Researching Early Modern History

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The ambassador’s mail, RBE 29 – TD Jacobs

My last blog covered a recent event, as does this one. On July 3, The Mail on Sunday published excerpts from confidential cables that the British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Kinm Darroch, had sent to the Foreign Office. His missives described the Trump regime as – among other things – “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional.”  Of far more interest to me than the (accurate) contents of the dispatches is how they have been covered in the British Press.

Prior to Darroch’s resignation on July 10, Richard Tice, Chairman of the Brexit Party, argued in an interview on Channel 4 that it was not appropriate for diplomats to include such information in their dispatches. As the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, pointed out, these were not emails meant for a broad audience within the British government. Moreover, he stated that it is the job of diplomats to assess the administrations of their host countries, and to accurately report on what is being said in those countries.

From a historical perspective, Tugendhat is correct. The Early Modern diplomatic source materials that I handle often contain blunt language concerning both heads of state and their governments. For example, the Venetian Secretary in London, Lorenzo Paulucci described for his superior in France, Giovanni Sagredo, how Oliver Cromwell dealt with a recent attempt to overthrow his Protectorate government thusly:

“The Protector is constantly engaged in unearthing plots against his present quiet, and arbitrarily throws into prison now one and now another suspected person. To encourage others to serve him he has recently knighted some who resisted the late conspiracy, so that they may wear this decoration in their districts as a sign that they have served his Highness well, and also as a sign of his present authority which he exercises on all occasions exactly like a king and despotically.”

For his part, Sagredo was equally unimpressed by the regime’s tyrannical hold on the country. Shortly after his arrival in London as Ambassador Extraordinary, he informed the Doge and Senate that

“So far as I can judge from my brief stay here the present government is more feared than loved, supported by the power of 50,000 armed men rather than by the affection of the unarmed people.”

The Venetians, suffice to say, were far from alone in their unequivocally negative assessments of the assorted Interregnum governments. And as a result of ‘Cablegate’ there is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that modern day diplomats are no less given to unflattering descriptions in their own reporting. Among my favourites in the cache of classified diplomatic documents published by WikiLeaks is a July 6, 2009 cable to President Barack Obama in which the US friendly Dutch Prime Minister was described as a “‘Harry Potter’ look-alike,” and the “golden-pompadoured” nationalist Geert Wilders as an isolationist that stokes “fear and hatred of immigrants.”

Tice’s outrage over Darroch’s phrasing and reporting appear naïve at best. However, I think he is correct in his argument that these leaks could damage the UK’s trading relationship with the US on the eve of Britain’s planned departure from the European Union. Particularly given the current dysfunctionality of the US’s State Department and the more personal form of transactional diplomacy favoured by the notoriously thin-skinned Trump. This concern seems to be shared by Boris Johnson, who is tipped to become the next Prime Minister.  Despite having called Darroch a “superb diplomat,” Johnson has since admitted to making mistakes in his public handling of the scandal that contributed to the ambassador’s resignation on July 10.

At least Darroch can leave his post with his head held high, having done his job properly. I am not sure the same will be said in the future of the UK’s International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, who has himself caused a stir by offering the government’s apologies to Ivanka Trump, who seems to be edging into the role of Secretary of State at this point. I guess public perception and historical assessment will depend upon whatever post-Brexit deal Fox eventually manages to wring from the regime, which is known to be a bad-faith negotiator.

References:

Mahdawi, Arwa. “Sorry, but why is Liam Fox apologising to Ivanka Trump?” The Guardian. July 10, 2019.

“May has ‘full faith’ in UK ambassador who called Trump administration ‘inept.’ Channel 4 News. July 8, 2019.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekYAPIJs12g&t=208s

Oakeshott, Isabel. “Britain’s man in the US says Trump is ‘inept’: Leaked secret cables from ambassador say the President is ‘uniquely dysfunctional and his career could end in disgrace.” Mail Online. 6.8.2019. (Originally for the Mail on Sunday).
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Paulucci, Lorenzo to Giovanni Sagredo, June 22, 1655. Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.

“US embassy cables: Barack Obama’s briefing on Dutch politics.” The Guardian. December 15, 2010.
https://www.theguardian.com/

Sagredo, Giovanni to the Doge and Senate, September 24, 1655. Calendar of State Papers Venetian.

Stewart, Heather and Kevin Rawlinson. “Borish Johnson admits to mistakes in handling of Kim Darrroch affair.” The Guardian. July 12, 2019.
https://www.theguardian.com/


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