RAF Club- The Special Relationship

And I’m confident that it will be Britain and America, as we have done for a century and more, working together as leaders in the international community to help find the answers to these pressing questions. The commitment to that shared future could not be more concrete than the magnificent new Embassy building that is taking shape right now in Battersea.


Chargé d’Affaires a.i. Lewis Lukens
RAF Club
08 February 2017

(as prepared for delivery)

Chargé Lukens: Good evening everyone. Thank you, Andy, for that introduction.  And thank you all for having me tonight. It’s a particular pleasure to be here to give my first speech as Chargé D’affaires.

To help explain why, I want to start this evening with a story of a young man none of you will have heard of: a chap [you will notice I’m practicing my British English already] a chap called John Eric Atkinson.

He was born in Whitchurch in Hampshire in 1899. 15 years and a few months later, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves to fight in the First World War.

As a father who remembers what my own children were like at 15, I find this difficult to imagine. Even more so when we learn that within months John was in Gallipoli, and then Egypt defending the Suez Canal. He wrote that the Turks were planning to invade but “we foxed the blighters!” Which, as far as I can tell, is a good thing.

U.S. Embassy London Charge D’Affaires Lew Lukens was the Guest of Honour at the RAF Club evening reception on the subject of the US & UK relationship
U.S. Embassy London Charge D’Affaires Lew Lukens was the Guest of Honour at the RAF Club evening reception on the subject of the US & UK relationship (image courtesy @The RAFClub)

Somehow at this time John’s true age was discovered and he was packed off back to England, but he did not let that slow him down for long. Shortly afterwards he re-enlisted, now at the ripe old age of 18 years and 4 days- in the Royal Flying Corps.

He became a Lieutenant [sorry, a left-tenant] in the newly created RAF. He flew and fought in Palestine, was the first man to land in Damascus after the German Air Force had been driven out by Australian cavalry, and he was mentioned in dispatches- signed by a man whose name you will recognize- a certain Winston Churchill.

Now, why am I telling you this? Well that man, John Atkinson, was my grandfather.

So I feel a particular connection with the RAF – because a little bit of my history is a little bit of yours too. And that makes the opportunity to be with you all this evening particularly special.

My other grandfather, who was American, also fought in that war with the US Army in France.  So you could say that my family represents a sort of microcosm of the special relationship.

Long before Winston Churchill even coined the phrase in his speech at Fulton, Missouri, 71 years ago, my relatives were fighting side by side with yours. Even when there was not a phrase for what we were up to, our countries have long been working together to make the world more peaceful, more prosperous and more just.

This year is the centenary of America’s entry into that Great War.  A point in time when America began its transition to becoming a world power – and an anniversary we at the Embassy will be marking with events throughout the year.

Now, I know what you are thinking.

Perhaps it can be summed up by some other famous words of Winston Churchill: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

Frankly, it did take us some time to enter the fray. Just as with World War II, there were competing views, competing voices at home as to whether and how America should engage with the world- questions of isolationism or engagement that have been played out again and again in the decades that followed.

But ever since that moment the US and UK have time and again stood together in common cause. During World War II mutual trust on both sides saw some big egos submit to a joint-command (albeit with complaints along the way.) And at Bletchley Park we each took the leap of faith needed to share “ultra”- at a time when the various branches of the US intelligence services scarcely spoke to each other!

It’s worth pointing out, by the way- it is very likely that Churchill never actually spoke that phrase about Americans. It is an example of what has been called “Churchillian Drift”- where people automatically assume that memorable phrases must have been spoken by the great man, when their true origin is lost in time.

No matter- the words have taken on a life of their own, whoever came up with them. In fact that phrase remains particularly popular with politicians back home – it is often quoted in Congress to this day and one senator from Virginia (Mark Warner) uses the line so often his staff decided to put it on a plaque for him.

This points to a third thread in the Special Relationship’s rich tapestry- beyond the military and security aspect, there are clear and important political connections that we share, going deeper than the headline figures of Churchill and FDR, Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Blair [President Trump and Prime Minister May?]

So we have our shared history, military and intelligence cooperation, political touchpoints – all familiar pages in the book of the Special Relationship. Take a look around Grosvenor square and the story is all there in the statues- Eisenhower and Reagan, Roosevelt and the Eagle Squadron.

In fact the story is now so familiar that it is easy to see why this narrative sometimes gets criticized. Those memorials outside our Embassy give a possible label for the objectors- they might call it “the bronze statue” view of the Special Relationship.

According to this critique the Special Relationship is some relic, a feature of the past that can be revered and perhaps remembered fondly, but one that is increasingly irrelevant.

Given the rise of China, they say, and shifts in geopolitical influence, this view suggests the relationship is about as much use for today’s world as a Sopwith Camel. And worse, any reference to it as such suggests either desperation on the one hand, or delusion on the other.

People from this school of thought seize on any perceived divergence of views between our leaders, any hint of difference in our approaches to the world and point, almost gleefully, at the demise of what was once so great.

And there are plenty of such examples for them to choose from- go through the headlines and it’s clear that announcing the death of the special relationship has been a pastime from almost the moment the phrase was first coined.

There were protests in ‘46 over the UK sharing jet engine technology with Stalin. We had a break up in ’56 over Suez. Crisis in ’64 over Vietnam. It was dead in ’83 over Grenada. Over again in 1994, because of a visa for Gerry Adams. Dead in 2001 as the UK was allegedly replaced as America’s closest ally – by Mexico – just days before 9/11.  And so on.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I’m with Mark Twain on this one- I think reports of our alliance’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

You cannot sit in my role and have any doubt about the nature and importance of the work we still do together today and every day. We have a metric at the Embassy- ‘official visit nights’. So for example take one US Navy Admiral coming to visit- and her two staff members, coming for 2 nights- that would make 6 visit nights. Last year we had 24,000 visit nights- a continuous flow of government to government work that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.

In your field- The US Air Force has 34 direct exchange officers with the RAF—the most of any nation, by far.  Your exchange pilots fly nearly every aircraft that we have. We work together in the global fight against Islamic State. In imposing sanctions for Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine and Crimea. In a historic deal to prevent Iran gaining a nuclear weapon. In pushing for a diplomatic solution in Syria. In sending people and expertise to overcome the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

The other risk I think we should avoid is to focus solely on that official relationship- and assume that the health of our relationship is entirely dependent on the residents of the White House and No.10.

This reading, I believe, misses the real strength and source of the enduring nature of our relationship. I have no doubt our governments, whoever is in charge on either side of the pond, will continue to work effectively and collaboratively together. And I believe that this is only a fraction of the story.

Perhaps more important than the official connections can ever be are the numerous overlapping threads that have very little to do with what governments do. Economically, we are still the largest investors in each other’s’ economies. 1million Americans go to work every day in British firms in the US, and 1 million Britons do the same in US firms over here.

We watch each other’s movies, read each other’s novels and listen to each other’s music. Together we have between us the world’s most widely read newspapers, the most Oscar nominations, the most Nobel prize winners, the top universities on the planet.

When you picture all the tourists, the students, the businessmen and women who daily fly back and forth across the Atlantic it’s clear that at the personal, human level, the ties that bind us are as strong as ever.

And despite the occasional difference of style or approach, our history and our common culture still lead us to share the same values and the same goals. We believe in fair treatment and human dignity. That people should be able to choose their government and that governments should be accountable to their citizens.  Everyone should have the right to live in a society that allows them to pursue their potential.  We believe that all citizens should be educated, not just boys and men.  We believe in economic transparency and opportunity.  We believe that women play a vital role in the social and economic development of a country and must not be prevented from doing just that.

We may not have figured out exactly how to put all this into practice in our own countries perfectly yet, but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive toward that goal and shouldn’t encourage other countries to also.  There are other governments in the world that like to respond to our criticisms on things like human rights, for example, by pointing out flaws in our society – things like high rates of imprisonment, and sometimes difficult race relations.  But here’s the thing – I don’t think there is a thoughtful, informed leader who would argue that we don’t have room for improvement, that we can’t do better.

The fact that we aren’t perfect does not mean we don’t have the right, even the obligation, to work, with other nations, to help make this world a better, safer, place. And despite being famously two nations divided by a shared language- we mean the same things when we say this.

So my answer to those who see disaster in differences of opinion as and when they arise- and they will arise- is that disagreement, with decency, is a sign of strength, not weakness.

There is a saying in diplomacy that there should be ‘no daylight between us’- which is, when you stop to think about it, a ridiculous standard. Picture two soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder. There is plenty of daylight between them. And if there were not it would be creepy, quite frankly.

My point is made with great style in a handbook, given out to American GIs who were stationed in the UK during World War II. It’s called ‘Over There, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942”. It is a gold mine of wisdom- for soldiers and for diplomats.

Among the many gems- and I would encourage you to find a copy, we learn that

  • The first important thing to remember is that the British and Americans are alike in many ways- but not in all ways.
  • You will hear them speaking English- but you may not understand what they are talking about.
  • The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea, so it’s an even swap.
  • Don’t criticize the food, beer, or cigarettes.

The most important point, however, is the insight that “you defeat enemy propaganda, not by denying that any differences exist- but by admitting them openly, and trying to understand them.”

It was true then- just as it is true today. The challenges we are facing are different from those of the 1940s of course. As we get to grips with the opportunities provided by the digital revolution many of the rules of the road- the new international norms- are still up for grabs.

The international architecture that we helped build together – even before the war was over, Bretton Woods and NATO, the United Nations- these institutions will inevitably need to adapt and change in the years to come. The international community’s approach to globalization, to cyber security, to the balancing demands of individual privacy versus national security- these are all pressing and relevant concerns.

And I’m confident that it will be Britain and America, as we have done for a century and more, working together as leaders in the international community to help find the answers to these pressing questions. The commitment to that shared future could not be more concrete than the magnificent new Embassy building that is taking shape right now in Battersea.

The statues will remain in Grosvenor Square- and its right that we remember those years- but we need to be inspired by our past rather than imprisoned by it. And I am excited by the opportunities that are still to come.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing your questions.