Few things are more carefully choreographed than diplomatic meetings. Whether it’s a special kind of handshake or a deliberately frosty reception to condemn some sort of international meddling or perceived slight, the moves representatives make in front of the world press are intended to have consequences. A state visit, for example — like the one that US President Donald Trump recently embarked upon with the UK — will likely take months of preparations to get right. Being in the room for these preparations is exhilarating: the arguments, the counterarguments, the considerations about how often a smile should be deployed, whether or not a joke will land — everything is up for debate.
Behind closed doors, things are very different. Each civil service uses roughly the same protocol for communication within its walls, and externally. Governed by memos, aide memoires, and note verbales, each document has a formal mechanism and meaning. While the content can vastly differ, there is one sacrosanct principle: everything is honestly written and is delivered in a secure and confidential manner. Everyone understands that what is said is not intended to go any further.
Questions abound about how it was possible UK ambassador Sir Kim Darroch’s comments about the Trump administration were leaked to the Mail on Sunday. The inevitable inquest will also need to address the question of why.
This will not be a civil servant seeking to illuminate a very difficult situation or to “blow a whistle” — the dysfunction of Trump’s White House is clear. Someone is seeking to score political points. But using the UK’s foreign relationships as chips within a domestic game is irresponsible in the extreme.
Leaking memos to the press seem to be the first foreign policy salvo of this contest – Jeremy Hunt heads the department, Boris Johnson headed it previously – so to what end was an ambassador deemed acceptable collateral damage to a fight?
Diplomacy is the dark art of knowing. Working out how best to achieve your objectives is at the heart of interfacing with another country’s political machine. The core principle of any civil servant is that they serve their political masters in a neutral, fastidious, and diligent manner. This is especially acute for those in the international arena, where trade deals and alliances are key. Get this wrong, and security issues come over the horizon. After that, start referencing the Geneva Convention. But what you say publicly isn’t what you say privately.
The US’s situation is plain for everyone to see. From being openly laughed at at the UN to bungled foreign policy initiatives, Trump’s administration is an incompetent mess — and describing it as otherwise would be a diplomatic failure of the highest order.
And yet the special relationship is more crucial than ever. America’s drones are being taken out of the air by the Revolutionary Guard; the war in Yemen shows no signs of calming down; Ebola is back with a vengeance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and the UK, of course, desperately needs friends, especially after breaking up with 27 of its closest geographically.
International relationships are not built on history; they’re made between people. Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Bush — sometimes the special relationship throws up some very predictable bedfellows; other times, very strange ones. It’s the ambassadors that put these relationships in motion. With unprecedented access to the highest echelons of a country, they help to build the foundations of an international relationship and prepare the heads of their own countries for what’s coming. Now a relationship has been smashed in full public view — it needs to be rebuilt, and quickly.
Sir Kim Darroch’s primary political master, Jeremy Hunt, tried to draw a line under the matter, apologising for the leak but not the content. This is a standard approach — offering a paper tiger of an apology, while attempting to save face — but it’s clear it has completely and utterly failed. Now President Trump is going on the Twitter offensive, as it’s his primary form of policy generation. He tweeted hours ago of Darroch that “he is not liked or well thought of in the US. We will no longer deal with him.”
It surely won’t be long before the UK’s ambassador stands down, calling time on a 30-plus year career of distinction, with the penultimate nail in the coffin being Theresa May’s noting her “full faith” in him. It will be an ignominious end for an ambassador who, quite frankly, was just doing his job.
By leaking to a pro-Boris paper, this may seem like an attempt support the aspirations of the blond one. It will provide a lot of intrigue; but behind the scenes, it is already causing major upset. Heads will roll — Darroch’s and the leaker’s will be the first — and I highly doubt that they will be the last.
Emin Pasha is the pseudonym of a diplomat at the United Nations in New York
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