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Darroch’s disastrous diplomatic despatch: Should an ambassador speak the truth, or lie?

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The profession of diplomacy sets great store by traditions. In their endeavours to conform Ambassadors tend to take great care in drafting their despatches to the headquarters. Oftentimes, a tad unfairly, their professional quality was, and still is, judged by their peers at their respective ‘FO’s (Foreign Offices) by the stylistic excellence of the reportage than by the character of their contents. In Anglo-Saxon countries, and others of that ilk, such missives usually began with the salutation: “My dear Foreign Secretary”. What followed was often an attempt by the reporting envoy to reach the heights of literary sublimity. Many such correspondence are cited by them when they pen their memoirs for the reading pleasure of the common man on the Clapham omnibus when they retire , some, alas ,into oblivion , from their champagne trail.

Sir Nigel Kim Darroch KCMG, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom to the United States, will doubtless need to add some exciting explanations when he quotes his own report in question in his future autobiography. By speaking the truth as he sees it, rather than lying, as some Ambassadors are critiqued for doing abroad for the good of their country, Darroch had touched a hornet’s nest. In a memo from Washington to London recently he thought he was at his British best, when he , in his view objectively , reported as follows on the Team Trump : “ We don’t believe this Administration is going to become substantially more normal , less dysfunctional , less unpredictable , less faction driven, less diplomatically clumsy, and less inept”. Unfortunately, the message leaked, found its way into the media, and as was to be expected in the White House all hell broke loose.

President Trump was not amused. Initially he was surprisingly restrained. Of Darroch he said: ‘We are not a big fan of the man, and he has not served the UK well…I can say things about him, but I won’t bother”. But he changed his mind soon enough and did bother to say more things, far nastier ones about the Ambassador , as his wrath surged in geometric proportions as the press continued reporting on the issue. He threw all restraint to the winds and described Darroch as “wacky”, and a “pompous fool” who was also “a very stupid guy “, adding that he was “foisted on the US by Britain”. For good measure, he had some uncharitable words for the UK Prime Minister Theresa May herself, especially after No 10 Downing Street supported the Ambassador’s right to say what he did. He called her Brexit-related actions “foolish”, and claimed that the result was a “mess”. In an expression that seemed incredible for an allied head of government to say of another, he expressed happiness that Britain would soon have a new Prime Minister. To give more teeth to the bite, he had Darroch disinvited from an official dinner for the Emir of Qatar.

The danger is that the Ambassador may be missing more than just a meal. He may be cut off from future contacts with Washington officialdom as the President also warned that the US would “no longer deal with” the envoy. It is true even in the past, the President took a dim view of the Ambassador when it had become known that the latter had expressed a view to London that President Trump could be influenced by the British Government. Indeed, entirely unafraid to interfere in issues where angels would fear to tread, in the past he had openly suggested that he would prefer the right-wing British politician , Nigel Farage to be appointed as the Ambassador to Washington. However, at that time, the British position, as stated by the Foreign Office was that there was “no vacancy” in Washington.

Indeed that position is unlikely to be changed even now. The Foreign Office mandarins in London, and their political masters will be hoping ‘as the adage goes, that ‘this too shall pass, and the matter will blow over. In any case Darroch’s term is due to end early next week. It is likely that by then the British Prime minister will be Boris Johnson, who could not help quietly crowing about the overt criticism by Trump of May’s handling of the Brexit process. But even Johnson, a chum of Trump, cannot afford to ignore the culture of British diplomacy and openly kowtowing to Trump by appointing Farage, or any other politician of the choice of either Farage or Trump to Washington. In all likelihood it is likely to be the current Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill , the ranking civil servant at the White Hall. With regard to their Ambassadors in Washington , the British has a penchant to prefer the ‘stiff upper lip” , and ‘the bowler hat and umbrella type” but that is one tradition that Trump, Johnson , Farage or anyone else is unlikely to be able to change.

There is one area in which it is possible that policy-makers at the State Department in Washington, the Foreign Office in London, and around the capitals of the World would agree that diplomats should have the freedom to communicate their assessments in any manner they choose with their own governments. If their reports contain elements that are irresponsible, their political masters will deal with it. It may be a myth by today’s standards that an Ambassador is a personal “friend and beloved” of one sovereign sent to another, as their credentials even now will state, and therefore deserving of the fullest respect from the host. But it is a myth that has largely helped, if not always so, even in turbulent times.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh

  • Should an ambassador speak the truth, or lie?
  • Darroch’s disastrous diplomatic despatch
  • Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 2
  • DhakaCourier

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