Steven Erlanger, New York Times
Barzun image from article; he is speaking at Oasis Academy Shirley Park
Matthew Barzun, the American ambassador to the Court of St.
James’s, stood before a buzzing, boisterous audience of several hundred
teenagers in a poor borough on the southern edge of greater London and asked
them what frustrated or concerned them the most about the United States.
The responses came quickly: racism, police brutality, guns, the justice
system, Middle East policies, American meddling in the world.
These students at the Oasis Academy Shirley Park, in Croydon, were
unusual, Mr. Barzun told them. This is the 104th school he has visited in
Britain, talking to some 10,000 sixth-formers (high-school seniors), “and at
almost every school I’ve been to,” he said, “guns comes up first.”
It is an unusual exercise in outreach and public diplomacy pressed by Mr.
Barzun, 45, an entrepreneur, top fund-raiser for President Obama and former
ambassador to Sweden. Mr. Barzun sees the risk of drift in what Winston
Churchill called the special relationship between the United States and Britain.
That risk is especially acute among a generation with members who were 4
years old during the Sept. 11 attacks and who have a different set of memories
and concerns, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rise of Islamic State was by far the most important policy issue to
these students, who voted by electronic clickers, trailed by climate change,
peace in the Middle East and Britain’s membership in the European Union.
Oddly, perhaps, given the media coverage here, Edward J. Snowden and
surveillance abuses did not come up at all.
“My hunch was that young people wouldn’t have as strong an affinity to
the special relationship as older generations,” Mr. Barzun said afterward.
Talking to sixth-formers, who are 16 to 18 years old, rather than university
students studying international relations, he said, was a way to “get a different
set of issues and it wouldn’t all be just classic foreign policy,” but domestic
concerns, too, like American racial attitudes and guns.
This state-funded school of 1,600 students, which is sponsored by a
Christian charity, Oasis, is more ethnically diverse than the average in Britain.
According to Chris Webbe, head of the sixth form, some 26 percent of the
students are white British, compared to the national average of 70 percent; 13
percent are of black African heritage, compared to 3 percent; 14 percent of
black Caribbean heritage, compared to 1 percent; and 69 percent have English
as their first language, compared to 82 percent nationally. The students here
speak 42 different languages.
But their responses are similar to students all over Britain, in state schools
as well as private ones like Eton, said Mr. Barzun.
Working with a colleague writing answers on a whiteboard, Mr. Barzun
asked the students to think about good and bad outcomes when the United
States gets involved in the world. On the good side, students mentioned the
two World Wars, and Mr. Barzun, the Marshall Plan; on the bad, there was
chaos in Iraq; Mr. Barzun raised Vietnam.
Then, he asked, what happens when Washington stays out? On the bad
side, a student suggested Syria and the rise of Islamic State. Rwanda, Mr.
Barzun said, reminding them that up to half a million people died there.
“What are examples when the U.S. stays out and good things happen?” he
then asked. “Soccer,” a student said, bringing laughter, and Mr. Barzun said
quickly: “We’re going to win the World Cup one day,” causing more
But his point, he said, which was “too simple,” was also clear. “Good
things don’t happen when the U.S. stays out — bad things happen.” And then
he raised the Nazi bombing of London while the United States stood by,
entering even World War II rather late. “So how do you get the United States
involved but where it helps?” he asked, saying that this issue was at the heart
of the Obama presidency.
When he first went abroad, he told the students, he asked Mr. Obama
what advice he would give a new diplomat. Mr. Obama responded: “‘Matthew,
listen—’ and I slowly realized that’s what he meant, to listen.”
Then Mr. Barzun told the students: “You are the future leaders of the
U.K., and I want to learn what’s on your mind.”
Later, he said, “I want to give them room to be able to disagree,” not to
force arguments on them.
“If you go in thinking you’re in the argumentwinning business, you can
end up seeing a lot of arms folded,” he said. “But if you listen, people hear you
The reviews were good. Euphrose Tambwe, 16, said “he asked us what we
thought and then explained what he thought.”
She stopped for a moment. “It was really his honesty that got me,” she
said. “I thought he’d come to say ‘America is great and don’t believe the
media,’ and the fact that he admitted mistakes struck me.
Meggie Eloy, 16, said that she was impressed that the American
ambassador was visiting schools. “He’s planting the seed and leaving it to us,”
James Clayton, 18, remembered that Mr. Obama referred to France as
“‘our oldest ally,’ and that showed we need to rebuild the relationship,” he
said. “It’s possible to work together.”
Ms. Tambwe said Mr. Barzun had not changed her views very much, “but
it made me think a bit more about America and what it stands for.”
Louise Lee, 33, has been the principal of the school since January. “He’d
make a good teacher,” she said, laughing. “I knew it was about taking a
message to students, but that it would be interactive, and controversial topics
would not be off-topic,” she said. “It was much more lowkey than I expected,
and more accessible.”
Mr. Barzun, of course, also asked students what they liked about America,
or what inspired them. One student said, “the Boss” — referring not to Bruce
Springsteen, whom another student named, but to Mr. Obama. Others said
culture, Hollywood, Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, opportunity, video games and
Michael Jackson. One student even said the C.I.A.
Then another student said: “We’re different but we’re not super different,”
and Mr. Barzun leapt at that, saying he would use it in future talks.
“These are not tuned-out kids,” Mr. Barzun said later. “They’re not
apathetic, and the fact that they hold us to high standards I think is really
good, because they ought to, and because we ought to rise to it.”
Next year is the 70th anniversary of the much-mocked special
relationship, a phrase coined by Mr. Churchill in a famous speech in Fulton,
Mo., in March 1946. The relationship took a big hit from the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan and the sense that Britain has been too subservient to American
demands. But Mr. Barzun is a relentlessly cheerful man.
“What we’re trying to do at the embassy is focus forward on what the next
70 years is going to look like,” he said. “That group of kids and others like
them are the new foundation that’s going to be built upon, and I don’t want to