The resignation of Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the United States, was regrettable for all professional diplomats of any nation. Darroch fell victim to a dirty trick within a British political scene roiled by a vicious debate over Brexit and a simultaneous contest for Conservative Party leadership.
An anonymous leaker passed British Embassy dispatches to a London tabloid that included Darroch’s analysis of the Trump administration and his advice as to how London can navigate what has become a very difficult bilateral relationship. The ambassador’s private comments were highly critical of President Trump.
American diplomats are dedicated to the protection and promotion of the interests of our nation and its people. Understanding other nations’ societies and politics, and employing this understanding to advise American political authorities, are critical to their efforts. Political analysis was a major responsibility during my own 30-year career as a State Department Foreign Service Officer. My reports to Washington were frank; some subjects of my reports might have considered my conclusions to be unkind.
Like Darroch, I counted on confidentiality in communicating with our government. Classified diplomatic communications ensure, among other things, that diplomats can protect sources and speak directly to their government without causing international incident. All governments recognize the importance of this confidentiality; in fact, it is guaranteed by diplomatic convention.
Darroch — or British Embassy officers who drafted the messages that went out over his name — were simply doing their jobs: informing their government about how its American counterpart functioned and how best to pursue British interests within the context of the current Anglo-American relationship. They were well within the convention of common diplomatic practice. Darroch’s analysis was deeply critical of this president and his administration, but it was consistent with that of others who follow events in Washington, including many Republicans. He did not make his views public. The anonymous leaker who released the messages did, to impact the British debate and perhaps to sabotage Darroch’s career. Inadvertently or otherwise, the leaker also sabotaged Britain’s most important diplomatic relationship.
Previous American presidents, recognizing the context of the leak and the importance of the bilateral relationship, would have sought to contain any damage. They would have ignored the leak, or dismissed it with humor. (“The president would not describe his administration as ‘inept,’” stated the White House spokeswoman. “Next question!”) The United States might have expressed an objection through discreet diplomatic channels.
Unfortunately, if predictably, Trump made Darroch’s comments both a personal and a diplomatic issue, unleashing a series of tweets that slammed the ambassador as well as British Prime Minister Theresa May. The president subsequently announced that his administration would no longer work with the envoy of its closest and most important ally. It was small consolation to Darroch that Trump’s reaction confirmed the ambassador’s assessment of the president’s insecurity.
To their credit, both May and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt rose to Darroch’s defense, citing their right to receive frank, confidential advice from their representative in Washington. Hunt, a finalist for the Conservative Party leadership, tweeted personally to the president, stating “friends speak frankly so I will,” calling the president’s comments “disrespectful to our Prime Minister and our country” and promising that “if I become PM, our Ambassador stays.”
Disgracefully, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, likely Britain’s next prime minister, refused to support his ambassador. Squeezed between Johnson’s cynical stance and Trump’s unrelenting criticism, Darroch chose to resign his post.
Throughout my career, I worked closely with British diplomatic colleagues. We were usually, if not always, on the same side of issues of fundamental importance to our nations. I can attest that the British have an extraordinarily capable diplomatic service. Darroch was not appointed to Britain’s most important and prestigious diplomatic post because he is, in Trump’s words, “very stupid” or “wacky.” Darroch served in Washington because he was the cream-of-the-crop within a distinguished diplomatic organization.
Diplomats and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic understand the vital importance of Anglo-American ties. Since World War II, close collaboration between Washington and London has been vital to the security and prosperity of both nations. Although the U.S. is the more powerful of the two allies, strong relations with London are a critical element of our diplomatic, economic and military power.
We should hope that our most important ally sends its very best representative to our capital, and let him do his job. We should also recognize that both the reckless leak and inappropriate reactions to it are blows to this vital diplomatic relationship.