Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The leak of secret cables written by British Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch sheds new light on how diplomats representing America’s closest ally view President Donald Trump. The leak is likely to further complicate the increasingly strained relationship between Trump and the UK and could affect diplomatic engagement with America more broadly.
In the cables that were leaked to the Daily Mail, Darroch wrote what most of Trump’s peers are probably thinking: He’s insecure, incompetent and inept, and his career could end in disgrace.
You don’t need a security clearance to make these assessments. Trump’s insecurities and ineptitude are in full display on his Twitter feed. But Darroch made those assessments about Trump in a safe space, via confidential cables.
Trump makes a lot of his profiling public. He publicly provides his assessments of how all kinds of people are doing, and he doesn’t hold much back, including pejorative nicknames for public officials. It’s hard to tell what purpose the President’s public personality assessments serve other than ginning up his base or soothing his ego, because otherwise he’d keep them private.
Other leaders rely on confidential, internal assessments of their peers, developed by professionals, to guide their policy approaches. That’s anathema to Trump, based on how he relies on his feelings about foreign leaders (normally despots) rather than the assessments of his home team.
The confidentiality of this means of internal communication is supposed to guard against moments like we’re experiencing now. Diplomats need the privacy to communicate so foreign counterparts, including their hosts abroad (in this case Trump), don’t get embarrassed by them, or get tipped off to confidential analysis in a way that would unnecessarily harm diplomatic relationships.
Even before we had a President who was so uniquely thin skinned, foreign diplomats kept their personality assessments about US leaders primarily private so that they could have the time and space to operate without insulting anyone. US diplomats rely on the same operating principles when they make their own private analyses of foreign leaders. Chelsea Manning showed how detrimental leaking classified cables could be when she released more than 700,000 diplomatic cables. Those leaks caused significant damage to key relationships overseas, and included cables in which a US ambassador shared his criticism of the Mexico security forces. The ambassador resigned after the disclosure.
Cables are supposed to be a safe, classified space to share analysis. Leaking them, no matter how predictable the content, at a minimum puts unnecessary pressure on diplomats who write them and on bilateral relationships more broadly.
The US-UK “special relationship” has been under pressure under Trump, especially when he’s interfered in British politics and criticized the UK. Now, we have the added knowledge that the ambassador said he believes Trump might be indebted to “dodgy Russians.” There is even more reason to think that the British are handling Trump with kid gloves and keeping a safe distance from a leader who could, according to Darroch, “crash and burn.”
Logically, if Darroch’s superiors and the Prime Minister put credence in his analysis, there is little chance that they have engaged as broadly and deeply with Trump as they did with his predecessors, fearing that he may be influenced by Russia on one hand or marked by disgrace and downfall on another. While Queen Elizabeth rolled out the red carpet for Trump during his recent UK visit, Darroch’s assessments, if shared more widely within the UK government, likely show a retrenchment from working as closely with the Administration because British officials think so poorly of the American leadership.
This will have serious impacts on key policy issues, like Iran. Darroch reportedly questioned Trump’s reasoning for calling off a strike on Iran, which likely indicates a broader mistrust of what Trump says on strategic security issues. At a time when tensions with Iran are escalating and we need to be in sync with our allies, the British Ambassador doesn’t trust what Trump is saying.
Don’t kill the messenger
Trump can dish out a lot of public diatribes, but he can’t take criticism. Trump has complained about leaks within our own government, so he should get how difficult they must be for his UK counterparts. But it’s likely he’ll react to these leaks not by bemoaning the security breaches but by criticizing Darroch.
But he shouldn’t kill the messenger. Darroch was just doing his job and sharing analysis with his government to help craft approaches to Trump. While Trump probably won’t be able to let this one go and will denigrate Darroch, he’s the one who has done damage to our special relationship, not these cables.