Johnson is presenting himself as too keen to please the US President.
Donald Trump’s diplomacy is known for not following any traditional rules. Last week, he refused to work with British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch. This ‘expulsion’ happened after diplomatic cables were leaked that gave away Darroch’s opinion of the US President. In the cables, Darroch called Trump ‘insecure’, ‘inept’ and ‘incompetent’, and the White House as ‘uniquely dysfunctional’. Taking offence, Trump announced that he would not want to work with the British ambassador. Darroch was dis-invited from a banquet and thereafter was unable to attend an event with a minister. He was not only expelled, but also resigned from the post on July 10. In his resignation letter, Darroch wrote: “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.” There are several things that are not new about this situation. Kim Darroch’s opinion of Trump and how he is running the White House does not come as a surprise. Rather, diplomats have expressed solidarity with it. Secondly, such diplomatic cables and them getting leaked are not a new phenomenon.
Examples include Wikileaks, going as far back as 2010. Thirdly, Trump’s diplomacy has already adopted a different style altogether, with his opinions coming through on Twitter. This has become known as ‘twitter diplomacy’. What is interesting in this saga, however, is how Boris Johnson has responded to Trump’s decision to expel the British ambassador. Johnson is most likely to be Prime Minister in less than two weeks. He was accused by MPs for not supporting Darroch, leading to his decision to quit. Johnson appeared in a leaders’ debate on television, where he is blamed for not backing the British ambassador.
In the debate, he says: “It is I and I alone will decide who takes important and politically-sensitive jobs such as the UK ambassador to the US.” When asked later in an interview why he did not offer the diplomat his support, Johnson claimed that was false, and that he supports the “principle that civil servants should be able to say what they want to their political masters without fear or favour.”
Johnson’s stance on this issue shows that while he wants to lend support to civil servants, he is giving the hint that an ambassador may not have support to continue with the job if information about his opinions has been leaked. Whether or not those opinions are supported by other diplomats, the future British premier clearly wants civil servants to maintain a neutral stance in diplomacy — especially with regard to the US. However, an impartial civil service is counter to the idea of candid civil servants communicating clear opinions to this ‘political masters’. That is precisely why their job is ‘politically-sensitive’. It is unnerving for civil servants who will be looking out for how Johnson’s leadership manages diplomats’ appointments and their confidentiality.
This stance, where Johnson has avoided supporting Darroch altogether shows that he wishes to please Trump, who called Darroch “a stupid guy” in one of his tweets. Why would Johnson want to be in Trump’s good books? A Brexiter, Johnson sees the UK exit from the EU as freedom for trade deals, with a deal with the US one of the biggest possible advantages. Moreover, if there is a clash between Iranian and British forces, the UK is likely to seek US support. With Britain out of the EU, Johnson seems to be leaning on the idea that the US would continue to be an ally.
However, Trump’s non-traditional diplomacy means that the UK cannot rely on a past record of good relations with the US, or on the US as a loyal ally. By positioning himself as apologetic about Darroch’s cables, Johnson is clearly giving Trump even more leverage. The expulsion of a diplomat who also subsequently resigned from the post is not a good sign for UK’s civil servants.
Darroch was Theresa May’s appointment and is criticised as such by Trump in his tweets. This also works in Johnson’s favour, but it is May who might eventually appoint a replacement before she leaves office. By not vocalising support for Darroch, Johnson is presenting himself as too keen to please the US President. May’s spokesperson, on the other hand, supported the British diplomat, for whom the words that Trump used were offensive. While the Obama administration had expelled diplomats as well, it is new that a President is vocally showing disregard for a British ambassador, by using words such as “wacky” and “pompous”. It also shows Trump’s thin-skinned reaction to leaked diplomatic cables, which may actually be very similar to secret communication by many foreign missions about him and the White House.
After May leaves, British diplomats will have to be wary of Johnson’s need to appease the US. There is already unrest among civil servants, as being candid can now cost them their job. Sending their opinions is considered to be part of the job, and not negligence, as is being communicated by Johnson. Meanwhile, Trump’s twitter diplomacy is brash and vindictive. It shows an urgent need for more resistance to premiership that is keen to roll out the red carpet for him and his decisions.
Former Sunday Times political editor and unofficial David Cameron biographer Isabel Oakeshott, who is also a Brexit campaigner, revealed the emails written by Sir Kim Darroch criticising Donald Trump.
Ilsa Abdul Razzak has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences from IBA, Karachi.
She writes at www.ilsarazzak.wordpress.com, and has an interest in reading on, and teaching history and literature.
Booth, William, Josh Dawsey and Karla Adam. “British Ambassador to US Resigns After Trump Criticism.” Washington Post, July 10, 2019.
Zurcher, Anthony. “Sir Kim Darroch: Five Things the UK Ambassador Reveals About Trump.” BBC, July 10, 2019.
BBC. “Sir Kim Darroch Resigns: Letter in Full.” July 10, 2019.
Gaouette, Nicole. “Diplomats Express Solidarity with Ambassador’s Verdict on Trump.” CNN, July 12, 2019.
Rachman, Gideon. “US-UK Relations: Strains in the ‘Greatest Alliance’.” Financial Times, July 12, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/887e27f2-a486-11e9-974c-ad1c6ab5efd1