The New Burden of Diplomacy: the Enemy Within | Sir Ronald Sanders

British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch resigned following the leak of diplomatic cables in which he had been critical of the Trump administration.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

WASHINGTON, United States, Friday July 12, 2019 – The mess resulting from reports that the British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, made about President Donald Trump and his administration, underscore the dangers of leaking confidential government documents.

If nothing else comes of this affair, the identification and prosecution of the person or persons responsible for leaking Sir Kim’s confidential and classified cables should be vigorously undertaken. The Ambassador’s reports to his government were an integral part of his job and were not meant for public disclosure.

If the perpetrators of this crime of violating the official secrets act are not brought to account, the effectiveness of diplomatic agents will be undermined and the nature of diplomacy itself will be severely compromised.

The persons who leaked Sir Kim’s confidential communications to his government did so for a narrow domestic political purpose. Their purpose appears to have been to serve those intent on Britain exiting the European Union in any circumstances, regardless of the consequences. 

In their recklessness, they sacrificed Sir Kim’s diplomatic career in service to his country and they ruptured the relationship between the governments of the UK and the US. They also succeeded in violating the sanctity of a centuries-old protocol of diplomatic communication. Few will trust the system in the future. They will write less and more cautiously, making it difficult for traditional diplomatic reporting to continue. What will replace it could be sinister.

In the event, there is now, at the very least, an urgent requirement for new ways to safeguard the secrecy of Ambassadors’ reports to their governments. But how possible that is, when reports are maliciously leaked for political purposes from within, is an open question.

All Ambassadors and other diplomats, who man their country’s diplomatic missions, are expected to send home candid reports, analyses and opinions about events and circumstances in the country or organisation to which they are assigned. This extremely sensitive task has now been made very perilous.

What Sir Kim did is no different from what US Ambassadors and diplomats of other countries do every day. Indeed, in some cases, US and UK Ambassadors have gone beyond confidential reporting; they have publicly lectured and criticised the governments of the countries to which they are accredited, including Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Evidence of this was revealed in November 2010 when more than 250,000 diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world were publicly released by the online whistle-blower website, WikiLeaks. Those cables and thousands of others that were subsequently published, showed that US Ambassadors and their staff criticised government policies and programmes, offered harsh personal assessments of leaders and influenced decisions about the countries in which they were posted. US officials also reported conversations with subsequently embarrassed locals who thought that their conversations were ‘private’.

At the time, the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs dammed the WikiLeaks disclosure, saying, “We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information”.  John Kerry, then chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later Secretary of State, rightly said, “These sensitive cables contain candid assessments and analysis of ongoing matters and they should remain confidential to protect the ability of the government to conduct lawful business with the private candour that’s vital to effective diplomacy”.

Those arguments work both ways. 

Nonetheless, it is clear that Sir Kim could no longer be an effective Ambassador in the US despite his relationship with top officials of the US government, his entertaining many of them at his official residence, and information exchange between the UK and US governments of which he had been an agent. He did the right thing in resigning, particularly after President Trump publicly stated: “We will not deal with him”.

The British Government, particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has been forthright in defending Sir Kim. Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, could not be more supportive when he wrote to Sir Kim, stating: “The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and whole of the public service have stood with you: you were the target of a malicious leak; you were simply doing your job”.

Observations about precisely what “doing your job” means for an Ambassador is worth recording here. In a nutshell, an Ambassador has two primary functions. The first has both a public and private face – it is to promote the most beneficial relationships between his or her government and the government to which he or she is accredited. That is not always an easy task because of many factors, including policy differences that might arise between the two governments. In both the private and public dimensions of this task, an Ambassador has to use all the tools available, including the media to project and promote his or her country’s interest. 

The second has no public side; it is quintessentially secret. And, that is to provide his or her government with sound information and candid analysis about situations that have relevance to the Ambassador’s government and its decision-making.

This second task is especially recognised by all countries in Article 3 (d) of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relations which states that the functions of a diplomatic missions consists, among other things, of “ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State”.

Some may argue that Sir Kim was injudicious in the candid remarks he made about President Trump in his confidential and classified cables to his government. But it should be recalled that he was expected – indeed, duty bound – to do no less than give his candid assessment. In doing so he was following normal diplomatic practice and expectation that his cables were – and would remain – secret between him and his government. This accounts for why the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and others stood up with him and have not criticised him even after he resigned.

Having said all that, Ambassadors and diplomatic agents now have a new concern in carrying out their jobs – who in their own governments could deliberately and maliciously leak diplomatic communications to serve the interests of one side or another in domestic political infighting.

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.