The U.S.-British Special Relationship Is Wounded, But Not Dead

Kim Darroch’s resignation marks a low-point in the alliance. Only a future administration can fix it.

British ambassador Kim Darroch’s abrupt resignation last week constitutes a blow to America’s “special relationship” with the United Kingdom. But it is not a fatal one. The premeditated leak of the envoy’s classified messages decrying Donald Trump’s chaotic leadership is a symptom of political dysfunction in both countries, and a byproduct of an erratic and reckless president. Darroch, after all, was simply saying what we already know.

This dysfunction, however, will only deepen under the leadership of Trump and his British doppelganger, Boris Johnson, who is likely to become the country’s next prime minister. But all is not lost. Not yet anyway. The U.S.-U.K. alliance has stood the test of time. The odds are it will survive Trump’s iconoclastic MAGA-era statecraft.

The diplomatic messages leaked to the Daily Mail on July 6 span a period of two years. Darroch is quoted as saying: “For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity.” He went on, “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.” Trump predictably tweet-trashed Darroch as “a very stupid guy” and “a pompous fool.” He declared that Washington “will no longer deal with him.”

Despite firm declarations of support from British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Darroch submitted his resignation letter after Johnson waffled on whether he would keep him in his job. That ended the four-decade diplomatic career of one of Britain’s sterling civil servants, who has always been a close friend of the United States.

Though rare, leaks of diplomatic dispatches can rock relations between countries. Wikileaks’ mega-dump of a quarter million documents purported to be State Department cables in 2010 resulted in the resignation of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual after the Mexican president took umbrage over descriptions of incompetence and infighting among Mexican security forces in the campaign against drug cartels. Throughout my career as a diplomat, my frank dispatches from other posts on various countries’ leaders often contained unvarnished and colorful language.  In one cable to Washington, I described a head of state with whom I interacted regularly as “the wrong man at the wrong time for his people.”

Diplomats are expected to call the shots honestly on the issues and officials they cover. The key is to adhere to constructive criticism. Busy policymakers and analysts back home don’t want exclusively happy news from their diplomats. I have known and worked with plenty whose reporting from abroad lost credibility in the Washington national security community due to “clientitis” on the part of the authors—i.e., their taking on the biases and positions of their host countries. These diplomats lost sight of whom they served—their own government and the American people.

Kim Darroch did not succumb to this pitfall. His call-it-as-he-saw-it reporting surely helped him land one of the most prestigious jobs in the U.K.’s foreign policy structure. And his descriptions of the Trump administration not only jibe with much journalistic reporting, they unquestionably align with many, if not most, Washington-based foreign ambassadors.

His loss fits a dangerous pattern in our two countries of public officials attacking the fantastical “deep state.” In Britain, there is intense speculation over who betrayed Darroch, ranging from theories that it was either Russia or Brexiteers. The smart money is on the latter. The internecine debate roiling the nation—whether to leave the European Union—has degenerated into vicious infighting, even among its civil servants. (Darroch had previously been the U.K’s representative to the E.U., and was seen as anti-Brexit.)

Don’t expect things to get better under Boris Johnson. His two years as Theresa May’s foreign secretary was marked by Trumpian-style tumult. A senior official once described him as “entirely focused on his own advancement and promotion,” and that “no one has created more havoc to less effect in terms of British interests.”

Trump has said that he would like London to appoint his close pal and far-right politician Nigel Farange to be Darroch’s replacement. That makes sense. Hacks rarely report the truth. They just suck up to their masters.

The U.S.-British special relationship is in the middle of a turbulent period, no doubt. But it is self-inflicted by each party. Since Trump and Johnson are something of kindred spirits, they may get along just fine and smooth things over for awhile. But men like them ultimately prove to be self-destructive.

The hope, then, is that sanity will return and the traditional friendship between the two countries will be restored under stable leadership in the future. But this hinges on Trump’s and Johnson’s perverse brands of populism eventually burning out. In the meantime, expect a rough ride.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.