BBC News Diplomatic Correspondent, James Landale, navigates the fine line of getting squeezed by the government you represent, and the government with whom you engage
What fun it is to be a diplomat! A life of parties and petit-beurres, of talk and travel! A front row seat in the theatre of history with the chance – just occasionally – to get on stage and make a difference with the deft stroke of a pen or quiet word in an ear. What a privileged life of the mind, where the linguist and polymath can practise their trade in mutual recognition of their intellectual brilliance, engaging in a battle of wits to carve out the thorny common ground between their political masters. Yes, the money may be rubbish and the work at times arduous, and yes, they must learn to smile when their hearts are breaking, but what larks, Pip! What larks!
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that the profession of diplomacy may indeed be some of the above, but it also carries dangers. I refer not to the physical dangers of the hardship posting – I have dealt with those in an earlier column in the autumn of 2017 (remember the fellow who kept shooting at the Italian Embassy in London?). No, I refer to the professional risk of getting squeezed between the government you represent and the government with whom you engage.
For diplomats are the lubricant between nations, the bearings that keep the wheels of state rolling. And woe betide them if a bit of grit works its way into the axle. What was once smooth would now grind, creating noise and friction. This is a place where no envoy wishes to be and yet is an inevitable risk with their job.
Take Rob Macaire, the UK’s man in Tehran, straight in back and bat, a solid yeoman in the ambassadorial trade, doing his utmost in a tricky mission. After the assassination by the United Statesof Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian retaliation against US bases in Iraqand the subsequent downing of the Ukrainian airliner, Ambassador Macaire attended a vigil for the dead, paying his respects not only to the handful of Britons who perished but also the many Iranians. The moment the event turned political and anti-government chants were heard, he made his excuses and left. On his way home, he decided to pop into the barbers for his usual short, back and sides. Within minutes he was arrested by police and accused of inciting unrest at an illegal gathering. He was held for three hours until the police were finally convinced that he was indeed a diplomat and thus immune from arrest. It took a personal intervention from Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, to get him released. He tweeted: “When police informed me a man’s arrested who claims to be UK Amb, I said IMPOSSIBLE! Only after my phone conversation w him I identified, out of big surprise, that it’s him. 15 min later he was free.”
That was only the start of it. Various judges called for Mr Macaire to be declared persona non grata. Wilder voices threatened physical violence. A militia close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps organised a mob outside the British Embassy. An effigy of Mr Macaire was even burned in the street. And all this because he had simply done his job and gone out onto the streets to get a sense of the popular mood in febrile times.
Now part of this may be the usual rough and tumble of diplomacy. Tehran was in a state of some uproar after the downing of the airliner and it might have been useful for certain organs of the Iranian state to have the distraction of a diplomatic row. But that would not make it any less uncomfortable for an envoy whose mission calls for more quiet diplomacy than most.
On this occasion, Mr Macaire was backed strongly by his political masters at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and was kept in his job. Others have not been so lucky. Remember Sir Kim Darroch, now safely ensconced in the House of Lords as Lord Darroch of Kew. He was the UK’s Ambassador in Washington who, in his private but unvarnished assessment of Donald Trump, described the President as someone who “radiates insecurity” and has “no filter.” He characterised the White House as “dysfunctional” and “inept.” Then someone in London decided to leak it all to the press and all hell broke loose. Initially, there was hope that Mr Trump might ignore the whole thing. But then the President denied he knew the Ambassador (not true), announced he would no longer deal with him and started attacking the UK government for its Brexit policy. The Foreign Office stood by Sir Kim, but in the end he had little choice but to resign, honourably surrendering the twilight of his diplomatic career on the altar of UK/US relations that he had worked so long to improve. He, by no fault of his own, had become the grit in the bearing and had to go.
Then we come to Alexandra Hall Hall, the Brexit counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington, charged with explaining Brexit to the United States. She resigned, saying she was no longer prepared to “peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust.” Ms Hall Hall told the BBC that “the lines I was being asked to deliver were either misleading or not accurate or missing important detail and therefore were knowingly misleading.”
So here we have a distinguished diplomat of more than three decades’ service to the British government giving up her career, not because she was under pressure from her host country but because she could no longer support her government in London. She too had become a piece of grit in the transatlantic relationship, unwilling to be an honest gentlewoman sent to lie abroad for the good of her country.
Three cases of diplomats ending up where they most hate to be, becoming part of the story as individuals rather than servants of state, no longer working discreetly behind the scenes but caught up in the glare of public gaze. This is no new phenomenon. Diplomats over history have frequently lost their jobs – or their heads – by displeasing their political masters or host governments. What is different is that envoys these days are much more open figures, required to engage in public as well as private diplomacy, using social media accounts to express their governments’ positions. They are obliged, therefore, to fly closer to the sun. And that means the risks of falling to the earth are that much greater.