Our final day and there were some very long faces this morning. The whole trip has been great and as our constant companion throughout (Glen from the State Department) dealt with some issues at check-out, it was odd to think that at the same time tomorrow we would be landing in Heathrow.
We only had two meetings arranged for today due to a need to be at the Airport at four in the afternoon. However, it was a case of quality not quantity today even more so than during any other stage of our time in the US. Our first meeting this morning was with Dr Robert Pfaltzgraff, a lecturer at Harvard and the Director of the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis. His office walls were impressive if only for the pictures of Dr Pfaltzgraff with every US President since Jimmy Carter. Undoubtedly a man who has a degree of credibility in terms of foreign and defence policy and that became very apparent during a two hour discussion on the reduction in defence spending throughout NATO and the anticipated reduction in US defence spending of $500billion during the next ten years. Whilst a huge figure this equates to some 8% of the budget which is less than the comparable cuts being implemented by many US allies.
The perception of the US as a global policeman is an issue that frustrates most US politicians I have met during this visit and I specifically asked Dr Pfaltzgraff about this issue. What we seem to have is an alliance where most members are unwilling to spend what is necessary to maintain their defence capabilities, expecting and dependent upon the US ensuring that NATO has the capacity to act in a coherent manner.
The problem is that when the US does act within the structure of NATO, due to capacity issues amongst most members, the US assumes the burden of responsibility. As such, a significant element of public opinion within NATO countries will shout about US colonialism and US obsession with being the world policeman. How willing is the US to continue such a relationship where it is expected to pick up the bill but also subjected to abuse for doing so? The view of Dr Pfaltzgraff is that patience is running out with NATO allies and what we will see is an increasing emphasis on relationships with countries in south Asia and a growing isolationist streak in the US. Where does that leave Europe is a question that was left to us as MPs to ponder.
The other key discussion held was the extent of cyber threats facing the western economies at this point in time. Fascinating stuff and enough to make you feel slightly concerned at the extent of the influence that China now has over the US. In simple terms, the US is dependent upon China continuing to purchase their debt and yet it is apparent that cyber warfare and spying threats are encountered in almost all parts of the US military and civilian infrastructure which can be traced back to deliberate intervention from China. As yet this continues to be at the sparring stage and I wonder whether it can ever go further – after all, if the US government continues to borrow forty cents for every dollar spent then can they even afford to challenge such behaviour?
On a more positive note there is some degree of hope that cyber warfare might deal with the growing threat of an Iranian ability to develop a military nuclear capacity. Whilst this is often the subject of speculative commentary in some of our Sunday papers it would appear that it is not speculation that is divorced from reality. We can only hope that such an approach is able to contain the growing calls for a more traditional approach to the Iranian threat.
In addition to the US presidents lining the walls there were also several pictures of Winston Churchill, who is undoubtedly a hero to Dr Pfaltzgraff. In particular I noticed a little statue of a pig which included the following rather typical Churchillian quote;
“I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals”
A rather surreal note to end what was a detailed and rather concerning discussion about the future relationship between the US and NATO in an age of austerity.
Our second and final meeting was completely different but again, very interesting. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC) was founded in 1985 in order to support the development of industries relating to this new scientific field. A not for profit membership based organisation it has proved to be a great success with over 500 companies now members of the organisation. We were fortunate in being invited to meet Peter Abair, who has served as Director of Economic Development and Global Affairs since December 2006.
It was an intriguing insight into how economic development work is undertaken in the US as compared to the UK. A key difference is that the MBC receive no government funding. Their constitution specifically precludes such a funding avenue and the rationale is that they could not possibly lobby and criticise government if their existence depended upon keeping the government happy. You only need to think of what we have done in Wales, which is to have taken all Economic Development issues into government to see how significant this difference actually is. Our economic development professionals are Civil Servants who act on government priorities whilst the MBC is a membership based organisation acting on the priorities of their members. Massachusetts has a thriving biotechnology sector whilst in Wales we fail even to establish a coherent definition of what an enterprise zone actually is. Need I say more?
A key slide in the presentation showed the overseas partners which MBC have worked with on partnering issues and supporting US companies wishing to invest overseas. It was depressing to see German Federal and State Governments mentioned with the Danes, the Dutch and the French Governments. Turning to the UK, UKTI had a good mention as did the efforts of the Scottish Government and the Irish Development Agency. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly for a Welsh MP, there was no mention of any branch of the devolved Welsh Government in terms of organisations who have links with MBC. It is no surprise but when we have a Minister for the Economy in the Welsh Government who refuses to talk to Westminster is it any wonder that we fail to engage with the rest of the world?
And thus ended my trip to the US. I know that it is a slightly deflating end so let me be positive. Our flight left the US on time and landed at Heathrow five minutes ahead of schedule. Expecting massive queues and delays we were actually met by enthusiastic volunteers in Olympic uniforms who were polite and helpful and we were processed by the airport in less than half an hour! Arriving at Euston I was amazed to see these volunteers all over the station greeting trains and tube travellers as they arrived. After the success of the opening night witnessed through the eyes of Charlie Dent’s neighbours I knew that we were on to a winner with London 2012 but the smiles and efficiency of the volunteers at Euston and Heathrow indicated that we as a country were on the verge of delivering a triumph. It is odd what you can learn even whilst waiting for a train in the UK!