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Lessons from US-UK diplomatic row

20 July 2019 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



The United States and the UK have been traditional friends for decades. Britain regularly boasts of a ‘special relationship.’ Relations took a severe beating during the past couple of days.   
The row blew up when secret diplomatic cables from Sir Nigel Kim Darroch KCMG, British Ambassador, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the US since January 2016, were leaked.

Extracts of confidential cables to his superiors in London over a period of two years were published in The Mail on July 7, 2019. The cables reportedly carried his independent assessment of US President Donald Trump and the Trump White House. The Ambassador had referred to the Trump Administration as “incompetent.” According to the leaked cables, the US President supposedly “radiated insecurity” and opined, “We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.” The emails, dating from 2017, said rumours of “infighting and chaos” in the White House were mostly correct.  

It has led to the resignation of Sir Kim, a senior British Foreign Office staffer. Having entered the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1976, he joined the diplomatic service in 1980 and has held an array of positions both at home and overseas. He was Britain’s Permanent Representative to the European Union for four years from 2007 and National Security Adviser thereafter, before moving to Washington.  


Diplomats will no longer feel comfortable to provide frank assessments and situation analysis of political and other developments in their countries of posting and its impact on Britain


A furious President Trump hit back through Tweets, his favorite medium of communication. He called Sir Kim “whacky” and “a very stupid guy.” He stated the US would no longer work with the British Ambassador. Repercussions were almost immediate. An invitation to a banquet was withdrawn. He was also debarred from attending a function with Minister Liam Fox.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, it was apparent, the British Ambassador, boycotted by the Trump administration could no longer carry out his ambassadorial duties effectively.  
The tweets and the ensuing reactions in London quickly ended any possibility of settling the dispute amicably and quietly. President Trump also criticized outgoing British Prime Minister, Theresa May, for standing by her Ambassador.   

There is unstinted support for Sir Kim from No:10 Downing Street, Whitehall, and Westminster. However, Boris Johnson, the front runner to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, while praising Sir Kim for his dedication and hard work during a telephone call, stopped short of any outright criticism of President Trump. It is believed, Johnson’s less than convincing support prompted the Ambassador’s resignation on July 10. Sir Kim justified his decision to resign stating, “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”  

Ambassador Durroch had been a very popular diplomat in Washington, who regularly entertained the Washington elite. President’s daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders among others are known to be regular attendees. Many believe, much of the inside information may have come from inside the White House, a fact President Trump is not totally unaware of.   


Little Sri Lanka cannot emulate Donald Trump and the US. It cannot punch above its weight. That said, it can opt to act with dignity and to show its displeasure on occasion using more subtle methods


The US State Department tried to minimize the fallout stating, “The United States and the United Kingdom share a bond that is bigger than any individual. We look forward to continuing that partnership.”  

These developments give rise to several pertinent questions for which answers need be found. Top in the list is whether it was a leak or a hack.   

A leak could have originated from a list of around 100 persons reportedly having access to the confidential reports. Motives could vary from politics to Brexit.   

On the other hand, a hack could mean a foreign government interested in causing a rift in US-UK relations for geopolitical reasons.   

Another disturbing fall out from this episode is the impact on British diplomats, especially those serving in sensitive posts. Diplomats will no longer feel comfortable to provide frank assessments and situation analysis of political and other developments in their countries of posting and its impact on Britain. Diplomats will be fearful of leaks and their effect on respective careers, especially if they feel they will not be protected by their own government.   

On the other hand, governments will be hard pressed to decide between defending their diplomats and national interests. In the context of the current row, the next British Prime Minister will face the Brexit deadline on October 31. He will have to conclude a favourable trade deal with the US quickly. Having to defend an Ambassador who performed his duty admirably but is boycotted by the US would be an unnecessary disadvantage. The final decision maker of a good or bad trade deal for Britain would be President Trump.   

Despite the fact, Britain would like to believe it enjoys a special relationship with the US, that has not been the case since the Regan and Thatcher days. Relations during the Bush and Blair days is best explained by the reference to Tony Blair as ‘America’s Poodle.’ The current US-UK relations, rather than being special, is better described as one-sided.  

Britain stands quite isolated in the world arena. Brexit has put paid to relations with France, Germany, and several other EU member states. Britain was resoundingly defeated in the non-binding UN resolution demanding the return of Chagos Island to Mauritius by 116 votes in favour and six against. (Sri Lanka, instead of voting in favour, ‘dutifully’ abstained). Relations with Russia and China are nothing much to talk of.   

It is by no means the time for Britain’s ambassadors to be less than candid and truthful in their analysis and reporting, so essential for policymakers back at home.   

From a different perspective, Sri Lanka, especially since January 2015 has been at the receiving end of overbearing Ambassadors. They have been liberally dispensing opinions, advise and at time outright threats on a range of subjects such as human rights, transitional justice, minority issues, constitution-making, and capital punishment.  
The British High Commissioner and EU Ambassadors have been the most vociferous.


 The latest to join the chorus in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings and subsequent developments are the Ambassadors of countries belonging to the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Some of the refugees currently hosted by Sri Lanka come from states represented by several OIC Ambassadors who met President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. They are fleeing from political and religious persecutions in their own countries. Suffice to state, there are no Sri Lankan refugees in any of the OIC countries other than in Malaysia.  

Two of the heads of one mission known for their arrogance and conduct exceeding the boundaries of diplomatic protocol are one-time Indian High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha (2013/16) and former US Ambassador Atul Keshap (2015/18). Sinha once had the audacity to state that Prof. GL Peiris, a former foreign minister, should have remained in his law profession, without entering politics. Sinha took exception to Peiris’ opposition to the Indian-sponsored Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA). 

It was a gross violation of diplomatic protocol. The Foreign Ministry failed to summon Sinha and demand an explanation. Neither was a protest lodged with the Indian government.  
The incumbent British, French, German, Canadian, Norwegian and several other heads of mission in Colombo recently voiced objections and veiled threats on the issue of capital punishment.

  Their counterparts in India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, the US, and many other countries have not followed suit when convicts have been executed in the said countries.   

Little Sri Lanka cannot emulate Donald Trump and the US. It cannot punch above its weight. That said, it can opt to act with dignity and to show its displeasure on occasion using more subtle methods. Some of the standard techniques used are; low-level government representation by junior officials at National Day functions. Extended lead time for granting appointments with local VIPs for visiting foreign delegations. Local VIPs developing ‘Diplomatic flu’ immediately before crucial meetings etc. 

Any head of mission faced with such challenges cannot function effectively. They would, after some time, tone down their rhetoric.  

Some would argue, our own Ambassadors would face similar difficulties. That is not the case. Sri Lanka has for decades, dealt mostly with foreign missions in Colombo rather than use their Ambassadors abroad on crucial matters.   

Few of our ambassadors cultivate and develop contacts with ministers, deputies and senior bureaucrats in their countries of accreditation. One seldom if ever observes material in the media of top-level politicians attending Independence Day functions of our Ambassadors. What we see are those of religious ceremonies packed with the diaspora.   

It is unfortunate, our ministers and politicians are observed in droves at foreign National Day functions falling over one another for photo ops. It must be stated that such a move would require national minded leaders with a backbone able to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum.  

Foreign Ministers who rush to the airport to meet and greet mid-level American Assistant Secretaries of State will not do. Leaders clueless in foreign relations, and easily impressed by a glove-less Royal handshake are a national liability as are leaders, who deceitfully agree to facilitate foreign forces in the island. We also do not need ambassadors who promote and hastily expedite defence agreements favouring his country of assignment ignoring scrutiny by relevant local officials. 

To say the least, it is treasonous, especially when families of such heads of mission are citizens of the host country.  


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