Matthew Parris

Of course diplomats are frank in private – but not, I fear, for much longer

It can be a diplomat’s duty to be undiplomatic.

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It can be a diplomat’s duty to be undiplomatic.

It can be a diplomat’s duty to be undiplomatic. When asked for a candid assessment by senior colleagues or by his political masters, the murmured ambiguity and the Ferrero Rocher are for the birds. Diplomacy is for dealing publicly with the other side, not privately with your own.

Within weeks of joining the Foreign Office as a young man, I learned that senior diplomats are routinely breathtakingly candid with each other in their confidential assessments of people, nations and situations. We should expect no less of them. Senior diplomats — American no less than British — express themselves undiplomatically when they don’t expect their reports to be published. This too we should expect. ‘A latter-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah’ was the characterisation of Thailand (now available under the 30-year rule) offered by our ambassador in Bangkok in 1973. His predecessor had described the Thai foreign minister as ‘vain, touchy and disputatious… his obsessions… sometimes make one wonder whether he is altogether sane’.

I learned too that senior diplomats may offer assessments in private that contradict what the politicians they serve have to say in public. That the United Kingdom enjoyed in the 1970s the warm relationship with Canada that we do today did not stop our high commissioner there describing the ‘trendy’ Pierre Elliott Trudeau as ‘mutton dressed as lamb’; nor (a decade later) did it stop a successor high commissioner calling him a ‘cold fish’, and his background that of ‘a well-to-do hippie and draft-dodger’. If such language comes as a surprise to any intelligent observer — which it shouldn’t — then the WikiLeaks disclosures of US diplomatic documents will prove a useful education for them.

But for the rest of us, and for the governments and politicians of whom American diplomats may have been critical, these leaks have far more potential to embarrass than they do to surprise or seriously to wound. It’s always embarrassing to read in the news what people really think of you; but the embarrassment is because it’s in the news, not because you didn’t suspect it already. Be in no doubt that if (as rumoured) elements in the US Foreign Service were initially unimpressed by Britain’s new Conservative leader of the opposition, the British Foreign Office and David Cameron himself will already be very well aware of that.

Hamid Karzai knows precisely what his Western counterparts think of him. Pakistan assumes already that America wiretaps its internal communications. Everybody spies on everybody else and everybody knows that everybody does. If Washington really did secretly support a Turkish terrorist group, Ankara will almost certainly have got wind of that already.

The US Foreign Service — and no doubt our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office too — will be both angry and anxious about these latest leaks. But in assessing the destructiveness or usefulness of the material now being published, it will be important to look past their rage, and try to distinguish between what will seriously undermine good relations or betray secret operations, and what will simply cause red faces all round.

I suspect much of the fuss we can expect will arise from the second rather than the first. In our internet fishing expeditions of the Freedom of Information Act to compile a book about British ambassadors’ valedictory dispatches, my co-author the BBC’s Andrew Bryson and I found that more than you might think is discoverable on request — because official embarrassment is not among the reasons that can be given for blocking disclosure. A good many of the remarks that will make the headlines this week would, if they had been recorded by British officials, be potentially releasable for the same reason — if (and it’s a big if) the applicant had known enough about the document’s existence to make a specific request.

There remain, though, two grounds for alarm. The first is that spreading news of what’s already known by those in the know, to the mob outside the gates, can be inflammatory even though nothing really new or surprising is published. The second is that every time private advice is leaked publicly, public servants grow warier about what they write; the embarrassment chills an ethos of private candour that can be so important if politicians are to be helpfully advised. In 2006 a valedictory dispatch from our man in Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts, leaked into the press. When the head of the FCO saw his own department’s business efficiency campaign described by this very senior diplomat as ‘a game of bullshit bingo’, this gave him the ammunition he needed to persuade the then foreign secretary to end, in effect, the whole tradition of valedictory dispatches.

Occasional and limited leaks may serve democracy well. But when the dam bursts, a short immersion in too much information may be followed by a drought — as public servants learn to write nothing, even confidentially, down.

Parting Shots by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson is published by Penguin-Viking.