You can bet the delete button was getting a workout and the shredders were running overtime in Washington and in capital cities around the world this week after the British ambassador to the United States was forced to resign.
Sir Kim Darroch fell on his proverbial sword after his confidential despatches to the British leadership were leaked to a British tabloid.
“We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept,” he wrote in a 2017 email.
When Donald Trump responded, calling the ambassador “wacky” and saying “we will no longer deal with him,” it appeared that Sir Kim’s tenure became untenable.
@realDonaldTrump tweet: The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy. He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was…
The kerfuffle has been big news in the United Kingdom. Much of the coverage has centred on the vested interests who may have leaked the emails and whether the ambassador should have received better cover from his bosses for his blunt analysis.
But in Washington, where chaos theory has ruled for some time now, it’s been merely another blip on cable news.
The news tested America’s outrage fatigue — and lost
Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the BBC that the US is having a hard time getting worked up about the President’s antics these days.
“Sadly for those of us here in the United States, it’s another day and another disagreement that Trump is getting into with international or domestic critics,” she said.
@A_Sloat tweet: Washington is suffering from outrage fatigue. @BBCWorld asked if Trump’s spat with British Ambassador was a big story in US. Although it is being covered, it’s also just another day here for presidential disagreements with domestic or international critics.
For Americans, the words of a foreign official whose name they don’t know hardly have the same weight as the endless stream of insider accounts of the Trump White House.
There have been a dozen political tell-alls written about the administration, each one as eye-opening as the next, making the UK ambassador’s comments look tame.
@politico tweet: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said President Trump had the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader,” according to accounts from Bob Woodward’s book
@willsommer tweet: BuzzFeed: sources say HR McMaster called Trump an “idiot” and a “dope” with the mind of a “kindergartener”
Just today The Washington Post published previewed a forthcoming book, “American Carnage,” that extensively quotes former speaker of the house Paul Ryan in unflattering portrayals of the President.
“I’m telling you, he didn’t know anything about government . . . I wanted to scold him all the time,” Ryan reported to the author, “Those of us around him really helped to stop him from making bad decisions. All the time.”
“The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” an unnamed Trump administration official wrote in the explosive article.
“Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
Gerard Araud, a recently retired French ambassador told the New York Times that many in Washington’s diplomatic circles wrote the same kinds of things about the President.
“Yes, yes, everyone does,” he said. “But fortunately I knew that nothing would remain secret, so I sent them in a most confidential manner.”
It’s the kind of thing that should shine a light on the dangerous fragility of America’s alliances.
But in the US, the story was not the source of fascination, intrigue or consternation. Outrage fatigue has well and truly set in.
For diplomats, there’s cause for concern
While the media had a somewhat muted response to the story, there’s creeping dread among diplomats who are trying to work out how to do their jobs across international time zones when there’s a risk their honest assessments are not secure.
Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement in the Obama White House, says that it could lead to a dramatic change in how diplomats communicate with home, as well as the content of those missives.
This sends a concerning & chilling message to diplomats around the globe: if your doing your job gets you into hot water, we will cut you loose. Imagine if the US had to remove every ambassador after Wikileaks published our cables. Theresa May should refuse his [email protected]:
The events will lead diplomats “to become much more circumspect,” he says. “That actually has grave national security implications. What is most valuable is that part where the ambassador and their staff offer their assessment and analysis — what does this mean?”
“What will result is a lot of misinterpretation,” he says.
“It’ll be the telephone game. Instead of kids playing around a circle, it’ll be senior government officials telling each other what they heard or what they think the ambassador said. It lends itself to being politicised.”
In other cases, it could prevent valuable information from being shared altogether.
Mr Bruen pointed to the conversation between former Australian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer, and former Trump aide George Papadopoulos, which triggered US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian election interference.
“Those conversations could now lead to an ambassador or diplomat either being made persona non grata or being put under such pressure as to make their position untenable.” Mr Buen said. “This sets a very dangerous precedent.”
@brianklass tweet: Trump’s tweets about the UK ambassador will be out of the news in the US by tomorrow. But it’s the biggest news story in the UK. When Trump just tweets insults at our allies, America moves on. But it does damage, and years of Trump’s ally bashing is taking a toll on relations.
Joe Hockey says he never writes cables
Australia has been on the receiving end of rancour from the White House more than once since Donald Trump took office. The now infamous leaked phone call over refugees with then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is one stark example, which also raised major questions about confidentiality and the capacity for secure conversations even between world leaders.
But while many have struggled to tap into the administration, outgoing ambassador Joe Hockey has deftly developed a working relationship with the President and his close associates, cultivated partly on the golf course.
Mr Hockey says the spat involving the UK ambassador won’t change his approach, which is to avoid putting sensitive information in writing.
“We’ve operated the same way throughout my tenure,” he says. “I don’t write cables.”
It’s a reflection of the concern about sensitive information being leaked, some of it diplomatic, but also defence and national security material.
With the demise of Kim Darroch, who is described by other diplomats as “a great guy” and “very professional,” those concerns have deepened within Washington’s embassies as their ability to have full and frank conversations is undermined.
The main take out?
It’s terrible for diplomacy.
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