The comments from Sir Kim Darroch, British Ambassador to Washington, in a wad of his classified messages to London are a juicy read. President Trump “radiates insecurity” while his administration is “uniquely dysfunctional” and riven by “knife fights”. Trump could very well “crash and burn”. Leaked to the Mail on Sunday, they have cost him his job.
The incident has raised the issue of what diplomats are paid to do and how in the current political climate in most Western democracies are they supposed to do it. After all, the ineptness of the Trump administration is there for all to see. It is retailed on a daily basis in the major dailies in the United States, the UK and everywhere else. So, some ask, why should the ambassador report all this stuff?
Maybe Darroch didn’t have to say everything he said – but a good bit of it was relevant. The British government would self evidently need his and his embassy’s views on a range of issues such as NATO questions, the American view on Brexit, China and bilateral trade issues.
But the British also need to know everything about how Trump is travelling politically and how he regards Britain – the sexy stuff. Given there are different views in the US and elsewhere on just these subjects, the British government needs to hear what the embassy and Darroch himself has to say. He is after all their top representative in Washington. So, yes, Darroch was doing his job – pretty well by all accounts.
Most effective diplomatic systems accept the need – at least in principle – for unvarnished comments from their embassies. In practice, however, inhibitions creep into diplomatic reporting because of two sets of concerns.
The first is that something might leak which would be an embarrassment for an embassy’s host government and hence for the embassy itself. For example, the Wikileaks cables revealed some extraordinarily frank United States embassy appraisals of host governments. It was this sort of thing that caught out Darroch.
The second and possibly more more common concern is that undue frankness from an embassy, even if not made public – but particularly if it were – might be disturbing to the home government or at least some members of it. For example, when posted in Jakarta in the late nineties, I sent a report of highly critical comments about Australia over Timor from a leading Indonesian political figure. When that figure became president, I was told that a thorough if not wholly successful hunt for copies of the cable was undertaken.
When serving In India I reported remarks, adding a comment which supported them, by a senior Indian government figure on our detention on possible terrorism charges of an Indian doctor (Mohamed Haneef). I was asked to mute future commentary to accommodate Australian political sensitivities. The doctor was released and won substantial damages for false arrest.
Analogous cases are common enough in diplomatic systems similar to our own.
These inhibitions ironically lead diplomats to do a lot of business on the phone, a form of communication technically easy to penetrate. But the better ones, like Darroch, still try to do their best in writing – albeit in highly classified systems – because people do need to see their messages. Better information means better policy. Darroch’s misfortune was to be betrayed.
The leak is unlikely to be the work of foreign power – as some canvass. If it is, the Brits have real problems. Moreover, while officials can be indiscreet, those at a level to be in receipt of Darroch’s messages are not usually driven to break the law by handing over sheafs of sensitive material to a sensationalist newspaper.
While one should withhold unequivocal comment until the results of British investigations are known, it is a reasonable bet that the leak is from a politician. Leaks usually are, and leaks tend towards flood levels at times of intense political or ideological rivalry. This is currently the case in Britain (as well as the United States and, dare I say it, Australia).
Leaks are usually about short-term political advantage, but they can also take events in unforeseen directions.
In betraying Darroch, no doubt some figure or group thought they were doing the right thing by Britain. They should be cautious. In the international relations business they say “never take on the whole room at the same time”. Britain has evident issues with Europe. Its aspirations to create new economic linkages with China could be tempered by developments in Hong Kong. It is hard to see any positive developments for Britain’s transatlantic relationship arising from these latest events. Darroch’s betrayer also betrayed the British national interest.
Given the current disarray in the democratic ethos, it is hard to see any dramatic shift away of the destructive leak as a weapon in Western political armouries. But no nation – Britain, the United States or Australia – is going to be well served by say-nothing diplomats.
John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, USA, Indonesia, Japan and High Commissioner to India.