I received this from a US colleague yesterday who said – Oh Howard, what a terrible day for diplomacy!
Yes, I thought when I read this, what a perfect reflection to make and so it is that today we are left to hold our heads in shame as we say thank you and goodbye to our man in the Washington DC, Sir Kim Darroch – an outstanding man of integrity whilst at the same time we ask ourselves the question, if something like this can occur what has it come to and what on earth can the future hold out after this?
That a senior and highly respected diplomat, one who in this case happened to be Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the US and whose only crime is that words he had used in private diplomatic communique’s back to his political masters have been leaked by political forces unknown, has been placed in a situation where he has little choice but to accept the inevitability that having lost the confidence of the White House his only option was to resign.
The Ambassadors crime, if there was one, is that he has for some unknown reason fallen fowl of someone who I suspect was or maybe will be one of his political masters. We could argue until the cows came home as to whether or not the words that Sir Kim is reported to have said in the leaked emails should or should-not have been said by a senior diplomat but the point is that these were deliberately leaked in order to force a situation in which his position became untenable.
My own view is that what Sir Kim did by providing personal views to Ministers and senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials is part of a diplomats’ day to day work. Of course, it is equally right to say that those working in our embassies abroad must always play due respect and deference to the system of government in the country in which they are operating meaning that they always desist from proffering internal criticism.
This dreadful affair isn’t really about what Sir Kim Darroch is reported to have said in the leaked emails but of the ultimate response. The leaking of these documents can only have been for political reasons and purposes. It was a profound attack on an individual and indeed, one that I regard as being affrontery to the nation in which I was born and live.
While I have little faith that sufficient proof will ever be found that allows a finger of guilt to be pointed at the one individual responsible for this crime, we should be in no doubt that what has occurred this past week will change forever the relationship and trust between diplomats, civil servants and their political masters. We should regret that and of the price that will be paid.
There are those who quite understandably called on the Government to sack Sir Kim immediately following the leak and it is clear beyond doubt that having lost the trust of the White House, before long the Government would have needed to consider moving him to another post or maybe, bringing forward his own chosen retirement date which I believe was due at the end of the year.
That Sir Kim Darroch has now chosen to resign will of course be considered by many as a correct and very honourable process but one thing is certain – it will not and neither should it be closure of this very damaging issue.
In the House of Commons yesterday the Prime Minister quite rightly praised the service of Sir Kim Darroch not only as having been our Ambassador in Washington DC but for his work throughout a long and distinguished career. She chose her words very carefully of course in order to reflect on those who might well have been responsible for causing this hugely damaging embarrassing situation for political purposes. It was pleasing that her words of support to Sir Kim were very strongly echoed by those of Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
Suggestions that Mrs. May might attempt to undermine the possibility of a political choice being made as the next Ambassador by her successor over that of choice of a career senior diplomat are in my view nonsense. She will not do that because it would inevitably cause even more harm to the nation and how we are seen.
The chosen replacement as Ambassador, whoever he or she is, will after the events of this past week need to be someone who will be welcomed in the White House and who has the ability to repair and rebuild the damaged relationship. I proffer no views on who this should be but if next Ambassador in Washington DC is a political choice then I would remind that this is not so unusual in a list that includes Viscount Halifax (1940-46) and John Freeman (1969-71) and whose political fame was equalled only by his brilliant interview technique on the BBC television’s excellent ‘Face to Face’ series and of course, who could forget the Honourable Peter Jay between 1977-79.
More worryingly for me is the damage done to those working in our embassies abroad. For years the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been at the mercy of cuts. We need more diplomats of the calibre of Sir Kim Darroch not less. Motivation in our embassies abroad will in the aftermath of this crisis in our affairs be very low and whoever is to be our next Prime Minister will need to work hard to re-establish lost trust. Good Government, as Mrs. May said yesterday, “depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice and I want all our public servants being able to give that full and frank advice”. It is in my view the quality and strength of our diplomats and key civil servants and their staff that provide ministers with what Mrs May referred yesterday as being “the ability to defend our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure. To that I say long may that be so.
CHW (London – 11th July 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785