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Nigel SheinwaldAmbassador, Washington
As Ray Charles once sang, last week I had "Georgia On My Mind", as I spent a couple of days down south in Atlanta. The visit had a large trade and investment focus. Economic issues have always been a core part of the work for the British Ambassador in Washington, but the economic downturn of the last few years has made this even more critical. Arguably the highest priority of the new British Government is the economic recovery. Reducing government borrowing is a key part of this. But prosperity cannot be fully realized without a resurgent private sector, and this in turn depends on access to open markets. This was theme of my piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
There is a real concern about the headwinds of protectionism, which often grow stronger in difficult economic times but which actually make economic recovery more difficult, not less. Yet I came away from Georgia reassured that - there at least - there is a genuine free trade approach to life. They want open markets, they want investment flowing, they want the barriers to investment and trade brought down.
I took part in an open discussion with Dennis Lockhart, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, at an event hosted by the World Affairs Council and the British American Business Group of Atlanta. Our discussion was in front of an audience of Atlanta’s business and community leaders. Entitled "Paths to Prosperity: The U.K. Perspective”, I heard many voices echoing the importance of anti-protectionism as a key to economic recovery. And I got the same message during my meetings with the leading businesses I visited, including Coca Cola, Turner Broadcasting Systems, and GE Energy.
That was a clear business view, but it was also what Georgia's political leaders were saying too. I sat down with Mayor Kasim Reed - the first time we have met since he took office in January 2010. The Mayor is firmly committed to international trade and investment, which he is demonstrating through a sister cities exchange in October. Newcastle, in the North East of England, will showcase its renewable technology capabilities.
The Atlanta-Newcastle link is a nice illustration of the broader ties that bind us together. I touched on these in my interview with local radio and when I met some of the State's legislative leadership. Throughout there was ready recognition of the UK's role as Georgia's most important economic partner in Europe. We agreed we would do all we could to help the vibrant UK-US and Europe-US trade and investment relationship continue to flourish, as a key plank of our recovery.
With such a mutually beneficial relationship, I left Atlanta certain not only that Georgia would remain on my mind, but confident that the UK would stay on hers too.
This week, I've been back in London for a meeting of the Foreign Office's senior leadership. Whilst there I took the chance to see Baroness Shriti Vadera, Minister for Competitiveness and Enterprise, Jon Cunliffe, the Prime Minister's Adviser for International Economics, who also serves as the G20 Sherpa, and sat in on a meeting between Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Chancellor Alistair Darling and US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who has been visiting Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the global economic recession was the number one item for discussion. Even though the immediate threat to the international financial system seems to have receded, the recession is taking its toll around the world. Crucially, the unemployment rate in most countries continues to rise, exacting a real human cost on millions of households.
We have made some significant progress on the commitments leaders made in London. Here in the US, the Administration won approval from Congress for a big uplift in the IMF's resources. And proposals for reforming financial regulation have moved forward in the UK, the US and in Europe. You can read the proposals published by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, last week here.
But as well as taking stock of progress since London, leaders in Pittsburgh will want to focus on the future. I think a large part of their discussion will look at what kind of an economic recovery we want to see. After this recession has passed, we want to promote growth that is sustainable and balanced, not prone to speculative bubbles and overly reliant on particular sectors or countries. We need to make sure that recovery takes place in the context of the Copenhagen Climate Conference this December, where countries will seek a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Developing that agenda with our US counterparts will be a top priority for the Foreign Office and the embassy over the next couple of months.
The embassy hosted a fascinating discussion on US history and its politics with top British historian Simon Schama last night. He's in Washington to promote his four-part documentary "The American Future: A History." His documentary looks at some relevant issues through the lens of US history: jobs and the economy, wars overseas and immigration.
Simon Schama, myself and Thomas Friedman after watching selections from Professor Schama's documentary.
I think this event showcases the diversity of what we do at embassies. They are often thought of as creating political connections between governments. It's important to remember though that embassies build cultural relationships as much as political, defence and economic ones.
We're very busy at this embassy with both political and cultural exchanges. Professor Schama's talk is the first of three events leading up to the inauguration of President Obama on Tuesday. Dr Henry Kissinger will come tonight to give a lecture under the auspices of the Atlantic Council on trans-Atlantic issues under the new Administration. On Saturday, I'm hosting the Illinois delegation to the inauguration.
All three events will bring together people with an interest in the unique UK-US relationship. They will celebrate our cultural, academic and political ties at an exciting and rich moment in America's history and its relationship with its allies around the world.
The global financial crisis has been the number one issue for the Washington Embassy in recent weeks. It’s been raised in nearly every meeting I have had, with the Administration, Congress, business leaders, journalists and of course the Presidential campaigns. And it’s been at the centre of the Presidential debates – I was lucky enough to attend the second and third, in Tennessee and in New York.
Our small Embassy economic team, drawn from the UK Treasury, Bank of England and Foreign Office, has never been busier. Throughout the past few weeks there have been constant contacts between our Government, Bank of England and regulatory authorities and their American counterparts, which the Embassy has helped facilitate. Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, announced a major package of measures to stabilise the banking sector last week. Last weekend, the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, both stayed at my Residence while meeting their counterparts at the IMF and World Bank. It was my job and that of my team to explain our approach to our contacts here ahead of those meetings. Last weekend’s meetings of G7 and G20 Ministers drew on the main elements of the British plan and provided a new level of international coordination on handling the crisis.
This in turn informed the decisions taken at the Euro Group meetings last Sunday and yesterday’s European Summit in Brussels. We now have a detailed and clear European position coordinated with the United States and our other major financial partners.
The crisis was the subject on everyone’s lips at the historic Al Smith dinner in New York yesterday evening at which both Senator McCain and Senator Obama spoke – with great wit and dignity. Among those I talked to, there was a welcome recognition of the role played by Gordon Brown and other European leaders, in consultation with the US Administration, in helping to find a way forward.
Gordon Brown has explained the present position in an article in today’s Washington Post. This looks beyond the immediate stabilisation of the financial system to the need for major reform of the global financial architecture and a sound new regulatory framework. These will provide the best basis for avoiding a recurrence of the turbulence we have seen over the past year or more. The UK strongly supports the idea of holding a Leaders’ Summit in the near future to discuss a shared international response to the longer term issues thrown up by this first global financial crisis of the 21st Century.
I expect this set of issues to remain high on the Embassy’s agenda in the weeks and months ahead.