20/02/2013 06:17 GMT | Updated 21/04/2013 06:12 BST

Land of the Free

Stand in front of the White House in DC, and you sense that this must be the most preciously, if discreetly, guarded building in the world. Any attack on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be too iconic for Americans to bear. And yet the White House was once attacked, and completely destroyed, by a pernicious foreign enemy. That was in 1812, and the enemy was Britain.

But I'm not standing in front of the White House as I write this - though I do enjoy the frissons of jogging past it on occasions. I'm sitting on a hillock at Chalmette, just up the Mississippi from New Orleans.

As a UK Cultural Attaché to the US, there are certain places where history eventually draws you, and this is one. Here, less than 200 years ago, the UK and the US fought a quick and savage battle to settle the bitter war initiated by the conflagration of Washington three years before. As you wander this old plantation with, in one direction, the US' largest sugar refinery and two US warships and, in the other, the levees battered by Hurricane Katrina and a flotilla of tourist paddle steamers, it takes some effort to re-imagine the bizarre things that happened then. As well as being the last time - and only time after independence - that the British and the Americans savaged each other in war, this was also the only time that the USA invaded its benign northern neighbour, Canada. 1815, then, was the last year Britain fought its two most secure current allies, the US at the Battle of New Orleans and the French at the Battle of Waterloo.

The war was about trade and expansion - few wars aren't - and about the obstruction and exploitation of shipping routes across the Atlantic. It was also about challenges to the 'Louisiana Purchase' which enabled the US to 'go west'. With the war over, the USA was free to stretch its parameters beyond Louisiana to follow its 'manifest destiny' of becoming the geographic USA we know today. It could also free up the transatlantic import/export routes again.

We're somewhat back in this domain in 2013. I'm in New Orleans, near that historic UK/US battleground, for a conference encouraging an equally critical transnational commerce - in the trade of ideas between increasingly globally-aware universities. Intellectual collaboration to address global issues, multinational research engagement, culturally-appropriate education and training for the world of work and, at every level, innovation and fast responses to liberating new technologies. This is modern peace-building, which shares our world rather than carving it up.