Live at Leeds and across Britain, a new diplomacy is emerging

Let me start with an admission. Until last year, my knowledge of Leeds was limited to The Who’s Live at Leeds album and the fact that it’s The Wedding Present’s home town.

But then came a conversion.

I took a trip up there.

During my visit I met artists, activists, entrepreneurs and students at The Tetley contemporary arts centre who were so proud, inspired and animated as they described how their city had transformed itself from a 19th-century industrial powerhouse into a 21stcentury cultural and commercial capital. That same energy pervaded my whole stay, making it hard to leave.

But when it was recently reported that I described Leeds as my favourite British city, some on social media wrote of their surprise, searching their emoticon libraries for the head scratch. Leeds? Really? Others were upset that I had apparently broken the first rule of diplomacy by singling out one city. Well, for the record, I didn’t actually say it was my favourite. As a father of twins I instinctively avoid that particular word. What I did say was that I love Leeds. Really.

Don’t get me wrong, I love London too. I’m a believer in Samuel Johnson’s maxim. Yet we Americans often make the mistake of thinking that London equals the UK. Indeed, even when I tell locals that I like to travel outside of the capital, they mostly assume I mean to somewhere in the countryside. Visiting different towns and cities in the host country isn’t a radical concept, of course, and is part of the job. All ambassadors recognise the importance of peregrination. There is a general template for these visits, usually involving a talk at a university, meetings with MPs and local dignitaries, a look around a US-owned company, and a stop-off at significant historic sites. But we have also added a new dimension: talent scouting.

Essentially, we are looking for new diplomats. Just as we try to think and work outside of London, we are also trying to think and work outside of formal diplomacy. There are, for instance, many British people who have close ties to America or who simply take an interest in the US who we’re keen to connect with and empower. We want to propagate “ownership” of the special relationship — and that requires cross-country recruitment because, as we know, talent is distributed evenly but opportunity and attention not always so.

Already we are seeing a rise in nominations for our flagship International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) coming from outside London. This is a project which helps young, mid-career-level Britons with outstanding potential to travel to the US to soak up American life. In 1967, the embassy arranged for Margaret Thatcher to visit 10 US cities. After she became prime minister, she wrote in a letter to the embassy: “The whole tour was immensely valuable … it has left an indelible impression on my mind. Forever more I shall be a true friend of the United States.” History bore that commitment out. Recently, Tim Campbell, winner of The Apprentice and now chief executive of Bright Ideas Trust, travelled on an IVLP to explore entrepreneurship in four US cities.

But my highest priority on these trips is talking to students from sixth-form colleges. Many of these young men and women are approaching the first general election in which they can vote. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the defining international events of their lives. And they are not afraid to speak their minds. So far I’ve been with 50 groups, and each session includes a survey of their views on the US, the special relationship, and foreign policy issues. This is followed by a conversation on what frustrates or concerns them about America – usually guns and health care. And for balance, we also discuss what inspires them – generally Nasa and technology. To keep alive and deepen those relationships, we have set up a programme called Beyond London. It involves groups of American diplomats – accompanied by British colleagues from the embassy – getting to know a city or area better by visiting regularly and maintaining ties with all those who make the place tick.

Just as in politics and entertainment, the rules of diplomacy have changed. The forces that influence attitudes are no longer centrally controlled, and opinions are formed through an array of social interactions and media. We have to inspire people who share our enthusiasm. As true believers in the indispensable role our special relationship plays on the world stage, we at the embassy are not waiting for our audience to come to us.

So, a final admission. When I talk about my love of Leeds – and Newcastle, Leicester, Bristol, Cardiff, Aberdeen and others – it is genuine, but it’s also strategic. I don’t just love the places. I need their people. More precisely, we at the embassy need their help. We Need Leeds.

This article appeared originally at Telegraph.co.uk