Diplomats are a curious bunch.
Usually to be found currying favour by whispering quietly in foreign capitals, their role is largely an unseen one, providing information back home, and intervening subtly to promote their nation’s interests.
So when a diplomat becomes the news story, as opposed to providing commentary on a news story, it is obvious that something has gone awry – as Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, can now testify.
Sir Kim is not someone accustomed to being pitied. He has enjoyed a stellar career even by the standards of the glitteringly serried ranks of the diplomatic service, having previously been our man in Brussels and the Prime Minister’s national security adviser.
Heading towards retirement after service in a position sought after by every British diplomat, Darroch has been a fixture on the Washington social scene, as might be expected for a man throwing the sort of parties that befit his living in the only Lutyens-designed house in North America.
Yet the diplomatic merry-go-round has ground to a halt. For Darroch now finds himself at the centre of a transatlantic storm over leaked cables from 2017 criticising the Trump administration for pursuing “incoherent, chaotic” policies while being wracked by “infighting and chaos”.
This has gone down predictably badly with the incumbent of the White House. Less explicably, President Trump’s reaction has far exceeded the customary embarrassment over a leak of this nature and into the realm of an effective excommunication of the senior diplomat of a close ally.
While it is unclear what Trump means when he says of Darroch that “we will no longer deal with him”, there is no doubting that describing him as a “pompous fool” and Theresa May’s Brexit policy as a “disaster” cannot be good for UK-US relations.
Darroch has of course been unfortunate that comments he made during the ordinary course of his duties have come to light. Ambassadors provide unvarnished views of the world to their governments, and doubtless there are many in London who share his assessment of the unorthodox approach adopted by the Trump team.
A leak of this nature serves no purpose but to harm the interests of both the UK and the US, and it must be hoped that the leaker is hunted down and prosecuted accordingly.
But the real issue here is not Darroch’s private thoughts, but the perception in Washington about his public actions.
For several years now, friends and colleagues in Washington – from both parties and by no means supportive of Trump in general – have grumbled that our representative has been less than diplomatic in his methods of opposing US foreign policy. While that might just be a corollary of his doing his job representing British interests, it is notable that Darroch’s efforts in this regard have not garnered grudging admiration, merely denigration.
Whether rightly or wrongly, the belief has also arisen that Darroch is more comfortable on the cocktail circuit than glad-handing in the corridors of power.
One congressman recently commented privately that while it might be expected that the British ambassador be outgunned by staples of the Beltway like the Irish and Israeli ambassadors, it says something that he had seen certain central Asian ambassadors in Congress more often than the representative of Her Majesty’s Government.
Perhaps this is all just hot air. But if it isn’t, then we have an important decision to make about our representation in Washington. Darroch’s style of diplomacy, while distinguished, may no longer suit the turbulent times the transatlantic relationship finds itself in.
There are many ways of defending national interests short of surrendering to a host nation, but without provoking unease. The UK government should find someone next who can better walk the Trump tightrope.
Main image credit: Getty