By Professor David Dunn, Department of Political Science and International Studies
School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham
By its very nature, diplomacy involves secret communications, between states, and between envoys and their governments. Indeed 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, in this case, the White House, but also entails entities such as the State Department, Pentagon, Trade and Commerce Departments and both houses of Congress.
As a result, the British Ambassador’s comments on the Trump Administration weren’t just observations of his own interactions with the 45th president but reflected the experience of all of political Washington in dealing with the maverick septuagenarian who now occupies the oval office. Nor indeed do these comments come as 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. Consequently, many jobs went, and remain, unfilled. The turnover has been tumultuous, and the quality of incumbents has been poor and sycophantic with any official who opposed the President being fired and insulted in short order.
Sir Kim Darroch’s observation that “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 more broadly.
While the leaking of these cables has been embarrassing for London and has succeeded in undermining the Ambassador and costing him his job, this is not the most important take away from this episode. Instead, what is important is what this says about the President of the United States, and as a consequence the position of the United States in the world, under his leadership.
For in his reaction to these leaks, Trump’s remarks reinforce the validity of the observations. In calling Sir Kim “wacky”, “very stupid” and “pompous”, the President further demonstrated that he still indeed “radiates insecurity”. And in lashing out at the British Prime Minister as “foolish” and criticising her Brexit strategy as a “disaster”, he demonstrates again that his diplomacy is inept, unpredictable and dysfunctional.
Further, it shows that under President 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 which he delivers unfiltered by twitter.
Far from being “very stupid”, Sir Kim has announced his departure with sufficient speed to ensure that his replacement is made by Theresa May, not Boris Johnson. In doing this, he will likely ensure that the UK continues to get candid advice from its Washington Embassy. With his resignation, this particular episode will likely pass.
What will not change immediately, however, is the situation in Washington. And for this reason, it is important that the real lesson drawn from this affair is the candid analysis that Sir Kim delivered about the dysfunctional state of US leadership in the era of “America first”.