When diplomatic cables leaked to the Mail on Sunday last year revealing that the UK’s man in Washington Sir Kim Darroch had described the Trump administration as ‘inept’ and ‘incompetent’, the ambassador was forced to resign. Since then there has been much speculation over who would succeed him and work to rebuild UK/US diplomatic relations. While everyone from Nigel Farage to Sir Mark Sedwill had been tipped for the job, today the government announced that Karen Pierce – the ambassador to the UN in New York and Permanent Representative at the UN Security Council – has been appointed to the role.
At the UN, Pierce developed a good working relationship with Boris Johnson while he was Foreign Secretary, and is also known to have impressed President Trump. She has previously served as the UK’s Ambassador to Afghanistan – as well as roles in Tokyo and Geneva. The sense in government is that she is well placed to work on UK/US relations and also carries a wealth of experience from a wide-ranging diplomatic career.
So, what will Pierce bring to her new role? Last year, I sat down and interviewed the diplomat for The Spectator‘s Women with Balls podcast. The full podcast is available here – below are five takeaways from the discussion:
Pierce decided she wanted to be a diplomat age 12 after coming across a photograph in a magazine of the diplomat Eleanor Hicks, United States Consulate in Nice:
‘There was something very compelling about the photograph, arresting blue sky, dark blue sea, grey aircraft carrier and this fantastic woman was dressed in white so the image was very compelling and then I went and read the story and it explained what she did and I thought that sounds like a fantastic job.’
Pierce represented the UK in the Salisbury debate at the UN on the Novichok poisoning. Things soon took a literary turn when the Russians suggested it was a case of ‘Midsomer Murders’ and she responded by quoting Alice in Wonderland:
‘We sat down and we challenged each other with questions and we tried to anticipate the sort of angles that the Russians would come up with, the sort of arguments that they would come up with and we made sure that we could be clear in our answers as we presented the evidence.
I wasn’t prepared for Midsomer Murders I have to admit but again I had a good team and I’m an English major so we were able to come up with some quotes of our own from Alice in Wonderland and knowing the Russians like Sherlock Holmes we were very pleased to be able to say that we weren’t going to give them a role in the investigation as they were proposing because that would be like Scotland Yard letting in Professor Moriarty.’
Pierce has spoken positively about the UK’s role on the world stage after Brexit:
‘I don’t think any of that (the work of the UK on the UN security council) will change. I think what might change is that more people will be interested in the United Nations because it will be one of the major international institutions that Britain belongs to. If you like it will be a bigger stage for us to be an active independent force.’
Pierce believes appearances matter in her line of work and she has made headlines for her fashion choices. She wore a red and black boa for an appearance on the UN security council.
‘I think if you’re an ambassador you owe it to the company you are in and the institution you are accredited to to respect it and for me that means trying to look smart. So I would always try and look my best and look smart. I struggle with my hair sometimes which could usually do with a brush but otherwise I do try to look the part.
The thing about the feather boa [that Pierce wore on the UN security council] is brilliant because the Russians put in the press that I had a penchant for very expensive rare exotic furs implying that there was something illegal about that red and black boa that you mentioned. Actually out answer was very simple: it’s fake fur and this is fake news. It cost me five pounds off the internet.’
- Pierce has at times found being a woman in her profession advantageous – particularly when she was starting out and women were a minority in the Foreign Office:
‘I was never put off by it and I never found it personally discomposing. I went to work on political military affairs so I worked a lot with the MoD and then I really would be the only woman in the room but I didn’t mind that I got used to it and I think that you could say things as a junior person that you might not have been able to say had you not been a woman.’
- And finally…Pierce was once told that she curtsies like a scullery maid. Asked the worst advice she had ever been given, Pierce said that when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Tokyo, the team were presented to the royal couple. Afterwards a younger man told her that she curtsied like a scullery maid:
‘Well, I’ve never seen a scullery maid and I thought that was a particularly useless comment.’