COLLATERAL DAMAGE: BRITAIN, AMERICA AND EUROPE IN THE AGE OF TRUMP BY KIM DARROCH By Jeremy Kinsman (Book Review)
In his memoir, Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump, ex-British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch ruefully notes that on 28 February, 2020, the TV quiz show Jeopardy! asked contestants, “Sir Kim Darroch resigned from his post in 2019 after the leak of some comments of his about the US Administration — which post was it?”
No one knew. As Darroch put it, his 15 minutes were obviously over.
When the leaks were published by the scandal-craving Mail on Sunday, they made headlines around the world, precisely because they told the truth about the Trump experience we were all suffering.
There was little in the other leaked factual dispatch cables sent in prior months from the Embassy that had not been amply reported in the media about Trump’s antics and the shambolic performance of his rapidly rotating personnel.
But there was one personal letter from the ambassador, addressed to relatively few need-to-know readers in Whitehall dating back to 2017, reporting on what Darroch saw would lie ahead: “We don’t really believe this administration is going to behave substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less dramatically clumsy and inept.”
Were truer words ever written?
This was the “money text.” It was the one that the unknown leaker had hoarded. Motive? The intention was presumably lodged somewhere in the toxic culture of ambition and conspiracy surrounding Brexit, perhaps to undermine Darroch, whom obsessive Brexiteers would have seen as a disloyalty candidate. He had been twice on postings in Brussels, most recently as the UK’s permanent representative to the EU. He had been Prime Minister Tony Blair’s top EU advisor and Prime Minister David Cameron’s national security advisor. But for the manic anti-EU devotees of Brexit he “was not one of us.”
And he wasn’t. Darroch went as ambassador to Washington in January 2016, and presented his credentials to Brexit-skeptic President Barack Obama. A year later, he was attending the inauguration of Brexit enthusiast and booster Donald Trump. So it goes for Ambassadors. As Darroch puts it, “Personal views have no place in the professional part of a diplomat’s existence.” It says more about Trump than it does about Darroch’s professionalism that the disruptive president’s behaviour makes it impossible to write an accurate, empirical account of his actions without seeming to denigrate.
Darroch followed Trump’s campaign as he has since with dispassionate attention to the underlying issues of immigration, inequality, and identity that Trump’s candidacy was surfing on his way to power. “The further down the educational attainment ladder one looked the greater was this ‘white flight’ from the Democrats to the Republicans.” This comes not from the pen of an elitist snob but from that of an acute professional analyst.
US friends sometimes caution me that “Trump isn’t the cause of all this; he’s a symptom.” Sure, but the fact is that he has exploited grievances and divisions and has exacerbated antipathies, while disrupting the world order so that, as Darroch describes it, “multilateralism has never been weaker or more disparaged.”
Darroch recognized then as he does now that Trump’s genius in channeling victimization and a sense of exclusion is a political fact of great consequence and few recent precedents in shared democratic history. But an underlying theme of the book is that it has a companion piece in the forces that underlie Brexit.
The parallel surges of nativist populism represented by Trump and Brexit occurred almost simultaneously. Of course, what was going on in the UK (apart from the fortunes of his various golf resorts), was of little real concern to Trump.
Darroch isn’t the critic and all-out opponent of Brexit the malicious leaker probably believed. But he presents an acutely balanced view of the dangers of national exceptionalism that corrode the identities of both the UK and the US. To him, and I emphatically agree, the UK “Never reconciled ourselves to the primary obligation of (EU) membership — pooling of sovereignty.” The British believed the EEC and then the EU was just about markets and trade and never got that that it was really over “ever-closer union among the people of Europe” who had suffered from the Second World War in ways the UK hadn’t.
I share his regret that the accelerated and too-inclusive opening of the EU to 10 new applicants in 2004, eight from Central Europe plus Cyprus and Malta, was a bridge of change too far and too early, especially on the freedom of movement that would make immigration the cause célèbre of Brexit. The Brussels-centric enthusiasm and inwardness were always awkward for outsiders. As Darroch puts it, EU insiders didn’t get UK inside politics any better than vice-versa.
Of course, much of his memoir is about his three years in the US. He was rare in having had no prior US experience to speak of and there is a warm and lively sense of discovery as he visits shrines of his beloved rock-and-roll idols, and the vast and unrivalled natural landscape of the West. (But thank God he spears Vegas as the cheap fraud of desolate and tawdry materialism that it is.)
Being UK ambassador to Washington must be a neurotic ride, constantly striving for acknowledgement and evidence (rarely forthcoming) that the bilateral relationship is indeed “special.” Darroch details how PM Theresa May’s rush to be the first to visit president-elect Trump became the pinnacle of UK geopolitical ambition. I don’t know if he meant it to strike the reader as comic and sort of sad, but it does.
The moment of the leak, of Trump’s intemperate and essentially cruel Twitter dismissal of the Ambassador’s further standing in town, is brilliantly presented. Those of us who have been caught inadvertently in the unstoppable media herd mentality when the taste of blood rushes to its brain, will admire Darroch’s cool and dispassionate account of his downfall. After reading of Boris Johnson’s handling of it at his end, you’ll want to get up to wash your hands.
Kim Darroch is an interesting man. He’s not an entitled, Oxbridge elitist. He studied zoology at the excellent university of Durham, where he met his wife, a teacher, who clearly helped him stay grounded, and offered obvious comfort from a briefly noted, but to the reader, startling childhood experience of maternal desertion.
From the perspective of this long-time diplomat, Darroch rose to the top of British diplomacy by being the sort of unaffected blunt talker and straight-shooter with solid judgment — who factored-in the other guy’s point of view while defending one’s own — that any successful Canadian PM (I think of Mulroney and Chretien) would have viewed as essential to his/her own success.
He’s modest — in his telling, he had his “fifteen minutes.” Not at all. He’s written an important book of insight — by an unabashed globalist who wishes to hasten this “moment for visionary leadership of ambition and imagination, of the kind that rebuilt the world after the Second World War.” Having quit diplomacy, I’ll bet he’s glad to be out of it, but saddened by the politicization of the public service, and by much else.
Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian Ambassador to Russia, former Ambassador to the European Union, former High Commissioner to the U.K. and former Minister for Political Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He is a Distinguished Fellow with the Canadian International Council.
This article first appeared here
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