Duke University Alumni Magazine

by Robert J. Bliwise

Two diplomats talk about their roles at a time of instant communications and economic integration.

inter warmth has descended on London; at least one relaxed swimmer is to be spotted in Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake. Expressing their own exuberance for an outdoors cause, a dozen anti-abortion protesters are waging a silent protest in front of the American Embassy. It's a building that hardly tries to fit in with Grosvenor Square and that, in fact, dominates the scene with its protruding communications equipment, its ostentatious golden eagle, its sprawling dimensions, and its concrete charmlessness. And it's just blocks from Oxford Street--from Marks & Spencer, which happens to own New York's venerable Brooks Brothers, and the American Cafe Bistro, which, with a taste for irony, advertises "traditional fish and chips."

Back in the States, President Clinton has been finding his attention diverted by what has become known simply and quite universally as the Monica Matter. Undoubtedly hoping for some diversion from the diversion, Clinton is about to play host for visiting Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Such summitry prompts some conversation on a BBC call-in show, where the host asks his listeners for a list of "things to send back to America." Among the first suggestions: "MTV," "high-five hand slaps," "sub-standard TV shows," and, inexplicably, "The Queen." "Frasier I adore," offers one caller. Someone chews out those who indulge in chewing gum for their "revolting habit," adding approvingly that the pursuit is banned in Singapore. "I absolutely hate it when somebody says, 'Have a nice day,' and they don't really mean it," suggests another caller. She proceeds to offer praise for the American service ethic. "I think customer service here in Britain is appalling. We as customers deserve a certain decorum."

Long characterized by a certain decorum, the relationship between the two nations is sometimes strange, if only occasionally strained. And America's prime person in London in shaping that relationship is Ambassador Philip Lader '66. Just before Blair jets off to Washington, Lader holds a press briefing for about a dozen British journalists. He begins with the casual observation that the prime minister will be the first head of state named Blair to be staying at Blair House, notes that Americans find the British prime minister an "intriguing personality," remarks on the president's policy predicaments--quite foreign to Britain's parliamentary tradition--with an opposition-led Congress, and fields questions on showdowns with a special counsel and an Iraqi dictator. As he begins the briefing, a reporter whispers to a colleague, "Does anyone know the name of the ambassador?" Diplomacy doesn't always produce a high profile.

Lader is the first American ambassador to the Court of St. James' born after the Second World War. (In his recently published memoirs, former ambassador Raymond Seitz has some fun with the origins of the formal title. He tracks it back to St. James' Hospital for lepers, which used to stand where the Palace of St. James now is.) His inaugural trip abroad was for graduate work at Oxford, between earning a master's in history at the University of Michigan and his law degree at Harvard. At Duke, he majored in political science and took a concentration in religion. He did an independent study on William Temple, an archbishop of Canterbury between the world wars; when he had lunch recently with the current archbishop, he managed to get a private viewing of the portrait of Temple. "I like to say that the first time I saw the American embassy was with a copy of Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars a Day in my hand--which shows you how long ago it was--from the second level of a red, double decker London bus."

Lader has avoided practicing law, but his career has taken him into the spheres of government, business, and education. Before his embassy assignment, he was administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. He had a couple of earlier roles in the Clinton White House--White House deputy chief of staff and assistant to the president, and deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget. In his own trans-Atlantic economic relationship, he was executive vice president of Sir James Goldsmith's U.S. holding company. He was president of Sea Pines Company, a developer and operator of large-scale recreational communities. After a stint as president of Winthrop College in South Carolina, he became an American transplant in Australia as the head of Bond University. He's probably best known for founding Renaissance Weekends, the family retreats designed to attract "innovative leaders" from a broad spectrum of endeavors--including Bill Clinton, from the time that he was governor of Arkansas.

Just inside the embassy, the visitor encounters a portrait gallery of Lader's predecessors. It's an impressive array of personalities--John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Monroe, Andrew Mellon, W. Averell Harriman, Walter Annenberg. The first ambassador, John Adams, went on to become president of the United States, as did four others; eight became vice president. Lader's immediate predecessor was William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When Al Gore administered the oath of office to Lader in December, the vice president observed that the occasion marked a rare instance of a four-star admiral making way for a one-time Army sergeant.

PHILIP LADER Ambassador to the Court of St. James'
Photo: Andrew Florides

If he's not enamored of military protocol, Lader appears to be enamored of a physical-fitness routine. Once a month, he devotes a weekend to walking Britain. The first weekend after Thanksgiving he did a fifty-three-mile coastal walk from Land's End in the southwest to Cornwall; in January he did a seventy-one-mile walk through Cornwall and Devon. "I'm a little short of Scotland now," he reports. "You really do get a good perspective at that pace. It's great: I stay at bed-and-breakfasts or pubs, and farmers don't know and don't care what my job is. It's a wonderful counterpoint to the black-tie dinners and the endless stream of formal meetings."

One of his most striking impressions, he says, comes from a Sunday morning walk through a village of some twenty-five houses and a church that was several hundred years old. He came to a small general store filled with people trying to buy lottery tickets, and then an establishment offering Thai food. "Merry Olde England isn't always precisely what one might visualize."

Four hundred years ago, British diplomat Sir Henry Wotton defined an ambassador as "an honest man sent abroad to lie for the Commonwealth." Picking up on that quote, Lader says, "Today, given the number of official meals, I feel like I've been sent abroad to eat for my country." He may be consuming plenty of British food fare, but that dubious obligation is not what is consuming him. A big part of his project in Britain is working to define the role of the ambassador at a time of instant communications, when Tony Blair and Bill Clinton speak together several times a week. "The model of the ambassador as having extraordinary and plenipotentiary powers really dates back a couple of centuries, when you went to another nation and it would take six weeks, at best, to communicate with your capital."

So today's model ambassador is more business executive than freelance diplomat.

Lader is, after all, managing the alphabet-soup of agencies, from the I.R.S. to the F.A.A., that operate from the embassy. "Our embassies today are institutions in themselves," he says. "We have 600 employees. They represent twenty-seven different government agencies. The ambassador today is like a country manager of a multinational company. He knows that all his people are reporting back to somebody at company headquarters, but he's the point person who has to make sure they're not tripping over each other."

His agenda has him managing what he calls "concierge" functions. That workmanlike term encompasses accommodating some 18,000 official visitors to the embassy each year. It involves making arrangements for two Bill Clinton meetings in May: to Birmingham, England, for the so-called G-8 meeting of the major industrialized nations, and to a London-based summit involving the U.S. and the European Union. (Britain now holds the revolving presidency of the E.U.) There was spring speculation about producing presidential moments in Northern Ireland, to prop up the Good Friday peace agreement just before it's subjected to a referendum vote.

Lader regularly steeps himself in something akin to traditional personal diplomacy as well. When the Northern Ireland talks came to London for a week, he organized an embassy reception for all the participants, hoping that such a gathering might cool the passions of the factions. Right after Clinton's May meetings, he's off again to Northern Ireland, where he's already accompanied Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Edward Kennedy on their visits. In Belfast, he'll help kick off a Habitat for Humanity house-building project involving Catholics and Protestants alike. "And there are a variety of economic-development programs, public-private partnerships, that we're working on to try to help Northern Ireland attract more investment. Once another generation has a stake in the prosperity, as well as peace, then some of the traditional antagonistic sentiments are more likely to dissipate."

Beyond Northern Ireland, Lader has made five trips to Scotland and a two-day visit to Wales. He went to Canterbury for the 1,400th anniversary of St. Augustine's arrival. He attended political-party conferences in Brighton, Blackpool, and Eastbourne.

And he's sampled a host of diplomatic events in London. "State dinners are fascinating. When you arrive, every person who participates is announced and then walks into this magnificent gilded hall. And you're talking about hundreds, in their white ties and tails and displaying their medals and their decorations. Everything is specified by the minute--when you arrive, when you enter the door, when you will be announced. Her Majesty has an annual Buckingham Palace reception for the diplomats. I've had some wonderful, memorable conversations with her. One was about cheese. There was some concern about American regulations having to do with cheese processing. And this obviously had caught her attention. On a more recent occasion, the secretary general of the Commonwealth was nice enough to invite me to come and celebrate Commonwealth Day. As the Queen arrived, she saw me and said, 'What are you doing here?' To which I responded, 'With all due respect, we in the United States are part of the alumni association.' "

Lader is performing as more than a manager and organizer; he's also a salesman and an advocate of economic enterprise. As he told a Duke audience this spring during a brief campus visit, "Economic, trading, and investment issues are forming the architecture for the world that our children will inherit in very much the way that security agreements shaped the international architecture for our parents' generation." In the last forty-eight hours, he explained, "I've been deeply engaged with American Airlines and British Airways to figure out locations for landings, deeply engaged with Monsanto Corporation as it's trying to get British supermarkets to accept genetically modified foodstuffs, deeply engaged with the Pfizer Corporation, which has a great concern with regulatory issues in pharmaceuticals. As you look at each of these matters, they are very complex and don't just go to one company's or one group of shareholder's concerns. They have to do with the whole American economy."

In February, The Financial Times interviewed Lader, fresh from one of his long-distance walks in the west country, and pronounced him "statistically sound." As the profile puts it, "He is nominally over here as the president's representative. But when he comes yomping down from Bodmin Moor, he is not wired up to talk about matters military, cultural, constitutional, or sexual. His business, primarily, is business."

Lader unleashes his statistics with a relish that would please an economist, or a chamber of commerce booster. Trade and investments between the U.S. and the U.K. surpass the volume between any other two countries in the world, other than between the U.S. and Canada. That comes to more than $240 billion in two-way investment, and some $60 billion annually in two-way trade. U.K. investments in the U.S. support more than a million American jobs; the U.S. stake in the U.K. represents more than 40 percent of all American investments in the entire European Union. Trade in services between the two countries is, by far, the largest in the world. Americans have invested more in the United Kingdom than in all of continental Asia.

However tentatively, Britain seems to be moving toward closer economic integration with Europe--something that Lader sees as ultimately helpful to the whole set of trans-Atlantic relationships. Since World War II, he notes, American policy has supported European integration. With different procedures for setting interest rates, different economic ties around the world, different cultures and languages, and limited labor mobility within Europe, the particular workings of a common currency are bound to be trickier. The so-called euro would be "truly one of history's great experiments," he says.

With the hyper-energetic Blair, who is younger than Bill Clinton, Britain has a leader dubbed "Europe's newest Eurostar" by The Economist. Lader diplomatically describes his own efforts to reach out to the opposition parties as well as Blair's Labor Party. But Lader calls Blair "an extremely gifted political leader" who "has moved his party more to the center and has adopted a pragmatism that requires 'what works?' rather than 'how does this fit into an ideology?' questions. He is committed to a free-market economy, liberalization of trade, and genuine reform of institutions--be they welfare reform or the devolution of political authority to Scotland and Wales."

Lader enjoys telling and retelling the story of his visit to a distillery on the shores of Scotland's Loch Lomond. "Fine Scotch whiskey was being prepared in what looked like a barn ancient clans would have known, under the watchful eye of a wizened Scotsman who seemed to have abandoned his kilts only months before. His techniques and equipment had not changed in centuries. In the adjacent new building, the product was blended with other spirits in sanitized vats, controlled by computers, and managed by chemists in white lab coats." It was there, he says, that he sensed how the new "Cool Britannia" is seeking to modernize--and sensed how it might do so without compromising its traditions or running away from its heritage.

GORDON GIFFIN Ambassador to Canada
Photo: Chris Hildreth

Right before Thanksgiving, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Gordon Giffin '71, was in Vancouver for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. The event attracted eighteen world leaders. Among them was Bill Clinton, for whom Giffin had served up a restaurant recommendation. An advance team of Secret Service agents descended on the restaurant of choice. They insisted that special accommodations be made for an American visitor of note. Bothered by the vagueness, the proprietor said he wouldn't move Heaven and Earth--or the appropriate tables--without having the diner's name. "I'll give you a hint," an agent told him. "Air Force One." "My God, you'll never guess who's coming!" the proprietor shouted to an associate. "Harrison Ford!"

Giffin offers the anecdote during an April visit to campus organized by Duke's Canadian Studies program. He observes, "That shows there is a limit to the Canadian knowledge base of the United States."

Of course, the ignorance is greater from the other direction. As Giffin puts it, diplomatically enough, "If something is working very well, if it's not causing irritation and it's not broken down, people don't spend a lot of time focusing on it. The relationship with Canada works very well."

At a billion dollars each day, the two countries have the world's largest and most extensive trading partnership. Canada buys almost twice as much from the U.S. as does Japan; it is a larger market for U.S. goods than all fifteen members of the European Union combined. For forty years, U.S. and Canadian forces have cooperated on continental air defense. Instruments like the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 have enshrined a process of consultation, if not always agreement, on environmental matters. Still, it's reasonable to suppose that most Americans could not name the prime minister of Canada (who happens to be Jean ChrŽtien).

When Giffin began his Canadian assignment in September, it was in many respects a homecoming. His father was born in Pembroke, Ontario; he became a naturalized American citizen and served in World War II. After the war, he went to work for New York Life Insurance Company. A couple of months after Giffin was born, the family moved from Massachusetts to Montreal, where his father would run the Eastern Canada marketing division for New York Life. There was a brief interlude in Boston, and then, when he was in ninth grade, the family moved to Toronto. Giffin arrived at Duke from high school in Toronto.

In a March profile, a Montreal newspaper ran a reverential account of the ambassador's attachment to the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. Just before Christmas in 1959, Giffin joined his father for a luncheon at the Montreal Athletic Association. One of the features of the luncheon was the raffling off of a hockey stick autographed by the then-dominant Canadiens. Giffin won the raffle, and he's held on to his treasure.

"When I came to Duke, I knew more about Sir John A. McDonald, the first prime minister of Canada, than I did about George Washington. A lot of my schooling was Canadian history, Canadian political science; and of course we studied a lot about the United Kingdom, because the Queen of England is also Queen of Canada. At Duke I went by 'Gourd' Giffin, spelling it in the British or Canadian way. Well, the instructor in freshman English thought I had signed my paper 'Lourd Giffin.' And he assumed I was a member of the British aristocracy, which was rather comical, but was reinforced by the spelling that I used throughout the paper. I didn't disabuse him of that view for a while because I thought it might assist my grade. I don't think it worked."

Giffin was a political science and history major at Duke. A high school football player who wasn't quite college-athletics material, he managed the football team for two and a half years. (He met his future wife, Patti Alfred B.S.N. '73, at a Clemson game.) That experience, he says, gave him his first taste of administration. He earned a law degree from Emory University; as a law student, he worked as an intern for a new United States senator, Georgia's Sam Nunn. The internship led to his first job, as a very young director of legislative affairs and chief counsel for the very young senator. He later practiced law in Atlanta.

And he found himself drawn into political circles: in 1988, as general counsel to the Democratic National Convention; in 1992, as chairman of the Georgia primary and election campaigns for Clinton; in 1996, as chairman of the campaign in Georgia and senior adviser on the South; and in the same year, as chairman of the site selection committee for the Democratic National Convention. Giffin had an early association with Bill Clinton: He joined then-Governor Clinton in founding the Democratic Leadership Council, which was committed to giving the party a more centrist stance, in 1984.

Regal summons: Ambassador Lader and his wife, Linda Le Sourd Lader, en route to Buckingham Palace to present his diplomatic credentials to the queen
AP photo / Louisa Buller

Giffin now presides over some 200 embassy employees; 900 Canada-based U.S. officials in the consulate, border-control, military, and other branches; and the construction of the only new U.S. embassy in the world. Needless to say, he finds his Canadian roots invaluable in his new assignment. "There are some things that you just can't learn and you can't read about," he says. "Growing up in Canada has given me, I think, that intangible understanding of and sensitivity for the country and for the people and for many of the issues that we confront. I know as much Montreal Canadien trivia as most Canadians do--more than some of them. I remember sitting on the main street in Toronto on July 1st of 1967, which was their centennial celebration. That memory is something that is probably unique to a U.S. ambassador to Canada."

Now representing American interests in a bilingual country, Giffin says he's working hard on his French. "My accent isn't bad; if I have a prepared speech, I can deliver it in French. I can read French fine, but in conversation I'm afraid to extemporize, because I sometimes can't find the right word. And I can't afford to choose the wrong word." He's working with a tutor three days a week to polish his verbal skills.

French-speaking skills, naturally, play to French-speaking Quebec. And Giffin is cautious in assessing the outcome of Canada's longest and most wrenching internal debate, over Quebec's future with the federal government. "There's a historic genesis to the debate: There are two founding nations of Canada--France and England. What we've said as a government is that the United States has had a long and successful relationship with a strong and united Canada. We go on to emphasize that it's an internal Canadian decision to be made; we haven't expressed a direct, forceful opinion one way or the other on how they should resolve that." He does point out that the role of an independent Quebec in NAFTA, the North American trading partnership, would be very much up in the air. In two referendums, Quebec has turned aside separatism, though most recently only by a slim margin. Voters will grapple with the question again some time in the next year.

Although the "squeaky wheels" are few in U.S.-Canada bilateral relations, to use Giffin's term, there's a tug-of-war history with environmental resources. Duke historian John Thompson, director of the Canadian Studies program, probes that history in his book Ambivalent Allies. He writes that in the 1890s the U.S. wanted to close the Bering Sea to sealers, arguing the necessity to protect the seal population. Canada charged that the U.S. was using conservation as a subterfuge to protect its own commercial interests. Now the situation is reversed. In 1985, the two countries signed a Pacific Salmon Convention. They agreed to set quotas on the number of migrating salmon that each nation's fishers could take. But Alaska's fishers want to keep the catch unregulated; they counter that Canada wants quotas simply to hog the fish for its own fishers. Last August, protesting British Columbia fishers barricaded a U.S. tour boat in harbor in Prince Rupert.

"That's been a very emotional issue," Giffin says. "British Columbia's economy right now is pretty flat and, as a consequence any economic engine, whether it's a lumber business or a fishing business, is pretty critical. Salmon fishing is also a big industry in Alaska. There's a principle in the treaty called the equity principle that is supposed to be the foundation of the equitable distribution of the resource. The problem is that we disagree on what the equity principle means." Giffin says a new negotiating team is in place. Its charge is to "focus on a short-term arrangement for the foreseeable fishing season, so that we're not arguing with each other as fishing boats are going out. If we can achieve that, which I think we can, then in a more calm environment we can work on the long-term principles."

In global relations, too, there is some dicey diplomacy between the two nations, notably over the long-standing U.S. boycott of Cuba. Giffin prefers to paint the differences as arguments over means rather than ends. "We do have a policy of isolation, they have a policy of engagement. President Clinton has said that the only thing we can say about the two policies is that they have both failed. There isn't democracy in Cuba, and human rights are still abridged every day. Cuba is in some respects a much more peculiarly American problem; Cuba is ninety miles from our shores and pretty distant from Canada. I like to point out that if they had a Communist dictatorship in Newfoundland, ninety miles off of Halifax, they might have a different view of how to deal with things."

One outgrowth of U.S. policy toward Cuba, the Helms-Burton act, particularly chafes the Canadians. The act covers U.S. nationals with claims to property expropriated by Cuba; it permits them to bring suit in U.S. courts against any person who "traffics" in such confiscated property. Third-country nationals are excluded from the U.S. if they violate the act--which is precisely what happened to seven Canadian executives of Sherritt International Corporation. Giffin insists that Helms-Burton doesn't have an extra-territorial impact. "It doesn't undertake to impose U.S. law in Canada, which is, in my definition, what extra-territorial applications of U.S. law would be. What we say is that certain actions by companies or individuals will determine whether or not they can gain access to the United States--just like we say that if you're a convicted felon in Canada, you can't come to the United States."

Entertaining the boss: Giffin and his wife, Patti Alfred Giffin, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, outside the ambassador's residence in Ottawa
Photo: Raul Alferez

According to Duke's John Thompson, the most powerful and persistent issue between the nations is cultural imperialism. "For almost a century, Canadian governments have attempted to assert...cultural sovereignty, and to control the allegedly deleterious effects of U.S. newspapers, popular fiction, magazines, comic books, motion pictures (and now videotapes), radio, and eventually television and the associated recording industry," he writes in a contributed chapter to the book NAFTA in Transition. Thompson says Canada has been searching for cultural sovereignty for almost as long as the U.S. has been exporting popular culture. The result has been attempts to protect Canadian cultural industries with regulatory or tariff barriers, and to promote Canadian mass culture through subsidies. The U.S., though, tends to see the issue less as a question of national identity than of free commerce; so it resists perceived impediments to commerce.

"I think there is a balance to be struck," Giffin says. "First, I think we've got to work hard to define what we mean by 'culture.' There are some business interests in Canada that are trying to expand the definition of culture to include things like ownership of telecommunications companies. I find it hard to understand why that's cultural. Secondly, I think it's possible to foster and enhance and encourage the growth and distribution of Canadian culture--without prohibiting access to American media, whether movies, books, plays, or television programs.

"In some respects, Americans don't regard movies necessarily as part of our culture. They're entertainment. Frankly, a lot of our movie interests aren't even American-owned. But I believe that culture is more regional than it is national. There is a culture, I think, in the southern United States that is different from the culture of the northern or western United States. It would be difficult to get somebody in Mobile, Alabama, to define for you what 'American culture' is. But they sure could tell you what Southern culture is. I actually think that's true in Canada as well: I think it's hard to define what 'Canadian culture' is. It's different in British Columbia than it is in Newfoundland."

Giffin and Lader are at work in a confusing world. This is a time when the usual distinctions--like business judged against entertainment and, perhaps, like one national character compared with another--don't seem to count for very much. And this is a time when national enterprises--like New York's Random House and Detroit's Chrysler--evolve into international amalgamations, exercising market sovereignty that can overwhelm national sovereignty.

These ambassadors may not be witnessing the end of history, or the end of diplomacy. They are, though, in an international environment that responds to the same consumer values and that proceeds along the same electronic byways. What Giffin calls "the sovereignty of ideas" is rooted not so much in a national culture or a regional culture, but in an information culture. "Canadian cable systems, which carry TSN, the Canadian analogue to ESPN, cannot carry ESPN," he told Canadian-Studies students at Duke. "But for anyone in Canada who has a satellite dish, they can pick up ESPN anytime."

National policy may continue to be shaped by governments and by diplomats acting on governments. But it is subject to two more powerful forces--an unfettered marketplace and a relentless technology. Diplomats and political leaders will need to reckon with a new information order defined by the satellite dish, the Internet, and the mega-corporation.

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