English ambassadors plant the flag in San Francisco

“If you influence the state of California, it has a significant impact at the federal level,” British Consul General Tommy Sandhu told Playbook during an interview one fall evening in his office on Market Street in San Francisco. “What we're recognizing is that you can actually accomplish a lot — sometimes more — at the state level.”

Minutes later, Matt Clifford, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's top artificial intelligence adviser, briskly strolled down Sandhu Hall to the banquet. The event drew local tech executives and elected officials, including advisers to San Francisco Supervisors Raphael Mandelman and Ahsha Safai and state Sen. Scott Weiner. Clifford, who was in town to tour artificial intelligence labs, mingled with the group as they sipped California wines and nibbled appetizers in a conference room decorated with British flags.

Coincidentally, Clifford flew into town the same day Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order outlining California's approach to shaping the safe development of AI. He was one of several UK cabinet-level officials to visit San Francisco in recent months, including Commerce Secretary Chemie Patenoch and Secretary of State for Defense Grant Shabbs.

What they see: The United Kingdom has strengthened its presence in many parts of the world since leaving the European Union, as the country is no longer represented by EU ambassadors. In California, he builds relationships with state leaders and helps shape legislation in areas such as artificial intelligence, data privacy and electric vehicles.

Clifford, a technology executive, has stressed the need to develop safety rules for AI. The consulate's staff recently met with Weiner's office to discuss a bill he has taken to curb security risks in the development of artificial intelligence.

But the role of a foreign diplomat is usually unlike that of others in a state capitol. British ambassadors generally do not support or oppose legislation, but rather focus on sharing technical expertise to make it easier for companies to comply with rules in both countries, said Christopher Campis, head of political affairs at the UK embassy in Sacramento. They are middlemen who try to make sure the rules work well with businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shared Feelings: Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, noted that the European Union, Singapore, Ireland and Italy send the most ambassadors to California.

Four days after he and Newsom took office in 2019, Kounalakis said the governor called on him to lead an effort to expand California's international exposure. Many countries have recognized California as a stable partner amid the dysfunction in Washington, best aligned on issues such as climate change and women's rights.

“Our foreign partners are deeply concerned about Trumpism, and it's clear that California is going nowhere on that path,” Kounalakis said.

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