Diplomats often trash their hosts, and it’s often well deserved. André François-Poncet, the French ambassador to Germany in 1935, wrote that Adolf Hitler was “obstinate, stubborn and mean to the point of madness.” A massive leak of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2011 featured one description of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi as “feckless, vain and ineffective.”
Darroch’s decision to resign, which he announced Wednesday, was not a reflection of the severity of his comments. He might have used more measured language, aware that Trump was uniquely sensitive to criticism and that his messages were at risk of being leaked, especially given the bitter political conflicts back home in London.
But nothing he said was out of place for a diplomat in his position. If there is a breakdown in diplomatic norms here — and yes, there is one — it did not come from the British ambassador. What Darroch said in private about Trump was not unusual. What Trump’s diplomats do in public is what is really shocking.
In Berlin, one U.S. ambassador openly undermines the government; another in Amsterdam became a laughingstock for refusing to answer journalists’ questions, and yet another in Jerusalem openly shows bias in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. From Kenya to New Zealand, the ambassadors appointed by Trump have offended their hosts.
Ultimately, the rot comes from the top.
Darroch was a career diplomat, but many of his American peers are political appointees. Trump has rewarded campaign donors, political allies and even personal friends with spots in embassies around the world. This is a long-standing tradition for American presidents, though Trump has taken it further than usual.
He’s given ambassador positions to more people with no diplomatic experience than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to one study. Although a few politically appointed U.S. ambassadors prove to be skilled at statecraft, some of Trump’s diplomats have been unusually undiplomatic since taking their positions.
It took mere hours for Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, to offend his hosts in May with a tweet that appeared to give an order: “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” A month later, Grenell gave an interview with the conservative news site Breitbart in which he said he wanted to “empower” hard-right conservatives in Europe.
Critics accused Grenell of acting as a political activist. Before his appointment, Grenell had been a Republican commentator, operative and former aide to national security adviser John Bolton. German writer Constanze Stelzenmüller wrote that he was now “the least popular diplomat in Berlin.”
In the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador, told a Dutch reporter that video of him claiming that there were “no-go” areas in the country because of the “Islamic movement” was “fake news.” At his first news conference, journalists hammered him about the remarks and demanded an apology for a bold and easily provable falsehood.
“This is the Netherlands — you have to answer questions,” one reporter said when he refused to respond. “Embarrassing performance from controversial ambassador,” read the online headline in De Telegraaf, one of the country’s largest newspapers. Days later, Hoekstra admitted he had no idea what he was talking about.
Meanwhile, David M. Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and Trump’s former lawyer, often appears much too cozy with his host government — and only interested in talking to one set of people in the Israeli and Palestinian territories. Friedman has said that West Bank settlements are a part of Israel and was quoted as suggesting that the United States could bypass Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas if he refused to engage with the Trump administration.
Last month, Friedman and White House Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (another Trump lawyer) were filmed using hammers to break into an archaeological site under Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. The image was startling to liberal Israelis. Along with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the closure of its consulate in East Jerusalem and much more, it was yet another sign that the United States had picked a side.
Friedman, Hoekstra, Grenell and others like them are still in their jobs. Though they face criticism and ridicule in their respective host nations, none has felt compelled to offer a resignation. And why would they? It’s rare for a foreign nation to force out an ambassador just for causing offense: Berlusconi, as “feckless, vain and ineffective” as he was, laughed off the 2011 U.S. cables leak.
Darroch’s resignation reflects how much diplomacy has changed in the Trump era. This is a time of fighting words and fragile egos. Though most U.S. diplomats remain committed to their work, there’s no doubt the U.S. president has set the tone.
Trump has publicly called officials in other countries “very dishonest & weak,” “stone cold loser[s],” said they were “foolish,” “short and fat” and claimed that their citizens were “turning against their leadership.” He has told long, mysterious stories about how his friend is scared of Paris because of rising immigration. He has declined to shake hands with the German leader, and he has privately referred to poor nations as “shithole countries.”
True to form, Trump responded to Darroch’s remarks, tweeting that he had been told the ambassador was “a pompous fool” and “a very stupid guy.” The United States, he declared, would “no longer deal with him.”
Trump’s tweets were “a nasty diplomatic step and an unfriendly act,” Daniel Fried, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs during the George W. Bush administration, told The Washington Post.
Like most scandals in this administration, the insults probably would have been forgotten in a day or two. But Darroch decided he had had enough. He was well-connected in Washington, threw lavish parties and palled around with Trump staffers. But in a topsy-turvy town where allies are treated worse than enemies, and where private truths are worse than public lies, that doesn’t mean much.
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