Paul Heinbecker is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and Germany and chief foreign-policy adviser to prime minister Brian Mulroney.
U.K. ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch ignored an unwritten, fundamental rule of diplomacy and caused havoc for his government. The rule, translated into a Canadian context: Never commit to print what you can’t afford to see published in The Globe and Mail.
The ground for such discretion is that stuff happens, to paraphrase former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney. Papers are left lying around; electronic documents are intercepted; intelligence agencies spy; politicians manoeuvre for advantage and disgruntled colleagues settle scores. Mr. Darroch had to be fully aware of the risks, and his government and he himself are paying a heavy price for ignoring them.
The duty of public servants is to give their governments full and frank advice. Democracy, or at least effective government, depends on it. Speaking truth to power is fundamental, including for diplomats. But judgment is equally critical. Did the (likely slight) benefits of Mr. Darroch’s intelligence outweigh the potentially catastrophic costs of leaks if cables went astray? He had less risky communications options than cables, however highly classified, including jumping on a plane to London to deliver his judgment in person if the matter were important enough. Or he could have apprised one of the steady stream of high-ranking official British visitors to Washington of his private views so that they could safely carry the message home.
Of course, Mr. Darroch does not bear all the blame. The leakers are primarily responsible, very likely acting to advance the cause of Brexit. And the aberrant behaviour of the narcissistic, insecure, bullying President Donald Trump and his “inept, dysfunctional and divided” White House, as Mr. Darroch accurately portrayed them, are obviously at the root of the matter. The ambassador’s criticisms were not inaccurate. The question is, however, was their circulation in print wise?
The President’s ego and tough-guy act inevitably led him to make matters worse. He could have made light of the matter, as Pierre Trudeau did after President Richard Nixon had name-called him in 1971. Mr. Trudeau responded that he had “been called worse things by better people.” Mr. Trump could as well have dealt with the matter privately and directly, but he has apparently never seen bait that he wouldn’t rise to with very public tweets.
A further consideration was just how valuable Mr. Darroch’s characterizations of what was happening in Washington were. Bestsellers abound on Mr. Trump’s antics. TV news networks are unable to ignore his tiniest utterances and late-night comics feast on his inanities. Whitehall would have had to be deaf, dumb and blind not to have long since taken the measure of the President. What was the value-added of Mr. Darroch’s reporting, especially when measured against the potential damage of a leak, especially in this age of summit diplomacy when prime ministers often know their counterparts better than most ambassadors ever will?
Further, the job of an ambassador goes well beyond reporting on the foibles of a host head of state. Ambassadors are one-part trade and investment promoter, one-part saloon keeper, one-part salon host, one-part logistics chief, one-part news reporter, one-part policy advocate, one-part consular officer, one-part “talking head,” one-part treaty negotiator, one-part intelligence officer and several parts relationship manager. To succeed in building as constructive and trusting a relationship as possible with their host countries, ambassadors must acquit themselves well of all these functions, not only reporting.
The pain of this affair will pass as Mr. Darroch leaves the scene and someone else takes over; the U.K.-U.S. relationship is more than strong enough to survive. But the immediate damage is considerable, especially for Britain. Relations with its major ally the United States are at the lowest ebb in decades, if not generations. As Brexit staggers to its currently unknowable conclusion, Britain will need all the friends it can get, especially in Washington. Unnecessarily angering the emperor on the Potomac is definitely not in Britain’s interest.
Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt came to Mr. Darroch’s defence, which will have been of some comfort to him. But the outcome was unavoidable. He had no prospect of being effective in Washington because of Mr. Trump’s well-advertised decision to close Washington’s doors to him, and so he resigned. All the credit Mr. Darroch had banked from his successful management of Mr. Trump’s state visit to London in June is in ashes.
All because he put views in print that he and his government could not afford to see subsequently exposed in The Daily Mail. Pity.
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