Diplomats Fear Chilling Effect of British Ambassador’s Resignation

Worries over leaks could curtail the flow of frank information from foreign embassies in Washington.

British Ambassador Kim Darroch speaks to guests at the ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2017.
British Ambassador Kim Darroch speaks to guests at the ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2017. Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Capitol File Magazine

The humiliation of British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch, who until a week ago was hosting senior Trump administration officials at dinners and parties but who resigned Wednesday after being cut off by an angry U.S. president, could make foreign diplomats think twice before offering honest assessments of the Trump administration to their governments, veteran diplomats say. 

The United Kingdom’s envoy to Washington, who has been in his job since 2016, found himself on the receiving end of blistering tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump after the leak of Darroch’s confidential cables to London, which cast a negative light on the inner workings of the Trump administration. Beyond back-and-forths on Twitter between Trump and the British foreign secretary, the leaking of a massive trove of diplomatic cables could have other lasting impacts, causing diplomats to self-censor their cables and policy recommendations.

“The leak of cables has a chilling effect on what diplomats are prepared to put in writing and send back,” said Amanda Sloat, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official. “I’m sure that British diplomats in embassies around the world are now going to be having similar concerns about things that they are writing in cables and sending back to London.”

Darroch tendered his resignation on Wednesday, saying in a letter to Simon McDonald, under secretary at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office: “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”

The United States was on the receiving end of a very similar scandal to Darroch’s, albeit on a much grander scale, when a massive cache of State Department documents was published by WikiLeaks in 2010. The leaks dumped out in the open how U.S. ambassadors really felt about their host governments and gave an unvarnished view of the inner workings of American diplomacy. It also sparked diplomatic firestorms across the world that left the State Department reeling. 

Nancy McEldowney, a former senior State Department official who was serving in Washington at the time of the WikiLeaks dump, said two things happened after the cables were leaked. “The first was immediate: the blowback,” she said.

Around the world, U.S. ambassadors were summoned by their host countries over their pointedly undiplomatic cables. U.S. Ambassador to Eritrea Ronald McMullen called the leader of the East African nation an “unhinged dictator” who “remains cruel and defiant.” Another senior State Department official posted in Italy called then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader,” sparking a political firestorm in Rome and headaches in Washington. The U.S. ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, was expelled in 2011 after her cables critical of government corruption were leaked, and the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, was forced out of his job. 

“It was painful, and it was embarrassing, but we got through it,” McEldowney said. 

The second impact was, in effect, self-censorship. Some diplomats wary of more leaks began to gloss over concerns with foreign governments or leaders in their cables back home, leaving Washington with a hazier picture of what is going on abroad. 

“If ambassadors stop writing things down and instead just pick up the phone and talk to one person, that cripples the rest of the machinery,” said McEldowney, now at Georgetown University. “Other people need to read those cables. There are desk officers, and deputy assistant secretaries, and others in government … who need to understand what the ambassador’s judgment is.”

U.S. ambassadors also began losing influence and clout in the countries they were posted in, limiting their effectiveness. That same fate could befall Darroch in Washington, even if he stays in his job. 

“Even if he’s not formally [forced out], if word goes out to senior officials that they’re not able to deal with Darroch, then that’s going to limit his effectiveness as an ambassador,” Sloat said. 

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters on Tuesday that the department has not received any formal guidance from the White House to stop dealing with Darroch. “We will continue to deal with all accredited individuals until we get any further guidance from the White House or the president,” she said. 

Some experts say leaked government documents have important public value, even if it puts diplomats in the hot seat. “It’s very important information to know what the British government is thinking about the Trump administration, it’s very important for voters especially,” said Louis Clark, the executive director and CEO of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on whistleblowers and government transparency. “We need to know what other leaders and foreign diplomats in the world actually think about the president.” 

For his part, Trump has made his opinions of Darroch abundantly clear. In a series of tweets on Monday and Tuesday, Trump lashed out at Darroch, calling him “wacky” and “a very stupid guy.” Darroch described Trump as “radiating insecurity” and his administration as “clumsy and inept” in the secret cables, which were published by the British tabloid the Daily Mail over the weekend.

The British government has defended Darroch, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Trump on Twitter “these comments are disrespectful and wrong to our Prime Minister and my country.” Hunt, who is battling former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over who will succeed Theresa May as the next prime minister, said Darroch would stay in office if he became prime minister. 

The spat has further frayed the normally close U.S.-U.K. relationship, already strained over disagreements on Iran policy and Trump’s criticism of May’s handling of Brexit negotiations. 

But the leak of embassy cables won’t cause irrevocable harm to ties between London and Washington, said Erik Brattberg, a scholar on trans-Atlantic relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.

“This will further damage the relationship politically, but beyond the politics, the special relationship is still quite strong on security, on military issues, on intelligence sharing,” he said. “The fundamentals of the special relationship will not be damaged.”

Several current and former U.S. diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy said there was an irony in the U.S. president freezing out a foreign diplomat for confidential criticisms of him, as Trump has no scruples slamming foreign leaders in public as “dishonest & weak” or, in the case of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a “stone cold loser.

“What Trump has done with his reaction is to validate everything that the British ambassador wrote,” McEldowney said.

Not all foreign leaders have reacted to unflattering diplomatic leaks as Trump has. In 2009, Norway had to leap into damage-control mode after a scathing secret memo from its deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Mona Juul, slamming then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for weak and ineffective leadership was leaked to the press. 

“As a matter of principle I welcome all these criticisms,” Ban said after the memo went public. “Criticisms, when they are constructive, help me improve my work, my performance.”

This story was updated on July 10 to account for Darroch’s resignation.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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