Dysfunctional, clumsy, inept, insecure: it’s easy to apply all of these words to the Trump administration. Newspapers do so on a regular basis. Social media is full of it. But the diplomat’s job is different: to take a step back and try to solve the puzzles, or find method in the madness. For example: why, if Donald Trump is so awful, did he ever make it to the White House? If his presidency is an abomination, why does he stand such a good chance of re-election? How should British diplomats respond to the trends that Trump embodies which are changing politics (and diplomacy) around the world?
Donald Trump’s treatment of Sir Kim Darroch has been abominable. For an American president to attack a British ambassador in such vituperative terms raises serious questions about how strong an ally we can ever expect Trump to be. But there are questions, too, about the quality of advice Sir Kim was giving in his memos back to London. To say that Trump “radiates insecurity” and is “mired in scandal” is neither new nor controversial. Nor is it useful or insightful. It suggests that, for some time, our officials may have been looking at Trump in the wrong way.
The British embassy in Washington has long been famous for Gatsby-style diplomacy, holding lavish parties and drawing various people into its circle. Until Trump came along, this was all quite effective. British diplomats predicted the elections of Bill Clinton and George W Bush and were well connected with both campaigns. But they were blindsided by Trump. They kept throwing parties: Sir Kim’s anonymous "friends" say he attended an astonishing 700 various events last year. But these methods just don’t work as well with a Trump White House operating by very different rules.
As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson instinctively understood this. He quickly worked out that there were only a few routes to President Trump, and he found them pretty quickly. Take, for example, one of Trump’s earliest decisions: to ban visitors from what he regarded as the failed states of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Syria. British nationals travelling from those countries were also going to be affected, until Boris stepped in to negotiate an exemption. He arranged this via text message to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law: it was agreed in no time at all.
You can see how diplomats would despair about all this. They’re used to a world where they talk to their counterparts, discuss policy then agree a form of words to be placed into the mouths of presidents or prime ministers. Trump ended all that. He says (or tweets) the first thing that comes into his head, and waits for the reaction. What’s more, British diplomats struggle to find counterparts because Trump has refused to fill so many vacancies. The British diplomats who mastered Washington found, in Trump, someone who hates Washington and does his best to ignore or bypass its systems.
To dismiss this as “dysfunctional” misses the point: Trump doesn’t want the apparatus to function in the first place. He campaigned as an insurgent, pledging to do things his way. And the results? His tax cuts were forced through in the face of huge opposition, but the American economy is now growing faster than any other major country. The US is on the verge of becoming a net exporter of crude oil, a postwar first. His once-mocked hawkishness on China is now imitated by his opponents. This is why he could well be in the White House, causing havoc, for another five years.
The best diplomats have long recognised this as an opportunity, and an instruction to change their game too. One who particularly impressed Boris was Sir Tim Barrow, now the UK’s ambassador to the EU. When Trump was elected, most of the Foreign Office was in dismay – but Sir Tim presented Boris with a list of five policy advantages. This ought to be the name of the game: setting aside any personal animosity and looking to find national interest. Of which there is plenty.
Trump is a thin-skinned manchild, who responds with deranged fury to personal slights. But he is also unusually well-disposed towards Britain and has offered to put the UK at the front of the queue on trade – an upgrade from Barack Obama’s notorious “back of the queue”. He spends generously on defence, which is emphatically in Britain’s national interest. One of Jeremy Hunt’s leadership pledges is to emulate Trump’s prioritisation of defence. (He also told me that he admired Trump’s social media strategy, but this was before the latest drama.)
Time and time again, American friendship emerges as one of Britain’s greatest assets. We could need help in the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran seems to be making good on its threat to menace British tankers in retaliation for the Iranian ship intercepted by the Royal Navy off the coast of Gibraltar (on route to Syria). If things heat up on the high seas, who will best come to Britain’s aid? The Europeans are in no rush, but the Americans are already keen to put together a coalition to make sure the waters are properly policed. This kind of strategic alliance matters more than a few boisterous tweets.
Voters are tiring of what they regard as failed political establishments and are electing leaders who promise to shake things up. From Modi in India to Salvini in Italy, there’s plenty for diplomats to write home in horror about. But, also, plenty of new rules to master. Britain’s diplomats can do this: they tend to be the best in the world. But they need clear instructions, and firm answers to basic questions.
For example: how should we see Trump’s America? A country to be kept at a safe distance while it recovers from its Trumpian madness, or a friend whose kind offer of trade deals should be seized? As Prime Minister, Theresa May never quite decided. But as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson wasn’t much better. Ambassadors frequently complained that they’d be happy to sell Brexit to the world, but they needed a strategy – and even under Boris, it never quite arrived.
It was said, then, that he tried but had his hands tied by No10. As Prime Minister, he’ll have no such excuses.