19 June 1997 - 21 June 1997

After the US and UK Elections: Impacts and Prospects

Chair: The Honorable Raymond G H Seitz

Since Ditchley and the Chicago Council had last conferred together, in 1995, the United States and the United Kingdom had seen what were in a sense strikingly different electoral outcomes: in the former, the reaffirmation of the status quo by yoking together an incumbent President and a Congress of different party majority; in the latter, a landslide victory marking the reversal of eighteen years of party if not (indeed in most respects conspicuously not) of policy. We found rich veins of meaning and prospect to explore.

The external-policy field - where our prime focus lay - was marked, for both countries, by the absence; of marking; there was no great threat by which to calibrate action, no grand strategy available for establishing criteria and priorities. Issues were mostly more complex and less clear cut than in the past, and that made coherence and convergence between US and European approaches less easily ensured. It would be mistaken, in these circumstances, to fear old-fashioned US isolationism - the public knew that in today’s setting their country could not possibly switch off from other parts of the world. But foreign policy had featured little in the 1996 US election (or in the UK’s 1997 one, for that matter) and general levels of understanding were lower than when the Cold War both compelled and simplified attention to it. Congress was less well informed, and proportionately more responsive to purely domestic concerns; where foreign policy issues did come to the fore, the driving force was often the pressure of particular ethnic or similar groups rather than a structured general view of US national interests. President Clinton, perhaps drained or distracted more than most predecessors by special personal circumstances, did not find it easy to impose his policies over Congressional preferences and micro-managing propensities, even with the help of a new Secretary of State more influential than the previous one in that regard. We conjectured also that the effects of economic globalisation were often hitting hard the segments of society to which past Administrations had most naturally looked for a broad and knowledgeably-supportive interest in foreign affairs.

Where did the new UK Government stand, and what might it be able to do, in relation to this US scene? There seemed now a notable personal affinity between leaders to supplement the long-customary instruments and impulses for US/UK collaboration; but we heard divergent views about whether Prime Minister Blair could really expect to mobilise all this into practical influence to modify US policies, for example on UN financing and reform or on trade issues. For all that Mr Blair’s domestic political position was exceptionally strong, and that he might well prove energetic and radical in exploiting it, the asymmetry of power between the two countries was still widening.

Both countries, albeit in rather different ways, were having to manage the awkward social consequences of economic globalisation. That massive phenomenon - which national governments could scarcely reverse, though they were not powerless to influence its pace or direction and ease its frictions in some degree - reflected both the increasingly-full entry of states like India and China into the world economic system, and effects such as the huge technology-based reductions in communication and transaction costs, these reductions largely offsetting the fact that labour mobility - in previous eras a key adjustment mechanism - was still extensively constrained by government policies. In advanced countries however the tide of globalisation (hardest on “poor people in rich countries”) was widening income disparities and increasing the proportion of populations not sharing the fruits of general economic growth. No country had yet solved this conundrum - the new UK government’s emphasis on increasing workforce competence was, so experience suggested, an approach likely to yield large-scale improvement only within a timescale measured in generations. Meanwhile, the domestic problems might exacerbate or multiply likely trade disputes in the international systems, for example as demands for a “level playing-field” (inherently unattainable amid diversity) shaded into covert protectionism to rob competitors of natural advantage.

As we turned to more specific areas of foreign policy we recognised that the task of shaping congruent US/European diagnoses and approaches, difficult enough anyway amid complexity, was sometimes further encumbered by the internal factors we had noted. There were no special fissures about the handling of Russia, and there was a shared commitment to the continuing importance of NATO even if there were some risks that some Europeans might inappropriately suppose that its expansion was essentially a US project, not their own. A common outlook upon China, however, had rarely been easy to reach, and was becoming no more so. Iran presented similar difficulty; it seemed evident indeed (alongside some signs that influential US opinion was looking to move away from hard-line containment) that no outside actor had yet found a good strategy for reaching out to “moderates” and prompting more accommodating external behaviour. The Israel/Arab peace process illustrated policy problems in a different way : both justice and real US interest (or so it was argued) pointed towards exercising the unique influence of the United States in direct opposition to the Netanyahu policy on settlements, but the Administration had not judged itself able so to act.

We debated the concept (which not everyone found useful at all) of “rogue” states and their handling in US and UK policy. Were these to be defined narrowly as states whose external behaviour, in its impact upon others, departed significantly and unacceptably from international norms, or more broadly as those whose general character, even internally, was judged repugnant to concepts of democracy and human rights? Emphasis in both the US and (especially by the incoming Government) in the UK upon value-driven or “ethical” foreign policy might seem to point towards the wider interpretation. It was however hard as yet to see just how the concept was to be made operational, and corrective policies fairly targeted and rendered effective, in practical day-to-day terms. We observed also the risks of appearing to impose upon the world standards which others might see as culturally or even racially biased.

We paused briefly upon Cuba, and upon the international tensions (exemplified by the “Helms/Burton” controversy) which it generated. For both past-historical and present-electoral reasons the US (and especially Congress) was apt to view Cuba as a “rogue” state; but it scarcely seemed importantly so to most others.

We noted, again briefly, the issue of Northern Ireland as a substantial and potentially-awkward factor in US/UK relations. Some British participants suspected that the new Government might before very long have to acknowledge the impossibility of reaching agreed outcomes and ending terrorism by normal political process, and to move accordingly to policies which some in the US might construe as hard-line or peremptory. In that event it would be important for both countries that US Administration understanding for UK decisions should still be fostered carefully and in good time.           

We touched more briefly still upon the matter of defence effort. It was noteworthy that the US defence budget remained under no special political pressure. This might make it all the more important that the imminent UK Defence Review (whose driving theme was not wholly clear, though one voice strongly conjectured a money-saving motivation) should be sensitive to transatlantic repercussions of a “burden-sharing” kind; the level of German effort was already matter for concern on this account.

The future evolution of the European Union, and in particular the prospects for monetary union, provided however a much larger theme. To many minds, EMU was in serious difficulty, and so therefore was the EU itself. Though the issues might be little understood in the United States (and US opportunities to influence them might be very limited) the outcome could touch US interests substantially in numerous ways. The stresses of a “failure” of EMU (which might have alternative forms) could damage the international economic and trading system, give new impetus to political extremes within major European countries, and make the EU a weaker and less helpful partner for the US not only in economic but also (through harm to the EU’s collective comity and confidence, and to its successful expansion) in global political and security terms.

We wondered, inconclusively, about whether the new British Government now had a special opportunity to exercise enhanced leadership within the EU, and to do so to beneficial effect Mr Blair seemed, domestically, in a position of unique solidity, strength and authority as compared with his counterparts in other major countries, and the “federal” urge in Continental Europe - which, at least in British perceptions had largely underlain the alienation of the previous Government from the broad European advance - had lost force. But we doubted whether it had receded as far as British instincts might wish; and though pragmatism and caution might now be rather better received than in the high days of the Maastricht Treaty, it would remain difficult for a Britain resolved (as seemed likely) to stand aside initially from EMU - the Union’s central endeavour - to displace Germany or France as prime animateur.

That took us, by way of envoi, to a brief look at France following the recent victory of Prime Minister Jospin and the accompanying discomfiture of President Chirac. The former’s position seemed strong, and only a serious failure by him in governmental effectiveness could seem capable of rehabilitating the latter’s full authority. But the policy challenge remained formidable, both practically and conceptually: how could neo-Keynesian instincts be fitted alongside the demands of EMU, and sector-protective pressures alongside the need to loosen and deregulate industry for international competitiveness? None of us could see the destinations clearly, but the journey would certainly be interesting.

That might serve as watchword for our conference as a whole - in the nature of our many-sided diagnosis, no single clear distillation was to be looked for. But open and frank dialogue, of the kind typified by the Ditchley/Chicago exchange, remained all the more necessary.


This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman : The Honorable Raymond G H Seitz
Vice-Chairman, Lehman Brothers International (Europe); United States Ambassador to the UK, 1991-94


Mr Jacques Bilodeau
Deputy High Commissioner, Canadian High Commission, London
Mr Kevin G Lynch
Deputy Minister, Industry, Ottawa
Dr Gerald Wright
Department of Industry, Ottawa

Ambassador Andras Rozental

Mr Paul Smyke
Member of the Executive Board, World Economic Forum, Davos

Mr George Brock
Managing Editor, The Times
Sir Andrew Bums KCMG
Deputy Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Dr David Butler CBE FBA
Nuffield College, Oxford
Mr Menzies Campbell CBE QC MP
Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Foreign Affairs
Professor John Garnett
Professor of International Politics, University College of Wales
Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield GCMG
Senior Adviser to BZW Limited; formerly Head, Diplomatic Service
The Hon Peter Jay
Economics and Business Editor, BBC; formerly Ambassador to the United States
Mr Peter Kellner
Political Commentator, The Observer and Evening Standard’, Political Commentator and Election Analyst, BBC
Mr Donald Macintyre
Chief Political Commentator, The Independent
Lord McNally
Life Peer (Liberal Democrat); Vice-Chairman, Shandwick Consultants Limited
Mr David Miliband
Director, Prime Minister’s Policy Unit
Mr David Willetts MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Havant
Mr Shaun Woodward MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Witney
Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG
Chairman, Royal Institute of International Affairs; formerly Head, Diplomatic Service

Mr R W (Johnny) Apple
Chief Correspondent, The New York Times
Mr John Callaway
Senior Correspondent, WTTW/Channel 11, Chicago
Major General Neal T Creighton
President and Chief Executive Officer, The Robert R McCormick Tribune Foundation, Chicago
Dr Dolores E Cross
President, Chicago State University
Mr Stephen J Del Rosso
Program Director, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations
Mr D Cameron Findlay
Partner, Sidley & Austin, Chicago; previously served in the Bush Administration
Mr Cyrus F Freidheim
Vice-Chairman, Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc, Chicago
Mr David H Hale
Global Chief Economist, Zurich Insurance Group, Chicago
The Honorable Robert E Hunter
United States Permanent Representative to NATO
Dr Shireen T Hunter
Visiting Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Studies, Brussels
Mr Robert P McNeill
Executive Vice-President, Stein Roe & Farnham, Chicago
Professor Bryce Nelson
Professor of Journalism, University of Southern California
Mr William Pfaff
Author and Syndicated Columnist, International Herald Tribune
Mr John E Rielly
President, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations
Mr Robert Squier
President, Squier Knapp Ochs Communications; Political Media Consultant for Clinton/Gore campaigns in 1992 and 1996