Even serving in the United States four times, British Ambassador Karen Pierce has never attended a presidential inauguration.
When it became clear that diplomats would be cleared to join the much-anticipated Jan. 20 installment of President-elect Joe Biden as the next U.S. leader, she jumped at the chance.
“I couldn’t get my acceptance in fast enough,” said the U.K.’s top diplomat and first female ambassador to the United States on a call with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
Usually a solemn but largely prosaic ritual marking the transfer of power in a country that has sought to be a global beacon of democracy, this year’s ceremony is being watched with heightened interest around the world.
Last week, a mob inspired by outgoing President Donald Trump’s persistent false claims of voter fraud stormed the Capitol, forcing lawmakers to evacuate proceedings in which they were to certify the results of the electoral college vote.
The melee in which five people died prompted widespread condemnation from U.S. allies, with especially strong words coming from many European partners. Ms. Pierce, the former envoy to the United Nations, ambassador to Afghanistan and chief operating officer of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was likewise “shocked.”
“The Capitol is emblematic of American democracy, and our Prime Minister Boris Johnson was very clear in condemning the mob attack and the violence, and the incitement to violence,” the ambassador told World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro in a conversation Tuesday. Watch the full discussion here
That said, Ms. Pierce was heartened to see order restored and the lawmakers return “to carry on their important, constitutional work,” which played out against the backdrop of the tallying of votes in Georgia’s “edge-of-seat” Jan. 5 Senate runoffs. These resulted in the election of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, flipping the majority in the upper chamber.
“Those things point to an underlying health in American democracy that is very reassuring at the present time and for the long term, no matter how disquieting the events of 6 January,” Ms. Pierce said.
Such faith in the strength of American institutions will be vital in restoring the world’s trust in a superpower that has retreated from global leadership and shunned multilateral engagement for an “America First” approach for a solid four years under Mr. Trump.
Ms. Pierce said she is encouraged by the “direction of travel” articulated by the Biden transition team toward re-engagement in institutions, with a strong emphasis coming back to the World Health Organization, standing with the NATO alliance and rejoining the Paris climate accords.
In a program focused on “Britain and Biden’s shared goals,” she highlighted a few that have already become clear: trade, climate change, and importantly, post-pandemic economic recovery that revolves around a shared goal of “building back better,” to borrow a U.N. phrase both have adopted, with a focus on resiliency and equity.
“We want the COVID recovery not just to get economies back on track quickly; we went it to do it in a greener way, a most re sustainable way, and in a way that really addresses economic resilience” and open markets, Ms. Pierce said. “It’s a way of reinforcing the value of open societies.”
The pandemic continues to rage in both countries, which have been among the worst-hit judging by case numbers and per capita deaths.
Following its exit from the European Union and the framework governing their relationship agreed upon in December, the U.K. is now free to set its own trade agenda.
“I think it will be a more dynamic and agile economy,” said Ms. Pierce of her country, noting that the U.K. has emphasized the importance of maintaining its European ties while also embracing a more global orientation. “It’s not fanciful to say that the Brits have been the greatest free traders in the European Union and would have always gone further than the European Union itself might wish to do so.”
At the top of the list are trade agreements with partners like Canada and Japan, but principally the United States, where Ms. Pierce said a deal would include provisions on small enterprises and digital commerce that would be “standard-bearers” for future deals based on transparency, not authoritarianism.
“Put crudely, (artificial intelligence) has to be used to the benefit of citizens and not to spy on them,” she said.
She added embracing the job-creating potential of tackling greenhouse-gas emissions will be a big part of future trade deals, noting Mr. Biden’s ambitious climate goals and his administration’s plans to rejoin the COP26 meeting, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, this November.
U.K. leadership on such issues — embodied in its upcoming G7 presidency and a greater role under its own “nameplate” at the United Nations — can serve as a rebuttal to those who say the “U.K. lost an empire but never found a role.” That role is being a force for good and promoting democratic values, the rule of law and open markets, as well as support of the United States, she said.
“Brits are meant to be pragmatic, bring a certain worldliness to affairs allied with principle. We can be helpful,” she said, outlining its positioning as a problem-solving nation that is open to dialogue even with those who don’t share its views. “Western countries, if I may say so, are very good at talking to themselves, and then we all get excited because we all agree. We would like to think of ourselves as being open to discuss with anyone who wants to enter into those conversations about world affairs legitimately.”
The U.K. shares the U.S.’s concern about strategic competition from China, she said, which seems to enjoy bipartisan consensus in Congress, and Ms. Pierce looks forward to seeing the Biden administration’s “calibrated approach” to this important issue.
As they iron out a broader deal, she hopes the American and British trade negotiators can tackle short-term irritants, including an ongoing Boeing-Airbus dispute that has forced retaliatory tariffs on items like Scotch whiskey.
Ms. Pierce pledged to return to Atlanta in person when COVID-19 has subsided.
Learn more about the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and see upcoming programs at www.wacatlanta.org.