Donald Trump and UK Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch
Co-published with the Social Sciences Birmingham Forum:
By its very nature, diplomacy involves secret communications between states and between envoys and their governments. The word itself, di-plomacy, means a paper folded in two to keep it confidential.
It is the embassy’s job to represent the home government abroad but also, crucially, to provide candid analysis of the state of politics and leadership in the receiving state. This analysis isn’t only based on diplomatic engagement with the executive branch, such as the White House, but also includes the State Department, Pentagon, Trade and Commerce Departments, and both houses of Congress.
UK Ambassador Kim Darroch’s comments on the Trump Administration were not just observations of his interaction with the 45th President. They reflected the experience of all of political Washington in dealing with the maverick septuagenarian and reality TV star who now occupies the Oval Office. None of Darroch’s comments are any surprise to those who have followed the traumatic comings and goings of the Trump White House over the past two years.
From the start, the Administration was staffed with inexperienced officials, as many veterans of previous governments refused to serve under Trump. Many jobs were, and remain, unfilled. Turnover has been tumultuous, and the quality of incumbents has been poor and sycophantic —any official who opposes the President is fired and insulted in short order.
So Darroch’s observation — “We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-driven less diplomatically clumsy and inept” — is probably a fair representation of the prevailing view among the diplomatic corps in Washington, and indeed of most observers of the White House.
The Lesson from a Far-from-Stupid Ambassador
The leaking of these cables has been embarrassing for London and has succeeded in undermining the Ambassador and costing him his job. But this is not the most important takeaway from the episode — instead, it is the lesson about the President of the US, and as a consequence the position of America in the world, under his leadership.
In his reaction to the leaks, Trump’s remarks reinforce the validity of Darroch’s observations. By calling Sir Kim “wacky”, “very stupid”, and “pompous”, the President further demonstrated that he still — in Darroch’s confidential observation — “radiates insecurity”. And in lashing out at UK Prime Minister Theresa May as “foolish” and criticizing her Brexit strategy as a “disaster”, Trump demonstrates again that his diplomacy is inept, unpredictable, and disfunctional.
Under Trump, even the closest, most entrenched international relationships are not immune to the fickle ramblings of a leader who ignores precedent and advice and makes policy on a whim, delivered without a filter on Twitter.
Far from being “very stupid”, Darroch has announced his departure with sufficient speed to ensure that his replacement is made by Theresa May, not Trump’s ally Boris Johnson, who is likely to succeed as Prime Minister. Sir Kim has likely ensured that the UK continues to get candid advice from its Washington Embassy as, with his resignation, this episode recedes.
But what will not change is the situation in Washington. For this reason, it remains important that the real lesson from this fiasco is the candid analysis that Sir Kim delivered about the disfunctional state of US leadership in the era of “Trump First”.