Earlier this week, I watched American television news break the story of the Iranian nuclear agreement. A few hours and a transatlantic flight later and I watched the same story reported in the British media. I had to stop and check that I was watching the same events. In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry was alone in bestriding the globe bringing the possibility of peace in the Middle East a step nearer; only his lack of a mask and cape denying him full superhero status.
Here in the UK and Kerry’s Bat Man had been joined by a bald man from Yorkshire playing the role of Robin. For the British version of the Iranian deal casts Foreign Secretary William Hague as Kerry’s right hand man, deferential but indispensible and close at hand when he needs him most. It has even drafted in EU commissioner Baroness Ashton as a proto-Superwoman according her honorary membership of the British foreign policy elite despite months of smugly deriding her credibility for the job.
This is not just the distinction between the differing national priorities of the American and British news media; it also reflects the earnestness around how we want to see not just our relationship with America but our wider search for a globally relevant role. Indeed it fits a comforting post-colonial narrative that we can provide the wise counsel and pragmatic guile to make the deployment of America’s superior diplomatic artillery more effective. We have wanted to play Robin for a long time. And for a while Tony Blair thought – wrongly as it turned out – he had donned the tights in his pre-Iraq relationship with George Bush (although he would no doubt have preferred Harold Macmillan’s more elegant metaphor of Britain playing Greece to America’s Rome).
How much of this is an accurate picture of a quietly influential Britain playing to her strengths? Shorn of post-imperial pretensions, can we now forge a foreign policy that is no longer burdened by the self-tormenting angst of our diminished international status but sees us deploying centuries-worth of the kind of gritty geo-political nous and phlegmatic insight needed to navigate the treacherous contours of a nefarious world?
It would be nice to think so. Certainly the British diplomatic and business community retains a strong streak of the kind of savvy experience needed to succeed in a global marketplace where the old order has been turned upside down. Before this recent trip to Washington DC, I was in Tokyo talking to a senior executive from a Japanese conglomerate that has a major stake in a US-listed Latin American mining company, which is investing billions of dollars in southern Africa with Russian and Indian co-investors to sell to Chinese customers. This is now a relatively straightforward proposition compared with some of the byzantine structures now commonly deployed in order to maximise corporate reach into the outer fringes of frontier markets.
The challenge is for Britain to succeed in this changed reality both politically and commercially. But success faces considerable headwinds from an inexorable drive to see the world through a highly localised lens. As our world has become more genuinely global we seem to turn inwards, becoming preoccupied by domestic issues that for sure need our attention but not to the exclusion of what is happening beyond our shores.
Politicians probably have no option but to struggle to reconcile these two competing imperatives from a wider world that demands their attention and electorates that require them to keep their ambitions and energies firmly rooted at home. But business people are not so constrained. The concern is that when you get beyond the handful of genuinely global British companies – Unilever, Diageo, Glaxo and a few others – much of British business struggles to tap into the great mercantile tradition that has allowed these companies to translate decades of heritage into becoming savvy, globalised operators able to compete in a massively expanded and changed market. Instead too many companies are held back by the same antipathy to embracing the foreign, the sometimes exotic and occasionally risky wider world that afflicts our politics.
This is not about wrapping the country in the Union Jack and setting forth to conquer the world anew. It is about defining those same qualities that I imagine the Foreign Secretary was striving for in Geneva. It is about using a seasoned appreciation of how the world works, a quiet confidence that we can more than hold our own amid complexity and, above all, being willing to take risks to get what we want.