Imagine that you have invited a friend to stay in your house for a few months. All proceeds nicely.
Then suddenly you read in the local papers that your friend has been sending emails to his friends describing in some accurate detail the failings of your house and making sharp, disobliging remarks about you and your hostly competence.
You will not be happy. Relations with that friend will never be the same again. It may be *coughs* wise for that friend to leave the house.
Thus Sir Kim in Washington. Yesterday I described Sir Kim Darroch’s exemplary FCO career. What went wrong?
Basically, the Daily Mail revealed to a startled world a lot of diplomatic reporting from Sir Kim to London, not least some of his frank thoughts on the Trump Administration:
In one of the most sensitive documents, Sir Kim writes: ‘We don’t really believe this Administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.’
He also says that he doesn’t think Trump’s White House will ‘ever look competent’.
In reference to Trump’s ability to shrug off controversies in a life which has been ‘mired in scandal’, he says that the President may nonetheless ’emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator’.
Hmm. But then the Terminator gets severely squashed?
This then led to a firestorm of controversy and Sir Kim’s decision to resign as UK Ambassador to the USA.
It’s not possible to tell from the newspaper accounts what exactly has been leaked. But the Mail seems to have nabbed a bumper crop of original material in a range of format categories:
The Washington Files span the period from 2017 to the present …
The most incendiary paper is a letter to National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill sent on June 22, 2017 – 150 days into the Trump administration – and copied to what Sir Kim describes as a ‘strictly limited’ number of senior figures in Downing Street and the Foreign Office …
The cache also includes diplomatic telegrams – known as ‘DipTel’ in Foreign Office jargon – updating Downing Street on political events in the US and providing commentary on Trump’s foreign policy decisions.
They reveal details of highly sensitive negotiations over efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, as well as the disarray surrounding the President’s handling of recent attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.
One memo (sic), sent by Sir Kim on June 22, refers to ‘incoherent, chaotic’ US-Iran policy, adding: ‘Its unlikely that US policy on Iran is going to become more coherent any time soon. This is a divided Administration’.
Responding to this calamity, the FCO played a straight but limp bat:
The Foreign Office last night said that the British public ‘would expect our Ambassadors to provide Ministers with an honest, unvarnished assessment of the politics in their countries… we pay them to be candid, just as the US Ambassador here will send back his reading of Westminster politics and personalities’.
It’s important that our Ambassadors can offer their advice and for it remain confidential.’
Not, it seems, so ‘important’ that it in fact happens. A chilling effect on diplomacy?
“He reported as he saw fit, he advised as he saw fit, and he did it on a classified cable,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former US diplomat. “This is what ambassadors are meant to do. He doesn’t do the prime minister or the foreign minister any favors if he doesn’t give his honest take or his honest advice”
The senior civil servant at the Foreign Office called a meeting of all staff to reassure diplomats unnerved by the shock resignation and its potential impact on British statecraft.
So, the question for today: What are ambassadors meant to do?
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The key point is that giving honest ‘unvarnished’ advice and assessments is not an end-in-itself for senior diplomatic work. It’s part of achieving a wider end, namely helping ‘build relations’ between the sending country and the host country.
Think about the vast array of issues that slosh to and fro across PCs in the UK’s Washington embassy. Trade and regulation. Brexit. EU. Russia. China. Global security and arms control. UN reform. Global development policy. Sport and tourism. Diseases and health. Climate. Historic artefacts. Migration and visas. Air services. Senior visits in both directions. Scholarships. More Brexit. Even More Brexit. Not Enough Brexit. Too Much Brexit.
These issues and many many more come and go in prominence. They trundle along regardless of who happens to be in the senior leadership offices on either side of the Atlantic. The embassy is expected to have a tactical eye on what might best be done now, but also to think in a strategic way about how these issues have evolved and how they might move in the years or decades to come.
Right at the top of all that currently sit D Trump and (for now) T May. The UK Ambassador in Washington and the US Ambassador in London both have an adult job to do in helping the White House and Number 10 coordinate closely and sensibly where that makes sense, and in managing disagreements in a measured way as necessary.
Note that Washington and the US federal government is largely a Democratic space. Most US officials and the great majority of primly earnest bow-tied chatterati in the DC think-tank community will find Trump-style conservative populism and the President’s own style something between alarming and disastrous. The UK’s very Washington embassy is infested with politically correct feminists (both UK-based and local US staff) who likewise are unlikely to be active Trump supporters. It must be an uphill battle for the embassy team to ‘tune in’ to conservative thinking and instincts and voters outside the Washington Beltway, and convey a fair sense of that in its day-to-day work.
Note too that British Ministers have no lack of coverage of US politics in the UK media, although here as well the dominant ideological tone emphasises the ‘dysfunctionality’ of Trump and Trumpism.
So it’s not been an easy job for Sir Kim to find a calm intellectual space from which to look at the Trump Administration dispassionately and carefully, and turn his hand to subtle advice that helps senior Whitehall make the best of an unusually messy/complicated situation. Still, that’s what he’s been paid to do.
What do these leaks reveal about how he’s done it? Not that much.
Without seeing the whole batch of leaked documents and everything else of consequence that was not leaked, we mortals can’t tell how far Sir Kim did in fact do a scrupulously smart job in presenting the Trump Administration to London in a form that helped advance UK/US relations. That presented both weaknesses and strengths in a measured, operationally helpful way. Here’s a masterpiece of political reporting at a moment of high crisis that shows just how to do that.
Above all, at this level the true value added of an Ambassador is to help leaders in the two countries personally get on and so get things done, no matter what their differences or domestic difficulties. Thus when most of Europe was dismissing the Kaczyński twins as nutty Polish extremists, my own analysis and private advice helped PM Tony Blair understand them and use his good relations with them to help achieve his objectives:
In 2007 Tony Blair in his final weeks as British Prime Minister flew to Warsaw to meet Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczyński and President Lech Kaczyński, to hear for himself how Poland planned to handle the final negotiation. He enjoyed the meetings and departed impressed at both the negotiating tenacity and intellectual grasp of principle which the Polish side had displayed.
At the final EU Summit in June 2007 under the German Presidency the core issue as expected was the voting question. Most other European leaders seemed to believe that after making a few rhetorical pronouncements PresidentKaczyński would quickly give way and strike a deal. The British team knew that Poland would negotiate hard and long. The arguments dragged on, with the German side pressing Tony Blair to use his friendship with PresidentKaczyński to urge ‘flexibility’.
A deal was reached, late in the night. Germany achieved its objective of a new EU vote weighting package, but Poland won a long lead-time for the current arrangements extending well past the next EU Budget negotiation. President Kaczyński himself had been all the more formidable in the hard bargaining sessions at the top European level because he had done so much careful personal preparation – and because he was comfortable about the underlying justice of his position.
Sir Kim of course knows all this. Hence his direct operational advice:
‘The President respects and likes [the Prime Minister],’ he added. ‘I know they have already talked several times. But in a perfect world, they would be speaking two or three times a month, if not more.’
The diplomat’s third pointer was to urge Britain’s politicians and officials to use flattery and to pander to the President’s ego when they come into contact with him.
‘You need to start praising him for something that he’s done recently,’ he advised. ‘You need whenever possible to present them as wins for him.’
In comments which could be viewed as highly patronising, Sir Kim also advised his bosses to make their points ‘simple’ and ‘even blunt’, adding: ‘as a senior White House adviser told me, there is no upside with this President in being subtle, let alone ambiguous.’
Eternal shame on Isabel Oakeshott here for heaving petrol on the blazing fire she’s created. There is literally nothing ‘highly patronising’ about this advice.
One other point. How far should senior diplomats now go in writing down anything that might be damaging if it leaks? The absurd splenetic Piers Morgan has views:
… anyone with even a quarter of a brain cell would also know that since Wikileaks detonated gazillions of similar diplomatic memos into the public ether several years ago, the likelihood of these particularly outspoken comments not leaking was extremely small.
So why the hell would any supposedly smart modern-day diplomat put such thoughts in writing?
I suspect it’s because Darroch’s obvious personal dislike for the President overrode any diplomatic common sense … The whole point of being a diplomat is that you work to improve relations between two countries, not destroy them.
Which, of course, Sir Kim has elegantly done, up to and including the recent State Visit.
Still, there’s a point here. What if this e-Gram DOES leak?
You can be as rude as you like about the host government, as long as you present the arguments roughly thusly and (crucially) ascribe the rude words to domestic opponents:
The President is under heavy fire from domestic opponents: inept, earthworm, clumsy, crook, war-criminal are the sort of thing now being said about him in opposition social media circles and indeed privately by some senior opposition people.
But the President is undaunted. He’s had some unheralded successes recently [examples]. When he meets the Prime Minister, he’ll be in a typically feisty and defiant mood – and (if talked to bluntly) open for a deal on X and Y.
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The whole point of of the diplomatic game is that you smile and nod and deal in a privileged access way with all sorts of exotically awful senior local people who are rather proud of being exotic and awful, but you then keep your views about them strictly between yourself and your government.
Once your professional private thoughts somehow go public, the magic spell is broken.
Many of the quoted passages from Sir Kim with words like clumsy and inept will have been infuriating to the White House team and President Trump personally. Both in themselves, and because they alas can be read as if the embassy is parroting trite Democratic talking-points. Too bad if they are in fact part of wider, judiciously balanced documents. They can and will be used by the President’s opponents to attack him. That’s embarrassing. Does he need that new footling complication in his life? No.
Once this sort of thing gets out into the public space, no Ambassador is going to want to hang around.
To be concluded: how should politicians react to all this?