The British American Relationship

I saw The Madness of George III in London yesterday evening on my way to Kabul. The evening included a nice dinner and visit with old friends Tim and Jan Conway, first met in St. Andrews Scotland in 1976. The play, and David Haig’s portrayal of King George III, was spectacular. British theater is the best in the world century after century.

The play set me thinking again about why American’s are so fascinated with England and the English monarchy. My ancestors are mainly English so I may have a slanted perspective. But America’s basic values and institutions, which are respected by all American’s what ever their ancestry, were built upon those of the United Kingdom. We see it most clearly when contemplating the role and place of the British monarchy in British governance.

What fascinates us, I think, is the interaction between the King (or Queen) and his government. From the Magna Carta on Britain has evolved a system of governance based on the rule of law. The powers of the King are limited and checked the powers of Parliament and The Law. This interplay, these checks and balances, are on display in every movie or play about the British monarchy. This, I think, is the core of our fascination with the British monarchy. The King is all-powerful and unquestioned within his household but constrained by tradition and law in his broader exercise of authority.

Indeed, with all of it’s shortcoming, Britain benefits a great deal from the rule of law. The rule of law is much more than having good laws evolved from practical experience (the common law approach of Britain and America rather than the civil law tradition of Europe). The rule of law is an attitude of the members of society. It is the orderly, voluntary adherence to the norms society has agreed on. The result is a much more efficient and relaxed social and economic life.

The English famously queue (line up in an orderly way). It makes the experience of waiting to be served so much more relaxed. Waiting in “line” in Italy, on the other hand is a tension filled, guerrilla warfare effort to minimize being taken advantage of by shamelessly rude Italians, all of whom have relatives or friends ahead of you in line holding their place. On average Italians are more charming than the English. I have concluded that this is necessary to compensate for their disregard for the rule of law. Italians don’t pay their taxes, don’t cue, and in general circumvent at every opportunity the law.

A consequence of the rule of law in Britain and northern Europe more generally and its weaker hold on the behavior of Italians and southern Europeans more generally is that the United Kingdom functions more efficiently. Social interactions are smoother. And members of society enjoy more true liberty. The weaker hold of the rule of law in the south is like a tax on the functioning of the system. The explicit taxes that are not paid by Italians are replace by the tax of higher cost social interactions as they struggle to improve or at least defend their place in line. Italian’s are only fooling themselves to think that they have gotten away with not paying their taxes.

A story of travels to Kabul and a suitcase

Starting in January 2002 my flights into and out of Kabul where on the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) charter planes between Dubai or Islamabad and Kabul. I would land in Dubai or Islamabad on a commercial flight, pick up my bag and check into a hotel with my other IMF colleagues for the UNHAS flight the next day. In Islamabad we stayed in the Marriott (since blown up by terrorists) and in Dubai we stayed in any number of first class hotels.

Departure the next day was from a remote part of the airport in Dubai or Islamabad to a remote part of the airport in Kabul. The idea of checking my bag through to Kabul for the convenience of not having to go through immigration to pick it up and recheck it (I was almost always in a rush to get there with no time to stop over anywhere) was a number of years off.

With the advent of commercial flights into Kabul and the ending of the UNHAS flights three or so years ago, our Dubai departures (we had given up on Islamabad after the bombing of the Marriott) moved from the small old Terminal 2 to the big modern Terminal 1 (I always found this numbering confusing). However, it was still not possible to check our bags through to Kabul. We had to wait in the immigration line, then wait while the generally unsmiling Arab immigration officer examined, then stamped, our passports, go pick up our bags, and re check them with Safi Airways, re-emigrate and fly on. The immigration officers, by the way, where just about the only Arabs I encountered in the UAE in a working capacity. Cab drivers, porters, hotel clerks, restaurant waiters and virtually everyone else who serviced us in any way were Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis and sometimes Bangladeshis.

More recently, agreements were struck with United, BA and other airlines and Safi Airways that make it possible to check our bags through from Washington to Kabul. Thus in Dubai I could go directly from my arriving flight to the departure lounge of Safi without immigrating (i.e. transit). Shoppers will enjoy the massive collection of shops and goods in Dubai’s mammoth airport, but I am not one of them. Most of our IMF team choose to hang out in the airport for the 4 or 5 hours between flights rather than enjoy the sterile splendor of modern Dubai. Some of my colleagues worried about the risk of losing their bags if they checked them all the way through, but I preferred to take the risk in exchange for the convenience and never had a problem until the day before yesterday.

For some reason that I do not understand the check through arrangement does not seem to work in reverse. It is not yet possible to check my bag from Kabul to D.C., though there is some confusion about this. My return home from Kabul yesterday illustrates this point.

After a year of difficult and inconclusive negotiations with the authorities, our IMF team finally agreed with the authorities on a program that we thought our Executive Board could support. The measures that had been taken and were agreed to be taken to resolve the failure of Kabul Bank (potentially the largest bank fraud per capital in history) had been the main stumbling block. The amazing and shocking history of Kabul Bank is set out in detail in:

As the prospect of an agreement became clear, our short five-day visit to Kabul was coming to a close, so we delayed our early Thursday morning departure until Thursday evening. To add an extra hour and a half to the time available to us (my colleagues had gone with only a few hours sleep for the last three days as it was), the Finance Minister (our negotiating counterpart) arranged for our boarding cards to be issued and bags to be checked in the VIP lounge before we left for the airport. One of his aids collected our passports and bags and my hopeful instruction to check my bag through to Washington. When he returned to the IMF guesthouse with our boarding cards and baggage claims, he also had a bill for me for $85 for the check through arrangement. It was worth it to me not to have to recheck my bag in Dubai.

We successfully concluded the negotiations, held a donor briefing (World Bank, USAID, DFID, ADB, ISAF, UN, and others), issued a press release from Washington,, and headed for the airport. I must say that it almost made flying enjoyable again to be driven through security up to the VIP lounge (rather than having to drag our bags from a remote parking lot), skipping all the security, emigration, and check-in lines. We boarded soon there after and three hours later deplaned in Dubai.

As we entered the terminal, I was expecting to immigrate and head to the local Hilton for a good night’s sleep. But just inside the door stood someone holding up the unexpected and unwanted sign: “Coats, Jr. Warren L.  Why was I being stopped, I asked? “Follow me please.” To make a confusing story short, a reception service had been engaged to take me passed the long immigration lines to the baggage carousel and arrange for my transportation to the Hilton. As this was not what I had paid for nor wanted (though skipping long immigration lines is always appreciated), and the young lady escorting me around had her own instructions, considerable confusion ensued as we walked from one place to another until it became VERY clear that I would not be able to recheck and leave my bag there until I returned in the morning. So be it. I had a good sleep at the Hilton with my bag at my side and lugged it back to the airport in the morning and was soon on my way to London and home.

I use to hate going through London’s Heathrow airport, but with the addition of BA’s Terminal 5, I rather like it. So my three and a half hour lay over in Terminal 5 passed pleasantly (the BA wi-fi pass word for the day was “Singapore”). On the nine-hour flight from London to DC, I watched one movie, and slept the rest of the way, skipping dinner.

My suitcase drama had one more chapter. When I arrived in DC, it didn’t.  In addition, the BA office at Dulles was closed (typical British service) and its mix of automated and live human telephone service was unpleasant. Nonetheless, my bag was delivered to my door one day later (last night), in time for a quick repack and departure for Grand Cayman this morning for this quarter’s meeting of the Cayman Financial Review’s Editorial Board meeting.