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Kim Darroch and the art of the diplomat

Collateral Damage – Darroch’s warm and witty memoir of his time as the British ambassador in Donald Trump’s Washington – is a study in diplomatic tradecraft.

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It was Kim Darroch’s misfortune to live the nightmare that haunts all British ambassadors: finding their frank and unvarnished assessment of policies and personalities, intended for a few senior readers in London, splashed across the front page of the Mail on Sunday. Darroch was doubly unfortunate that this happened in July 2019, deep into the age of Trump. I can imagine Barack Obama brushing it off with a lofty “that’s what ambassadors are paid to do”. It would have meant a few awkward weeks for the embassy, but nothing worse.

No such luck with Donald Trump. Within hours, he tweeted: “the wacky ambassador that the UK foisted on the US is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy… we will no longer deal with him”. When Darroch’s position came up in the televised debate between the two remaining candidates to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party a couple of days later, Jeremy Hunt did what every previous foreign secretary would have done – he stood behind his man: “if I become prime minister, Darroch stays”. Boris Johnson didn’t; he was evasive, no doubt calculating the risk of annoying Trump. In effect, he hung Darroch out to dry. It was an early sign of his ruthlessness towards the public service. Darroch resigned the next day.

The leak and its consequences frame this fast-paced, vivid and insightful memoir, but (contrary to the impression given by some media coverage) they don’t define it. The book is notably free of the score-settling rancour of Christopher Meyer’s 2006 book DC Confidential. Above all, it is a journal of four extraordinary years which changed the US, starting in the foothills of the 2016 election campaign, and is full of revealing anecdotes reflecting the unique access that a British ambassador has to all the leading characters.

Before recounting his American adventure, Darroch sketches the path that led him to the most glamorous job in the diplomatic service. Raised by his father and grandmother after his parents separated, he went from a council flat in Abingdon via a scholarship to Abingdon School and a zoology degree at Durham to the Foreign Office. Failing to get into the fast stream, he joined at a lower grade and rose to the top on sheer merit, giving the lie to the lazy ­stereotype of the FCO as a bastion of privilege. He made his reputation as an EU specialist in two critical roles: EU adviser to the prime minister in the Tony Blair era, then permanent representative in Brussels. He weaves this first-hand knowledge of Britain’s ­European travails into his assessment of the ­uncanny parallels between Brexit Britain and Trump’s US.

What were the factors that brought Trump to power? Darroch notes that Trump’s role fronting the US version of The Apprentice made him instantly recognisable in a crowded field of Republican candidates. His outrageous and unpredictable comments meant that the media hung on his every word, even while he feuded constantly with most of them. Trump connected in a way no other candidate did to the mood of anger and resentment brewing across much of the country. As Darroch puts it, “No one I ever came across had quite the sense of burning injustice that seemed to live inside Donald Trump” and “Trump understood grievances, because he himself was a tightly wound ball of deeply held grievances”.

The 2016 election campaign highlighted Trump’s extraordinary resilience. He was impervious to setbacks which would have sunk other politicians. When a recording surfaced of appallingly sexist comments he had made, Trump half-apologised then came out fighting. The contrast with Hillary Clinton’s campaign was striking. Shortly before the election, James Comey, director of the FBI, reopened the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server; the Democrat campaign was rattled and defensive. Without a shred of political experience, Trump first blew away all his Republican rivals and then hustled past Clinton to victory.

The chaotic takeover of power, and the ensuing White House wars, have been exhaustively documented in books like Bob Woodward’s Fear and Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Darroch adds his own perspective on this frantic period as he haunted Trump Tower to get alongside the new power-brokers who would soon become household names, such as the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his adviser Steve Bannon. At one of the early sessions, Kushner commented: “We’re businessmen and we’re going to do things differently.” That was certainly true. Trump reportedly told his staffers that they should see every day as a battle with the forces of darkness in the media and Congress that were bent on bringing him down.

In the chaos, diplomatic entrepreneurship was necessary. Over an introductory coffee at Bannon’s house, Darroch fixed for Theresa May to be the first foreign leader to see the president. But that relationship was never going to prosper. May put up stoically with Trump’s unsolicited advice on handling Brexit (“he told me I should sue the EU, not go into negotiations”) but UK-US relations were mostly a matter of damage limitation as the two governments diverged on trade policy, climate change, the Iran ­nuclear deal, Nato and much else. With the arrival of Boris Johnson, the two countries at least have leaders on the same wavelength, for now, but most of the substantive differences remain.

There are many parallels between the forces that produced Brexit and Trump. Darroch identifies three: immigration, inequality and identity. The Vote Leave campaign in Britain successfully weaponised growing public concern about immigration. Trump also made the issue a central plank of his election bid, focusing on undocumented migrants and promising to build a wall along the Mexican border. But unlike Boris Johnson, who dropped the issue once in power, Trump has continued to pursue funding for his wall and to stoke public anxiety about migrants.

On inequality, both countries were hit hard by post-2008 austerity and the downsides of globalisation (the US has lost 20 per cent of its factory jobs since 2000). Both have rust belts with stagnant living standards and glitzy financial centres where bankers collect their bonuses. Both campaigns succeeded in tapping into the anger and resentment beyond the cities. Both used the politics of identity and the power of social media to sow division and fire up their base. Both harked back, as Darroch puts it, to a “sepia-tinged past… a return to a golden age that never was”.

Both Johnson and Trump are also now discovering that campaigning is not the same as governing, and that what matters during a pandemic is not a good slogan but successful implementation of a clear strategy. The one area where I would have liked to hear more of Darroch’s analysis is on the future implications of what he describes as the “great unravelling” Trump has unleashed with his attack on the international order. Understandably, he does not try to call the result of the US election, although he wonders whether the country has tired of the Great Disrupter and the daily strife he creates. But it would have been interesting to hear how much further Darroch thinks the unravelling would go if Trump were to squeak another victory. Would Nato, for example, survive another four years of Trump? The implications for post-Brexit Britain of a wholesale collapse of the rules-based international system would be serious, even if we did get a free-trade agreement with the US.

Darroch is confident that a Biden win would be better for the multilateral system, including Nato and the climate change process. He makes the salutary point that the Democrats are not Brexit enthusiasts and may not see a free-trade deal with the UK as a priority. But Darroch does not discuss Biden’s approach to the spiralling US-China confrontation, which threatens to put the triangular relationship between the UK, the US and Europe under acute strain, as the Huawei issue has shown.

This book is both a warm and witty evocation of Trump’s US, but also a study in diplomatic tradecraft. Darroch and his team had to win the confidence of the exotic cast of characters peopling Planet Trump, learn their very different ways of doing business, and then advise ministers on how to protect Britain’s vital security and economic links with the US amid all the sound and fury. They did a very professional job, to the benefit of both the UK and the US. Whoever leaked those cables (and by the way, whatever happened to the leak enquiry?) did collateral damage to the interests of both countries. 

Peter Ricketts was UK ambassador to France from 2012 to 2016

Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump 
Kim Darroch

William Collins, 400pp, £20

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid