Patrick Davies OBE was the Deputy Ambassador at the British Embassy in Washington DC, from 2013-2018. He has 25 years’ experience as a former senior British diplomat in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. In October 2020, Davies published The Great American Delusion, which explores America’s myths of exceptionalism and its deep divisions setting it on a path of decline.
An hour before Biden’s presidential inauguration on January 20th, I sat down with Patrick Davies to hear about his experience working in America as a British diplomat and to make sense of America’s turbulent four years under Trump and what the future under Biden might hold.
Patrick Davies’ time as British Deputy Ambassador to the US coincided with the last years of Obama’s presidency and the first year of Trump’s term in office. It seemed fitting to ask what his experience of that transition was. ‘The transition was chaotic. It was completely chaotic – that’s the honest thing to say’. The American system, which allows for several months before the president-elect takes office, is supposed to allow a smooth handover. However, with Donald Trump in 2016-2017, Davies notes that he had a small transition team and as soon as he was elected, he sacked his transition team.
‘And of course, as he was a man who had not previously been in government office, he didn’t have hundreds of people who knew how the system worked. He plucked people, quite often out of thin air […] When you’re trying to work with that as a foreign diplomat, you didn’t know who you’re supposed to contact, you didn’t even necessarily have a name of someone you could contact. When those names existed, they didn’t know how the system worked either. So, it was total chaos’.
Interestingly, Davies remarks that this lack of preparation meant that at times, there was greater efficiency and spontaneity because the Trump administration did not know what the standard approach was. ‘Theresa May was the first foreign leader to visit the White House after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017; she went to see him a matter of days after he had moved in. Now that was stressful and chaotic, but it was arranged incredibly quickly because the people Trump had around him didn’t know what protocol was and they didn’t know how the system worked […] You could go and ask for things and because they were new, and they didn’t have a structure around them, it would just get done’.
You could go and ask for things and because they were new, and they didn’t have a structure around them, it would just get done’.
When asked about difficult situations Davies faced when working with the Trump administration, Davies cites the Theresa May visit in January 2017. The afternoon Theresa May left Washington, Donald Trump issued one of his first Executive Orders, banning Muslims from numerous countries travelling to the US. This was difficult because ‘Theresa May supposedly, with Britain as one of America’s closest allies, if not the closest ally, had just walked out of a meeting with Donald Trump and had no idea this was going to happen’. ‘Theresa May was criticized for the special relationship, how she did not know about this and why didn’t she influence Trump to stop him, we had a racist move by a new president which is disturbing, and we had the problem of trying to work out whether Brits were affected or not’. Davies notes that luckily within a couple of days, Britain was able to ensure that any Muslims originally from those countries who were British residents were not affected by the ban. Even so, ‘it was an uncomfortable and difficult thing to be doing because fundamentally the policy was racist’.
The relationship between the US and UK has been called a ‘Special Relationship’, first coming into popular usage after a speech by Winston Churchill in 1946. When I mention the phrase to Davies, he quickly remarks that he does not like it, ‘because it’s immediately loaded, and people are then measuring whether it’s as special as it was before’. Nonetheless, he does view the relationship as special; ‘when you live and work in the states, especially as a government representative, the extent of our relationship is enormous’. For Davies, the relationship is special because of their shared history, massive private investment and educational exchanges with academics and scientists working together at a level not seen with many other countries.
This relationship as a whole was not affected by the Trump presidency according to Davies because ‘all of those elements of that relationship don’t change when there are presidential changes and somebody else in the White House’. He notes however that ‘if anything, it made people in this country more sceptical about America.’ When looking at it from the other way around, ‘the Trump administration was very well disposed to the UK.’ ‘His mother was of Scottish descent, he’s got investments here, he came on a state visit which was quite controversial given the man he is, but he loves all that pomp and royalty because he’s a narcissist’.
Undoubtedly, however, Brexit will have an impact on that relationship. Davies laments that ‘we cannot be the bridge between the US and the EU anymore because we’re no longer in the EU.’ In the past, we were the bridge ‘because we tend to think in a like-minded way to the Americans and have similar approaches to problems and challenges’. ‘Well, now we’re outside the EU, the reality is, Washington will be phoning up Berlin and Paris and other EU allies to make that case. And that’s a fact, no matter what British politicians tell us’.
When asked about the possibility of a free trade agreement, Davies admits that a free trade agreement won’t be a top priority for Biden because of the pandemic, America’s economic crisis and deep divisions that Biden needs to resolve. Even so, Davies argues that ‘we will get a free trade agreement; America is well-disposed to the UK and indeed it will be looking to make gains for its own farmers and private sector in a trade deal with us’.
When Davies was in the US, he worked on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, launched in 2013. This was an EU-US trade agreement to advance their trading relationship. However, negotiations ended without a conclusion at the end of 2016. Davies explains that ‘One of the frustrations I think the Americans had on [TTIP], was when you’re working amongst twenty-eight countries, all with their different interests, the room for manoeuvre is more limited’. Therefore, ‘because of our longstanding relationship with the US, the US would be willing to go further in a trade deal with just us, and indeed, we might be willing to go further with America than some of our European colleagues might’. However, Davies points out that because American farmers engage in practices such as hormone-supported beef herding and washing chickens with chlorine, ‘the UK will have to make some tough decisions about what we are willing to accept to have greater access to the American market, which will be important for us as we’ve left the EU’.
On January 6th, the Capitol building was stormed by Trump supporters in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. ‘Who would have thought we would see this in the US, the country that sees itself as this model democracy to which everyone aspires. Countries in transition and developing nations that are grappling with moving from autocracy into democracy might look at America and think this doesn’t look much different to Belarus […] I think a second Trump impeachment damages the brand of America, it damages their reputation around the world. But at the same time, America’s democracy did survive. Its institutions held up. It might have been close’.
Davies adds that it is shocking that only a ‘tiny number of Republicans that have ever distanced themselves from Trump or even criticized him over the last four years, and even when he has incited people to take their Capitol building, only ten out of two hundred plus voted for impeachment’. ‘It’s a shocking sign of how divided America has become. People don’t see basic facts in the same way anymore. People just write their own truths and believe them and that’s quite worrying I feel’.
America’s deep divisions underscored Biden’s inauguration speech, in which he called for an end to the ‘uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal’. When surveying the challenges Biden faces in the US Congress, Davies remarks that ‘From the right, I think those staunch Trump supporters are not going to be flexible, but actually, that’s not who Biden needs to win over’. He notes that supporters such as Ted Cruz ‘are lost’ and that Biden ‘needs in a way, to forget them’. Rather, Davies argues that Biden needs to focus on ‘those who are closer to the middle ground […] the centre-right of the Republican Party’. He argues that ‘it’s up to people on the centre-left of the Democratic Party to say, ‘How do we come together?’ and ‘How do we compromise?’ because we can’t all have what we want, but if neither side has anything, America is going to go downhill and not recover. That’s the space Biden will be looking to work in’.
It is unlikely that Biden will ‘position himself all to the left of the Democratic Party because the stretch is too far to get moderate Republicans to come over to his side’. Even so, Davies believes that Biden is going to be more left leaning than Obama. He predicts that Biden will do more for climate change and push the boundaries on healthcare, which is likely to gain more traction given the global pandemic.
I saw [Biden] at a student event in Washington and he was able to connect with your 18-year-old from somewhere in Africa and your 20-year-old from a European country as well as the billionaire donors of the educational charity organization and foreign diplomats like me.
Despite these challenges that Biden faces in securing the middle ground, Biden appears to have the ability to unite. ‘It’s going to take a long time for America to heal, but Biden will start that on January 20th. I’ve met Biden a number of times, and one of things that I was struck by is his ability to connect with anybody he meets. I saw him at a student event in Washington and he was able to connect with your 18-year-old from somewhere in Africa and your 20-year-old from a European country as well as the billionaire donors of the educational charity organization and foreign diplomats like me. He has that knack for making people feel comfortable and listened to and valued in a way that is quite rare. He’s a man who’s worked his whole life reaching across the partisan divide, across the aisle in Congress, to try to make compromise and do the right thing. He comes with the right credentials for helping America heal but it’s not going to be quick and it’s going to be years.’
The Great American Delusion: The Myths Deceiving America and Putting the West at Risk by Patrick Davies (Caravan Books UK, £8.99) is out now.