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U.S.-U.K. Relationship: 'Not Only Special, But Essential'

Op-Ed Contributor

Published on 26 August 2014

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by Matthew Barzun


Washington, D.C.

U.S. And U.K. Flags, Together As One
U.S. And U.K. Flags, Together As One

The old joke in Anglo-American circles is that the United States and the United Kingdom are two nations separated by a common language. But that’s not exactly true, as NATO leaders will learn when we convene for the 26th NATO summit next month in Wales. Welsh is not just a totally different language, it is the advanced mathematics of human speech. This summer I am trying to learn a little. So far, my vocabulary is three words — one of them has 58 letters, only 13 of which are vowels. This country with the offbeat language has also been off the beaten path of state travel. President Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Wales.

But despite its anomalous traits — traits which are central to its incredible charm and appeal -- Wales is every bit as connected to America as its U.K. siblings. For example, several of our Founding Fathers — including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — were able to claim Welsh ancestry. And you can see more links here thanks to U.S. Embassy London’s social media team.

There is one particular connection that’s especially striking to me. At the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, there is something called the Wales window. It is a stained-glass window crafted by Welsh artist John Petts and paid for by the people of Wales. The window replaced one destroyed in 1963 by a bomb — planted by white supremacists — that killed four young girls.

Many Birmingham residents had likely never heard of Wales. Yet, while their children’s murderers had lived in their own city, an entire country thousands of miles away was compelled to be a part of the healing process and to memorialize the fellowship of all human beings.

For me, that window stands today as an enduring monument to yet another bright corner of the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. And we can also find inspiration in such solidarity at this critical moment in NATO’s 65-year history.

We are drawing down our presence in Afghanistan, but stepping up our support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression and intimidation. A crisis on Europe’s eastern border that has sharpened focus on the summit’s main goal: ensuring that NATO continues to build stability in an unpredictable world.

With the UK — one of our closest and most capable allies — as hosts, we can be confident it will lead the alliance toward making good on that vision. Because not only will this summit reinforce NATO’s role as the cornerstone of global security, it will also cement the United Kingdom’s status as a diplomatic superpower.

President Obama reminded us during his State Visit to London in 2011 that NATO was a British idea. And as one of its most active members — and one of the remaining few that still spends 2 percent of its GDP on defense — the U.K. is a forceful ally for the United States in NATO.

But we also look to Britain for global leadership through a host of other international platforms, including the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, the G7, and the Commonwealth, which gives it reach into parts of the world no other nation can match. The reason, as the president put it, is that “few nations stand firmer, speak louder, and fight harder to defend democratic values around the world.”

That spells out why the U.S.-U.K. relationship is not only special but essential.

It is worth noting, however — and I always do — that our alliance has thrived despite a distinctly checkered history. August 24 marks exactly 200 years since British soldiers burned down the White House (in retribution, it should be noted, for America sacking the town of York in what is now Canada two years earlier). And while we’ve more often stood shoulder-to-shoulder than toe-to-toe in the last two centuries, there have still been plenty of times when we’ve not exactly seen eye-to-eye.

Yet instead of diminishing our relationship, our rich history of agreement and disagreement, gratitude and resentment, competition and cooperation is what makes it so unique. From a period marked by conflict, our nations did something that we in the global diplomatic community strive for every day: We healed, we forgave, and we built a new and stronger partnership. The NATO summit — which will be the largest gathering of international leaders ever assembled in the U.K. — is a chance for us to reaffirm this remarkable relationship on the world stage.

Oh — and that word with the 58 letters?

It’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It’s the longest place name in Britain and roughly translates as: “St. Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio of the red cave.” But you already knew that.


This blog post by Matthew Barzun originally appeared on the State Department website on August 11. Barzun serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


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Posted 2014-08-26 08:40:00