A scandal erupts in transatlantic relations after comments by Britain’s top diplomat in Washington are leaked to the news media. The president lets London know in no uncertain terms that their representative’s “usefulness in this country is at an end.” The New York Times reports that the president has told the “indiscreet envoy” to “go home.”
This is not an account of President Trump’s response to British Ambassador Kim Darroch after Darroch’s comments about disarray in the U.S. administration were leaked. This is the story of an 1888 clash between President Grover Cleveland and Britain’s envoy, Sir Lionel Sackville-West.
As those parallels suggest, Trump is not the first U.S. president to respond furiously to comments by a British diplomat. But when Cleveland ejected the British envoy from Washington, Britain was the most powerful nation on Earth, with the world’s preeminent navy, while the United States was a far less influential actor in international politics. At the time, the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, refused to appoint a new emissary until Cleveland, who went on to lose the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison, formally left office in March 1889.
Today, with the power roles reversed, the British government lacked the ability to adopt a similarly tough line. Desperate for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, its diplomacy is far more susceptible to the whims of the White House — which is why Darroch is now out, and why Britain will continue to be the junior partner in the “special relationship” for the foreseeable future.
The 1888 diplomatic kerfuffle arose after Sackville-West received a letter from a “Charles Murchison,” who claimed to be a British-born U.S. citizen. With a closely fought presidential election looming between Cleveland and the Republican Harrison, Murchison wanted to know which candidate he should back, as a voter who “still considers England the motherland.” In a rash move, Sackville-West dashed off a letter advising that any hostile stances that Cleveland had taken against Britain were simply playing politics and he was still the more pro-British candidate.
Although his comments were pro-Cleveland, the letter caused controversy. “Murchison” was actually a Californian Republican named George Osgoodby, who leaked the candid letter to the national press, sparking outrage across the country. At the time, Anglophobia was a potent factor in American politics. Irish-Americans were particularly allergic to any candidate who appeared too close to Britain. Republicans used the incident to assail Cleveland.
Worried, Cleveland worked to make sure this “stupid thing” did not undermine his reelection. He sought to ensure that this “wretched marplot is recalled” and tried to have the envoy replaced. Salisbury refused to act until he had studied the matter himself. Unwilling to wait, just nine days after the scandal broke, the Cleveland administration sent Sackville-West his passport and demanded that he return to Britain.
Sackville-West had been careless in his candid comments. But knowing that his country enjoyed the upper hand, Salisbury adopted a stance that reflected his disgust with American conduct. The Murchison “incident” was confirmation to him that “we have become so accustomed to American breaches of decorum that they no longer affect us” and “they have become so completely part of the national character that they have ceased to be offensive.” While he acknowledged that Cleveland was free to end diplomatic relations with a particular envoy, the United States had no power to insist that Britain replace him.
In 1888, Cleveland was responding to a diplomat from the country that was America’s principal antagonist throughout the 19th century. Today, Britain is one of the United States’ closest allies, making Trump’s reaction to the leaked comments by Darroch potentially more destabilizing. What Darroch did was less objectionable than Sackville-West naively making remarks to a random stranger. His comments, however critical of the Trump administration, were directed through formal, private channels to the British government. This is precisely what diplomats are tasked with doing. Yet their publication — and Trump’s outsized response — made it impossible for him to continue as ambassador.
Like Cleveland’s before him, Trump’s threat that his administration would no longer deal with Britain’s representative has now led to Darroch’s departure from Washington. As Britain looks for allies in the post-Brexit landscape, however, the current British government cannot afford to go months without an ambassador in Washington. If the United States loomed large over Britain before Brexit, it will loom even larger for now.
In Salisbury’s day, his diplomacy reflected a conviction that “Britain does not solicit alliances: she grants them.” Now Britain is urgently soliciting alliances. Its officials will need to ask themselves how willing they are to sacrifice their diplomatic principles when confronted with an American president who has taken “breaches of decorum” to a whole new level. Whatever they think of Trump privately, it is clear that no British government minister has the luxury to be as uncompromising as Salisbury.