Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s actions over the ambassador leak are a warning to all diplomats
Analysis: US president has opened the door to ambassadors and envoys from around the world facing public criticism from anyone they annoy while doing their jobs
The leak of memos by the UK ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, and his unvarnished opinions and analysis about Donald Trump‘s administration is something that all diplomats will have in their mind, mostly thanks to WikiLeaks.
In 2011, the release of diplomatic cables by the group led to the resignation of the US ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, after he had questioned the country’s willingness and capability to tackle drugs cartels, and Heather Hodges, the US ambassador to Ecuador, being declared persona non grata after a cable spoke about alleged corruption in the national police force.
It is always a risk, especially in the wake of that document dump, but it is the reaction to the latest leak that will have sent shivers down the collective spines of Washington’s diplomatic corps.
Eight years ago, the State Department and the White House called the effective expulsion of Hodges “unjustified” and said that Pascual’s resignation was accepted “with reluctance”. Compare that to the treatment of Sir Kim, who was repeatedly called out personally by Mr Trump on Twitter and was left up the creek without a paddle by would-be new prime minister Boris Johnson refusing to back him.
Yes, Downing Street made all the right noises about Sir Kim being a loss, and someone who should be allowed to do his job, but this was lost amid the ruckus caused by Mr Trump’s undiplomatic approach.
A precedent has been set, both for the US and the nations it deals with, that undermines all diplomatic work.
Trust in ambassadors to be able to relay accurate, truthful and sometimes damaging information back to their own government is essential. It allows nations to plan for quick changes in policy and gives a sense of what is in the minds of leaders that can be guarded or unpredictable.
The US makes use of this dynamic, but it is especially important to other nations – allies and enemies alike – dealing with the Trump administration.
Trump’s White House is riven with factions all trying to lead a president with little foreign policy experience in different directions. To say nothing of the man himself, who will put out policy by tweet and change his mind at a drop of a hat.
Any advantage countries can gain needs to be seized upon and that is what an ambassador can bring. With Trump’s high turnover of key staff during his two and a half years in office, where hard-fought for relationships can be ripped apart by presidential whims, the constant work of an ambassador to keep engagement up is vital.
Diplomats lead two separate lives: a public one full of careful words and actions, and a private one of unvarnished opinions that their government relies on. That stark difference is now under threat and ambassadors may let caution creep from one life to the other.
Sir Kim, Hodges and Pascual were all career diplomats with more than 20 years (if not longer) of service. Can nations around the world afford to let similar diplomats think that their career is not worth the risk of the humiliation they could face?
Trump has also opened the door for despots and autocratic regimes to publicly insult diplomats or punish them in private. That affects everyone and is a path we would be ill-advised to travel any further down.
The leak of Sir Kim’s remarks is a serious matter for the Foreign Office to deal with, but the repercussions of the actions of Trump, Johnson et al could spread far further.