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British Ambassador To The U.S. Explains What A New President Means To The U.K.


The relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. has always been essential, and now it's arguably more important than ever, at least to the U.K. After Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to reposition his country globally and get a new trade deal with the U.S. At the same time, the U.K. is trying to figure out where it stands under a new American president. And all this during a global pandemic when the two countries control a disproportionate number of vaccine doses. Well, to talk about these issues, we are joined by Britain's ambassador to the U.S., Dame Karen Pierce.


KAREN PIERCE: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: You've had a sharp pivot from a U.S. president who strongly supported Brexit and a new trade deal to now President Biden, who is trying to rebuild relationships all over the world and is threatening to tax British exports to the U.S. Is the U.K. on shakier ground with the U.S. now than it was a year ago?

PIERCE: I wouldn't say that at all, Ari. President Biden refers to the U.K. as the U.S.'s closest ally. That's certainly how we see ourselves. We are a global player, all the more so having left the European Union. And we look forward to working with the Biden administration to try and solve or at least to make a start on some of the really key problems facing the globe.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the U.K.'s global posture, which you understand well having been ambassador to the U.N. before this post. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put out this plan for what he calls a global Britain. It talks about deepening ties with Washington to counter threats from Russia and China. Why wouldn't the U.S. turn first to the European Union on those efforts, given that the EU collectively is much larger and more powerful than the United Kingdom alone?

PIERCE: Well, it's true that the European Union is the world's third-largest economy, taken collectively. The U.K. is the fifth-largest economy in the world. So I would say that the United States needs both the EU and the U.K. if we're to make a coherent policy that deals with China, deals with China's increasing international assertiveness and China's economic approach but also offers the possibility of cooperation on really big global issues like health and climate. But the U.K. is powerful. I don't want anyone to get the impression we are not. We're a leading member of NATO. So I would say that this is something that on both sides of the Atlantic we need to talk about together.

SHAPIRO: One key part of this global Britain strategy is to work with the U.S. to counter Russia, particularly on cybersecurity. Now, Russian-backed hackers have already penetrated deep into American government and corporate systems, and they've hit other countries as well. And so far, the U.S. and the U.K. have not made Moscow pay any significant price for that, as far as we can see. What do you expect to change? And is it too late to undo this damage?

PIERCE: I think that although China is the big strategic issue of our time, we can't ignore the more aggressive posture and interference posture adopted by Russia. And I think both U.S. and U.K. think it's a shame that Russia chooses to go down an almost gangsterish approach to foreign policy. We continue to talk about how best to counter this. We will work together to defend our democratic systems and also to collaborate on cyber.

SHAPIRO: But I think listeners may hear you saying Russia needs to do this and that, we've got big plans for countering Russia, and meanwhile, Russia is deep into American Homeland Security cyber systems. I mean, it doesn't seem to be having an impact.

PIERCE: I think, to be fair, it is difficult to find one thing that will have the impact. I'm not able to go into details in public, but I can assure you that this sort of thing is gone into very forensically and that we are collaborating very closely on what the possibilities for countering it are.

SHAPIRO: Another part of this global strategy is countering China. And the U.K. is a small island country off the coast of Europe, literally around the world from China. And you're sending a new aircraft carrier there. Explain why. I mean, is this primarily a show for the United States?

PIERCE: Absolutely not. This is all about what we see as Britain's role in the world helping to solve global problems. And we are a global security player. The review I was mentioning earlier talks about more effort in the Indo-Pacific because of the vital importance of that region to world trade, to global stability and security. And we want to show our support for those aims. It's not about being confrontational with China - on the contrary. If we can find ways to cooperate on the global stage with China, we're very happy to do so.

SHAPIRO: I think many people are wondering, why in this moment when the U.K. has suffered so much from the pandemic, as have many countries, why the U.K. is putting so much focus on military and global investment rather than spend limited resources on rebuilding at home?

PIERCE: It's a very good question. And we note the similarity of the Biden administration's foreign policy for the middle class with our own leveling up agenda. But I don't think it's a zero-sum game. If we were to take our eye off our global responsibilities on security, I think we'd find ourselves in very deep water indeed.

SHAPIRO: Finally, on the pandemic - the U.K. is far ahead of most other nations on vaccinating its people. And right now, four countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., account for about half the global vaccine doses administered. What role do you think these two countries have in helping the rest of the world get vaccinated?

PIERCE: Well, I think that's a great question. So the U.K., along with some partners in Europe, started the COVAX system, which is funding to enable developing countries to get access to the vaccines as they were developed. And the Biden administration has now joined that. We're hosting the G-7 summit in June. And one of the things that summit will look at is more vaccines for the developing world and how we avoid future pandemics. And if we can't avoid them, how do we collectively pool our resources so we can manage them better? So there's a lot going on. We can't be complacent. Lots of developing countries don't have the vaccines they need yet, but if we can work cooperatively, we can work out better systems to get them those vaccines.

SHAPIRO: And yet I interviewed the head of the Africa CDC who told me that while COVAX is most welcome, it doesn't come near to meeting the need. And as you have countries like the U.S. administering vaccines to 25% or a third of the adult population and the U.K. trying to achieve similar numbers, I suppose the question is, philosophically, is there an attitude of help our people first and then turn to the rest of the world? Or is there an attitude of we're all in this together?

PIERCE: There's definitely an attitude of we're all in this together. And Boris Johnson has said as much. And if you look at it even not from a moral perspective or a philosophical perspective but from a health perspective, we are not - the world is not going to be safe from COVID until everybody who needs one can have a vaccine. So we've got to keep going. And while the systems for getting the vaccine to developing countries aren't perfect, it's a very good start. And we are looking to refine those and make them better all the time.

SHAPIRO: That's British ambassador to the U.S. Karen Pierce.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

PIERCE: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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