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Mon 16 September 2019
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Former diplomat and Oxford University lecturer Dr Jennifer Cassidy on why Kim Darroch’s resignation after leaked criticisms of Donald Trump’s administration are such a blow for the rule of law.

Communication is to diplomacy as blood is to the human body. Whenever communication ceases, the body of international politics, the process of diplomacy, is dead, and the result is violent conflict or atrophy. (Tran Van Dinh, 1987)

In his seminal work, Communication and Diplomacy in a Changing World, diplomatic scholar Tran Van Dinh penned the now famed words: communication is to diplomacy as blood is the human body.

These words and the images they invoke illustrate the unique and powerful relationship between diplomacy and communication.

Although written in 1987, a far cry from today’s communicative environment, Van Dinh’s words have stood the test of time. The pervasive nature of these words demonstrate their almost universal acceptance by diplomatic scholars and practitioners alike – a rare feat when it comes to such malleable concepts.

We must fight this with logic, truth, morality and diplomatic protocol and law. It will be a tough fight but we must try.

The diplomatic system is a result of a long evolution, which crystallises certain principles of diplomatic conduct. With one key principle being the protection of diplomatic communication between an ambassador, their embassy and their respective foreign service. 

Secrecy and confidentiality have been, and continue to be, an integral part of diplomatic relations. Diplomatic agents, stereotypically (and historically, with good reason) tend to distrust diplomatic counterparts and, with that, act in order to avoid the dissemination of classified information. This is illustrated clearly with the diplomatic toolbox – diplomat bags and couriers, back-room diplomacy, coded messages. All are used to protect intelligence from acts of espionage or disclosure in the media.

However, we all too aware that the changing technological environment has created and allowed for the fast and uncomplicated distribution of data to be introduced to diplomatic correspondence, increasing both efficiency and productivity. The dark side of these developments is that this also creates vulnerability, to an extent arguably never before seen. And, this was all too clear with the case of Ambassador Kim Darroch. 


Diplomatic Secrecy a Must

That Ambassador Darroch should neither have held such an analysis on the current political context in the US, let alone write it in a sealed diplomatic cable, is quite frankly absurd, misinformed and a dangerous narrative to perpetuate. Be this done online or off. By the public or the media.

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Secrecy within diplomacy is not something we should critique but respect. Diplomatic agents are trained, qualified professionals who are highly aware that they possess and write information that may damage the state they are representing or its relationship with the host country.

Indeed, despite what we see with certain heads of state on Twitter, the vast majority of bilateral and multilateral negotiations continue to take place behind closed doors, governed by predefined rules on confidentiality. So vital is this confidentiality of diplomatic communication that it became translated into international law during the Cold War. It remains today as fundamental pillar in how, why and to what degree diplomatic communication is conducted.

It is frightening and dangerous that Boris Johnson would rather stick beside his vacuous and inept ‘ally’ Trump, then support his own Foreign Service.

The protection of diplomatic communication tools is crucial to ensuring that a mission can manage how and when it shares information. Eileen Denza, a diplomatic scholar, has described the free and secret communication between an ambassador and their home country as “probably the most important of all privileges and immunities accorded under international diplomatic law”. For it enables ambassadors and their staff to quite simply carry out the functions for which they are hired. This once more gets to the essence of the relationship between diplomacy and communication – that, if diplomatic communication is not kept secret, its very purpose vanishes.


This Is Not Normal

The resignation this week of the UK’s Ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, is frightening and dangerous in equal measure.

Frightening because there was a fundamental breach in security and a leak of information – this was intentional, no doubt. Aimed to sabotage a man who has created a phenomenal career and given an enduring service to the UK.

Dangerous because Donald Trump, the President of the United States, has been so forceful in his retaliation of this leak. Not just against Ambassador Darroch, but using it strategically as a stepping stone in order to critique, barrage and seek to dictate to the UK what policies and agendas it should or should not pursue.

Secrecy and confidentiality have been, and continue to be, an integral part of diplomatic relations.

And, it is frightening and dangerous that the man poised to become the UK’s next Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, would rather stick beside his vacuous and inept ‘ally’ Trump, then support his own Foreign Service. A Foreign Service, and an outstanding diplomat, who was quite simply doing the job asked of him: to collect information, collate it, analyse it, and report back.

So, in light of international law, and in the shadow of these current political events, we must not see this as normal. We must not treat this as normal. This cannot become the new normal.

We must fight this with logic, truth, morality and diplomatic protocol and law. It will be a tough fight but we must try. We must.

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