Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford asks should ambassadors report back their full and honest views? What should ambassadors say?
Here are two hair-raising questions for DIPLOMAT readers.
Should Ambassadors report back their full and honest views?
WHAT IF THOSE VIEWS LEAK?
Back in Julythis year, Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s Ambassador to Washington, found himself in a political and media tsunami after some of his brisk thoughts for senior Whitehall people on US policy and President Trump were leaked. I have not come across Kim for quite a few years now. But here’s how it all looks to me from afar.
First – who is Sir Kim Darroch?
He graduated from Durham University with a degree in Zoology and joined the FCO. After a first posting to Tokyo he worked as FCO desk officer for the Channel Tunnel negotiations with Francewhen Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. That success propelled him onwards to Brussels as Counsellor at the UK Mission to the European Union. Then back to London to run Balkan policy after Yugoslavia collapsed (he bamboozled me into moving from Moscow to Sarajevo for my own first Ambassador job in 1996). Then Head of the FCO News Department, accompanying the Foreign Secretary round the planet and leading on all media issues.
Kim then had successive senior EU policy jobs in London that took him to the giddy height of No 10’s EU Adviser, thence to Brussels as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU. He returned to London to be the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser. In 2016 came his final official job: UK Ambassador to Washington.
In short, a magnificent career in British public service, starting at the bottom of the policy food-chain and rising to the summit.
Is Kim Darroch the typical FCO fanatical Europhiliac of Brexiteer nightmares, far more loyal to ‘Brussels’ than to the UK? Not at all. He’s a witty, irreverent, unflappable, non-ideological cynic, effortlessly summing up horribly complex issues in a way that Ministers can quickly grasp. He once told me that the way to understand the EU was to see it as an endless tag-wrestling brawl: the Spaniards flatten the French who squash the Germans who get upended by the Maltese and Lithuanians and so on. I’d imagine that he’d quietly opine that in this EU tag-wrestling marathon we Brexit Brits have stupidly tripped ourselves up over and over again.
All ambassadors are equal. But ambassadors who rise to representing their countries in Washington are more equal than others. They need to begood.
Think about the vast array of issues that slosh to and fro across the elderly PCs in the UK’s Embassy in Washington. Trade, tariffs and regulation. Brexit. EU. Russia. China. Global security and arms control. UN reform. Internet regulation. Global development policy. Sport. 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 more come and go in prominence and sensitivity, regardless of election cycles on either side of the Atlantic. Right at the top of all that policy churning now sit D Trump and B Johnson. The UK Ambassador in Washington and the USAmbassador in London both have a unique job to do in helping the White House and Number 10 coordinate positions sensibly, and in managing disagreements in a creative, measured way.
Note that many US officials and the great majority of supercilious bow-tied chatterati in the DC think-tank community find Trump-style populism and the President’s own style something between alarming and disastrous. It’s not easy for our Embassy team to ‘tune in’ to conservative thinking and pro-Trump voters outside the Washington Beltway, and so convey to London a balanced sense of the administration’s room for manoeuvre.
Kim has done a good job in Washington in getting close to Trumpers and anti-Trumpers alike. After helping deliver a State Visit to the UK by President Trump that passed off well in not uncontroversial circumstances, he must have been benignly contemplating his final FCO months before a lucrative retirement.
BOOM!! LEAKS!! TRUMP TWEETS!! BORIS!! SCANDAL!!
To be fair, some of his diplomatic reports to London as proclaimed to a bemused world by the Daily Mailwere pretty ripe:
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.
It’s unlikely that US policy on Iran is going to become more coherent any time soon. This is a divided Administration.
As a senior White House adviser told me, there is no upside with this President in being subtle, let alone ambiguous.
A firestorm of controversy. On 10 July Sir Kim announced that he was resigning as Ambassador:
Since the leak of official documents from this Embassy there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding my position and the duration of my remaining term as ambassador. I want to put an end to that speculation. The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.
Although my posting is not due to end until the end of this year, I believe in the current circumstances the responsible course is to allow the appointment of a new ambassador.
The naive taxpayer might think that when someone resigns as Ambassador in a blaze of publicity, she or he packs up the house and departs furtively for home. Diplomacy is more subtle than that! At the time of writing, Sir Kim is still there, and no new Ambassador has been announced.
So, first question: Should ambassadors report back their full and honest views?
The answer: Yes. But do it well.
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 host country. If you tell your Prime Minister only that your host state’s President is a clueless buffoon, your PM will incline to look for other partners, especially if things in one’s host country and/or one’s own capital are unpredictable and ‘difficult’. The diplomatic skill lies in spotting opportunities for leaders on both sides to do useful things together.
In short, Sir Kim’s job is to look at the Trump Administration dispassionately, and send subtle, practical advice that helps senior Whitehall circles make the best of a volatile Washington situation. Has he done that well? What do these leaks reveal?
Nothing at all! Without seeing both the whole batch of leaked documents in full and everything else of consequence that was not leaked, we mortals can’t tell how far Sir Kim did a scrupulously smart job in presenting the Trump Administration to London in a way that helped advance UK/US relations.
Still, Sir Kim like every other smart diplomat will have had at the back of his mind that second question: What if those views leak?
Many of the quoted passages from Sir Kim with words like ‘clumsy’ and ‘inept’ will have infuriated the White House team and President Trump personally. Too bad if they are only a small part of judiciously balanced documents. Sir Kim’s words will be used by the President’s opponents to attack him. Sad! Does any President need this new footling complication in his life? No.
The whole point of diplomacy is that you smile and nod and deal with all sorts of exotically awful senior local people who may be proud of their own exotic awfulness, but you keep your views about them strictly between yourself and your government. However, if your professional private thoughts somehow go public, it all gets … difficult. You need to proof yourself against that.
An Ambassador can be scathingly rude in reporting to HQ about a host government, as long as the analysis (a) is cunningly drafted to ascribe the rude words to domestic opponents, AND (b) keeps a steely focus on how best to make the best of things. Thus:
The President is now under heavy fire from domestic opponents: inept, racist, earthworm, clumsy, crook, war-criminal are the more polite things now being said about him in opposition social media circles, and indeed by senior opposition people. This makes some of his own team uneasy.
But the President is undaunted. He’s had 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 but respectfully) open for a deal on X and Y.
Diplomacy. The art of being smart, convincing, accurate. And unerringly effective.