by Robert Hunter
Sir Kim Darroch, until recently British ambassador to the United States, is collateral damage in two battles that are part of the same war. It’s called Brexit.
The ambassador’s comments in classified cables to London were scathing about President Donald Trump and his administration. When they were leaked, the U.S. president reacted as many of his predecessors would have done, but in more pungent language. Sir Kim had to go. That some U.S. ambassadors abroad behave even more egregiously, and in public, provides no exculpation: any of those governments could ask the U.S. ambassador to go home.
One peculiarity is that Sir Kim bothered to write what he did. It’s not as though anything in his leaked cables was new. Indeed, his observations were tame compared to everyday media reporting. Further, as put by Ambassador Géraud Araud, until recently France’s ambassador in Washington: “I knew that nothing [I wrote in cables] would remain secret, so I sent them in a most confidential manner.” Of course, Araud couldn’t resist putting the boot in to the Brits.
Both ambassadors shared one feature: neither paid much attention to people “not currently important” in Washington. This was a mistake (Araud apparently didn’t care) in a town where political fortunes can change suddenly but memories are long. Notably, almost no one in the Washington political class has shed tears for Sir Kim, despite his clearly being excessively pilloried by Trump.
Timing is much of politics. Sir Kim’s was unfortunate. The sin lay less in his comments than in the motives behind the leaking. Even if done by some 16-year-old hacker, they could not have happened at a time more likely to become more than a one-day wonder. Was it a bid by some competitor to become Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the Court of St. Trump? Was it designed to put prime minister candidate Boris Johnson in a quandary—whether to stand by Britain’s Man in Washington or to cozy up to Trump? Either way, anything Johnson said about cable-gate would put him in Dutch with someone.
Brexit Damage to Britain in Europe
None of this would have mattered much were it not for the magnitude of the damage that Brexit will do to Britain, both internally (though this is debatable) or to its position in the world, beginning with Europe (virtually beyond doubt). It is not just the Trump administration’s “ineptness”—Sir Kim’s word—that is involved, but that of the governments of David Cameron and Theresa May. The British establishment pretends that the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will not pull it decisively out of Europe both politically and, increasingly, strategically. But that is magical thinking. London will no longer be available to help smooth out ripples in relations between Paris and Berlin. It will not play much of a useful role, if any, in the emerging European Defense Union. And it will not be viewed as a reliable part of the political/strategic balance against Russia, no matter how much it continues to be seen as a strong partner in NATO (managed in part by fiddling the figures to get UK defense spending over NATO’s arbitrary level of 2% of Gross Domestic Product.) On the Continent, only Vladimir Putin will be pleased by Brexit.
In the almost-comically mismanaged run-up to Brexit, Britain has taken some steps to show it will still be relevant to Europe. Notable was the recent seizure of an Iranian ship passing through the Straits of Gibraltar that was carrying oil to Syria—in contravention, London trumpeted, of EU sanctions. And when Iran retaliated with a Punch-and-Judy riposte by some small naval craft against a British oil tanker, the UK deployed not one but two warships to counter a putative (but unrealistic) Iranian threat to shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, on which Iran depends more than any other Persian Gulf state.
Brexit Damage to Britain in the United States
The storm over Sir Kim’s leaked cables relates not just to the first Battle of Brexit, Britain’s future engagement in Europe, but also to the second: the future of Britain’s relations with the United States. The current London government is ambivalent about Iran and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which effectively trammeled any Iranian ambitions to get nuclear weapons, but from which President Trump withdrew. (In Sir Kim’s judgment, according to one leaked cable, this was to “spite Barack Obama.”) Britain clearly doesn’t want to see the JCPOA collapse, with the risks and uncertainties that would surely ensue. But those in Britain who are looking to the future of the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the Trump administration don’t want to get totally crosswise with Trump and his obsession with Iran. Deploying British naval vessels in and about the Persian Gulf neatly threads this needle.
This is minor stuff for Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the United States. There will still be talk of the much-vaunted special relationship between the two countries. But except for close cooperation on intelligence matters (along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in the so-called “five eyes” alliance), this has long been more sentiment than reality, and Britain’s standing apart from the EU will not change that fact. The balance is heavily tilted toward the United States. Indeed, ever since Britain joined the European Economic Community, Washington has frequently looked to it to serve as a US Trojan horse in Brussels. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to sign on to George W. Bush’s ultimately disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq was the nadir in terms of Britain sacrificing its national interests to curry favor with a U.S. administration. Blair’s reputation at home suffered irreparable damage.
Many Brexiteers harbor another illusion: that after the UK leaves the European Union, the United States will come to the rescue with economic and trade offers that will help to validate the slogan of “Global Britain.” This misreads Mr. Trump, who dangles the prospect but, judging from everything else he has done, sees Britain as just a tool in a strategy of divide and rule with Europe. Further, if his successors (and maybe Trump himself) ever have to choose economically between diminished post-Brexit Britain and the much larger and wealthier EU bloc, the outcome is foreordained. But this Brexiteer illusion will die hard.
U.S. champions of Britain’s military and strategic role, with the most capable military forces in NATO-Europe, worry that Brexit will diminish London’s willingness to look beyond its own small part of the world. This questioning of America’s ability to rely on Britain is intensified by the impending reduction of its contribution to non-NATO political and security involvement on the Continent, a necessary compliment to NATO’s role.
With his distinguished career, Sir Kim didn’t deserve this ending. But he is not the only person in history who has been unlucky in having one action produce such significant consequences—especially, in this case, casting a harsh light on Britain’s inevitable post-Brexit difficulties across the Atlantic.
The only benefit that can come from cable-gate, though of little consolation to Sir Kim, is that the British political class might now finally consider the folly of Brexit and act accordingly. But with Britain’s political dysfunction—the same word Sir Kim used to describe the Trump administration—that possibility is fading.