a very positive, balanced appraisal of then-Sen. Obama. But of course as part of that I noted that his senatorship was at that stage relatively recent. But I’d have to say that we’ve found that he goes deeply into subjects. He has an exceptionally good understanding of them, and we’re working extremely closely with him.
Q. A NATO air strike in Afghanistan this week killed over a dozen civilians. Is there a feeling of regret? Was the air strike necessary or effective?
A. I saw the reports, but I haven’t seen anything other than the press reports about it. But two comments come to mind: Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal’s very clear instructions to the commanders is to avoid civilian casualties and to run operations with that requirement in mind and to focus instead on protecting the civilian population, and therefore have the best chance of winning over the Afghan people. That’s his clear strategic intent. At the same time, it’s never possible to protect 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. This is a war, and terrible things and unfortunate things are occasionally going to happen. I’m sure there will be a full investigation.
Q. How does your work as a public servant interact with those who look at your field from an academic standpoint?
A. I know it’s different when you’re studying it as a subject, and looking through the prism of political theory and different approaches to political science. It’s a different subject from the thing I’m doing day by day, which tends to be much more practical — a pragmatic, issues-based approach. What you’re doing is looking at broader trends.
One of my sons studied politics at the University of Edinburgh, and occasionally he would discuss with me his essays on European issues. I was the ambassador to the European Union for several years and was deeply involved in many of the issues and knew quite a lot about them, but I was absolutely hopeless at helping him at all because he was looking at it from a fundamentally different angle. There’s something to trying to combine the theory and the practice of international relations, and I hope it’s helpful to do things like [speaking at Yale] today.