On Wednesday, 10 July, Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, submitted his resignation after three eventful days that pitted him against the “most powerful man in the world”, the President of the United States Mr Donald Trump.
In his letter of resignation, Darroch stated he was afraid he would not to be able to carry out his official duties. His resignation was unprecedented for a British ambassador posted in the United States.
The chain of events that led to this resignation started three days earlier when The Daily Mail published in its Sunday edition leaked cables from the British embassy in Washington to the Foreign Office back in London.
The assessments of the embassy concerning the working of the Trump administration, and President Trump himself, were not — to say the least — pleasant for the White House once they were published and quoted worldwide.
In one of the leaked cables, Darroch described the American president as “inept” and “incompetent”. He went on to say that President Trump “radiates insecurity” and that his Iran policy is “incoherent” as well as “chaotic”.
As to how the White House functions under President Trump, the cables talked about a “uniquely dysfunctional environment” and questioned whether this administration “will ever look competent”.
In, another cable the ambassador argued that, “we don’t believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-driven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”
Moreover, two years earlier in the summer of 2017 Darroch had written: “We could also be at the beginning of a downward spiral, rather than just a rollercoaster; something could emerge that leads to disgrace and downfall.”
Very strong words and harsh appraisals of the present US administration.
The reactions of President Trump were not only swift but were also surprising in their form and content. Never before has a head of state got into a direct public confrontation with such vehemence with a foreign ambassador, let alone such a confrontation taking place between an American president and the British ambassador, in light of the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain.
President Trump tweeted on Monday, 8 July, after the publication of the leaked “diptels” — as the secret diplomatic cables are described in the British Foreign Office — that, “I do not know the ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the US and we will no longer deal with him.”
The following day, he tweeted again on the matter, but in more personal terms and against all diplomatic norms, saying the ambassador is “stupid” and “wacky”.
The content of these two tweets amounted, as a matter of fact, to declaring the British ambassador unofficially “persona non grata”, which means in diplomatic parlance that the accrediting country no longer recognises the diplomat in question as the official accredited representative of his government, and he is no longer desirable to remain in his post.
The same day that the US president offended the British ambassador, there was a televised debate between the two contenders for the post of the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party after the resignation of Ms Theresa May.
In this debate, Mr Boris Johnson declined to criticise President Trump for his tweets and would not say whether he would keep Darroch in his ambassadorial post if he becomes the future prime minister.
Jeremy Hunt, current foreign secretary, on the contrary sided with Darroch and had already tweeted hours before his televised debate with Johnson that President Trump had been “disrespectful and wrong to our prime minister and my country”.
He was referring to a tweet in which the US president, speaking of Darroch, said: “He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation… ”
Commenting on Johnson in the wake of the debate, Mr Nick Boles, an independent lawmaker, said that the “British people can now see that Boris Johnson will be Donald Trump’s poodle, that his response to any command from the White House will be: How high, Mr President?”
In this sad episode in the annals of diplomatic history, no one came to support President Trump. His response was offensive, undiplomatic and also unprofessional.
He should have left the leak for the State Department to deal with through diplomatic channels. In such situations, foreign ambassadors are called to the foreign ministries of the host country to receive a formal protest verbally, and in most cases in writing, when the policies of governments or certain behaviour or acts of officials violate diplomatic norms and practices in light of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations.
In the case of Darroch, it was surprising that the State Department kept silent until after his resignation.
A State Department spokesperson said Thursday, 11 July, that the United States and the United Kingdom “share a bond that is bigger than any individual, and we look forward to continuing that partnership. We remain committed to the US-UK special relationship and our shared global agenda.”
Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador, expressed in a tweet that sums up succinctly the diplomatic crisis between Washington and London, “an utter outrage that Kim Darroch has been brought down by a disgraceful leak and the vindictive reaction of the US president. Sir Kim is blameless in this sorry affair.”
On Saturday, 13 July, Scotland Yard opened an investigation to find out those responsible for leaking the highly confidential diplomatic cables.
The political ramifications of the resignation of Darroch will be felt for years to come in British politics, with a possible impact on the US-UK “special relationship”.
As to Darroch himself, after a distinguished diplomatic career that started back in 1976, May paid him great tribute before the British Parliament 10 July, stressing that his resignation was “a matter of great regret”. She added: “Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.”
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An undiplomatic end