Darroch affair a reminder that Trump’s genius is not always stable
America Letter: He scored a victory with Darroch but on other matters this lack of strategic thinking can be damaging
US president Donald Trump at a White House event this week. His scattergun approach to virtually all policies has left the US’s traditional allies and his own staff reeling. Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg
This week there was only one real story in Washington. At a reception at the Irish Embassy for departing diplomats on Wednesday all talk was of Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to the US who had resigned earlier that day. Similarly, the Bastille Day celebration at the residence of the newly arrived French ambassador this week was overshadowed by the Darroch affair.
Embassies across the city are nervous – both about the security of their own diplomatic correspondence and the extraordinary events of the past week, which saw Donald Trump throw down the gauntlet to a long-term ally, and win.
The announcement by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro that he is offering the job of ambassador to the US to his youngest son was an extraordinary denouement to the week, and a testimony to the new currency of nepotism, obsequiousness and transactional politics that is valued in Trump’s America.
This is not the first time the Trump administration has chosen to exert pressure on the diplomatic corps.
Last year, the then EU ambassador to the United States, David O’Sullivan, felt the wrath of the state department when the ambassador’s name was not called in the usual order at the funeral of George HW Bush. It turned out that the US had downgraded the status of the European Union, without informing the delegation.
The message to the EU about the new administration’s foreign policy priorities was clear, as Brussels found itself reclassified in the same category as the African Union. Following negotiations at state department level, the EU’s status was restored.
There were of course differences in the Darroch and EU cases – in the European Union instance it was the embassy and not the ambassador that was reclassified. The fact that the European Union is not a sovereign nation, but a multilateral organisation, albeit an important one, also changes the dynamic. But perhaps the main difference was that the EU issue was dealt with at state department level.
The defining feature of the Darroch controversy this week was that Trump chose to get involved a day after the leaked cables appeared. Once the president had spoken, the stakes were raised. When he said he would “no longer deal” with Darroch, the ball was placed in the British government’s court.
Boris Johnson blinked and declined to back him, giving Darroch no choice but to resign. Donald Trump had won.
As Trump blithely wished Darroch well in his first public comments on the issue as he left the White House on Friday, it was clear that the president had already moved on.
For Britain the stakes are much higher. Johnson’s capitulation to Washington is a worrying sign for the future of the “special relationship”, as Britain faces the realities of Brexit. Desperate for new geopolitical allies once its leaves the huge trading block next door, Brexiteers have hung their hat on the promise of lucrative trade deals with countries such as the United States.
Trump’s behaviour over the Darroch affair makes one wonder about his negotiating approach when it comes to a US-UK trade deal. How far a Johnson government will go when America inevitably demands access to the National Health Service or the export of chlorinated chicken will be intriguing to watch.
But Trump’s impulsive tendency to make pronouncements on any matter that takes his fancy can be problematic. While he scored a victory with Darroch, on other matters this lack of strategic thinking can be damaging.
In the last few weeks we have witnessed Trump flip-flop on several issues.
Having threatened to essentially boycott companies dealing with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, he promised to reverse course during his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G20, sending countries, including Ireland, scurrying to make sense of US policy after Washington had warned its allies to examine its dealings with the company.
On Thursday he backed down from a pledge to put a question about citizenship on the 2020 census following a supreme court ruling last month. The climbdown followed weeks of mixed messages from Trump on the issue.
On Iran, Trump has continued to equivocate, most dramatically deciding at the last moment to abort a military strike last month.
Throughout the past 2½ years Trump’s scattergun approach to virtually all policies has left the US’s traditional allies and his own staff reeling.
Once again on Thursday, the president returned to a favourite quip as he described himself as a “stable genius” on Twitter. As the supposed leader of the free world the joke is beginning to wear thin.