Thanks to an irresponsible leak and a thin-skinned president, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, resigned on Wednesday.
Darroch, for whom I worked, was a true diplomatic talent, and the new rules of President Donald Trump’s Washington that he quickly identified and deftly navigated offer valuable lessons for others.
In January 2017, just days after Trump’s “America First” inauguration speech, the world watched with intense interest as British Prime Minister Theresa May met the bombastic new president for the first time.
Darroch knew the dangers for the British-US relationship if this visit didn’t go well. As always, he had done his homework and recognised that Trump would need flattery and made-for-TV pomp.
The president loves Winston Churchill, so the prime minister — on Darroch’s suggestion — offered to loan the president the now-famous Churchill bust. Darroch was well aware of the president’s voracious appetite for Fox News, so he made sure to appear multiple times on the channel leading up to and following the prime minister’s visit.
Stunning election victory
His appearances delighted the president so much that he called him a budding “TV star.” And, most important, the president loves flattery, so the prime minister was advised to congratulate Trump on his “stunning election victory.”
Darroch’s gambits worked. The visit went off without a hitch, and the prime minister even secured a massive win when the president said he was “100 per cent behind Nato.”
Immediately, capitals around the world sent instructions to their embassies in Washington to learn our secret. My colleagues and I received dozens of calls from our diplomatic counterparts.
Recognising the importance of business and trade, Britain expanded its diplomatic network by adding offices in key swing states such as North Carolina and Minnesota.
They were eager to meet with us to understand how we had pulled it off. Not surprisingly, Trump’s subsequent visits to Saudi Arabia, Poland, France and Japan had each host outdoing the previous on ceremony and spectacle.
But goodwill can disappear overnight in Trump’s Washington, where the guiding principle is not actually “America First” but rather “Trump First.”
Darroch was spot on in his leaked memo that described the administration as one of “no special favours.”
Nonetheless, Darroch proved deft and strategic, and he successfully advanced British interests as much as anyone could in the current environment. So here’s some additional wisdom for Britain’s next ambassador and any other diplomat eager to be as successful.
First, do your homework on the president. What does he love?
Pomp. Churchill. Being first. Golf. TV. On Darroch’s advice, the state visit with the queen last month was full of elaborate ceremony. Trump was feted at the majestic Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace during a trip to Britain last year. And each visit to Britain included plenty of downtime for Fox News and the links.
Second, go beyond the White House and the Cabinet. Form bonds with Trump’s business pals and favourite conservative commentators. Darroch knew that these were the individuals that Trump spoke to each night while weighing important policy decisions.
Also spend at least 25 per cent of your time outside the Beltway. Build strong links with governors and chief executives. Recognising the importance of business and trade, Britain expanded its diplomatic network by adding offices in key swing states such as North Carolina and Minnesota.
Third, diversify your news sources. I briefed the ambassador every morning on “Fox & Friends” chatter and the stories driving the day on Breitbart and Drudge Report.
This is where you’ll spot trouble before it hits Trump’s Twitter feed. Darroch met with Lou Dobbs, Brian Kilmeade and other Trump whisperers. And the embassy media team monitored right-wing commentators and conspiracy theorists on Twitter and Reddit. Ahead of a bilateral meeting with the president, we would make sure the prime minister knew what Sean Hannity had said on his programme the night before because it could have a huge impact on Trump’s mood.
But the most important lesson that Darroch demonstrated was that you can operate with honesty and integrity — even when those values are under constant assault in Trump’s Washington.
Recognising that there’s more to the Britain-US partnership than vitriolic tweets, Darroch was singularly focused on broadening and strengthening the transatlantic alliance.
Caution: Diplomacy in “Trump First” Washington can cause frustration, whiplash and exhaustion.
The president shatters norms and erodes our alliances with every vitriolic tweet. But there is a way to navigate Trump’s swamp. Darroch provided US allies the blueprint.
I hope our partners will follow it.
— Washington Post
Andrew Overton served as spokesperson and deputy head of communications at the British Embassy from 2016 to 2018.