In the era of WikiLeaks, hostile-state cyberwarfare, and leaks such as the Darroch incident, the diplomatic cable’s primacy is being threatened, changing the way foreign policy is being conducted.
“Every one is agreed that he is a man of his word,” the British diplomatic telegram reads, referring to the American president, “and the only man who counts in the Administration,” before going on to outline how the White House has “by its own mistakes, got itself into a difficult position” and that if London could “do any thing to help the President, he will be most appreciative.”
The message is not, however, one sent by Kim Darroch, the outgoing British ambassador to Washington, D.C., nor any recent predecessor. It was dispatched by William Tyrrell, a senior official in Britain’s Foreign Office, on November 14, 1913, shortly after meeting with President Woodrow Wilson. The cable, now held at Britain’s National Archives, symbolizes a markedly different moment in Anglo-American relations, which in the century since has seen the United States supplant Britain as the preeminent world power.
Yet the message also carries a different symbolism—one housed in the mode of communication being used, not dissimilar to that which led to Darroch’s eventual resignation. The Tyrrell message hearkens back to an era in which diplomats the world over trusted the diplomatic telegram, and used it to convey all manner of messages, from reporting of local events to more mundane considerations (in one letter to Tyrrell, sent in March 1913, the author remarks on how he was writing from the Indian city of Dehra Dun where he had decamped “for a month’s peace and quiet.”)
Today, in the era of WikiLeaks and hostile-state cyberwarfare, the diplomatic cable’s primacy is being threatened, replaced by informal emails and telephone briefings, as well as by an array of ad hoc forms of communication, some official, some unofficial, that are changing the way diplomacy is being conducted. And according to more than a dozen senior current and former Western diplomats who spoke with The Atlantic—the majority of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of their remarks—while the Darroch affair, where the British envoy to the United States had to quit after critical remarks about President Donald Trump were leaked to a newspaper, has drawn attention to these shifts, they have been under way for years.
Sensitive information, which might previously have been included on cables, is now being copied and pasted into WhatsApp messages and distributed among small circles of trusted officials; important communications are being shared on private email accounts outside the official systems of surveillance; government-issued laptops are being abandoned for the anonymity of airport computer stations to communicate with foreign governments in moments of crisis.
These are just some of the techniques now being used by senior diplomats to protect themselves from exposure, with many now fearing—given domestic political divisions in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere—that they are just one disgruntled colleague or successful hack away from the premature end of their careers.
In speaking with these Western diplomats, the picture that emerges is of a systemic decline in trust, sparked initially by the mass release of cables by WikiLeaks in 2010, but then further fueled by a series of other breaches, including the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic Party in 2016, and culminating this month in The Mail on Sunday’s publication of Darroch’s cables critical of Trump, prompting the U.S. president to break off relations with the British ambassador. Many of these diplomats said they also feel exposed by domestic political divisions, whether in regard to Trump, Brexit, or other controversial issues in continental Europe, and—crucially—the sense that they may no longer have the political cover at home to risk reporting candidly in official channels.
“In both Washington and London,” Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria and Syria who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “things are more polarized and nasty than even as recently as five years ago.” What happened to Darroch, Ford continued, “could easily happen to American diplomats in a similar position.”
This breakdown in trust has potentially severe implications for diplomacy, but also for foreign services and the formation of overseas policy more generally if ambassadors feel unable to report the reality on the ground as they see it for fear of causing political upset at home or abroad in the event of a leak. And in the longer term, this shift may have even more profound implications than creating drier, more circumspect cables, as diplomats pursue new and riskier routes or face-to-face briefings outside official channels to protect themselves.
The more these official channels—whether the cable, letter, or encrypted email—are bypassed, the more chance there is of a security breach or mistake going unrecorded. The diplomats who told The Atlantic that they worked around official channels also admitted that the practice risked further undermining public and political trust in the system, by ensuring there is an incomplete institutional record on potentially key decisions that may become the center of future inquiries. If diplomats, senior officials, and politicians are secretly communicating in ways that cannot be recorded, released under freedom of information laws, or even archived for future record, then the risk of major mistakes going undetected may rise, with lessons unable to be learned, cover-ups facilitated, and even—at its most extreme—corruption undetected.
“If we continue with this,” one Brussels-based ambassador from a European Union member state said, politicians “will not get the same amount of information they should have on which they are supposed to base their political judgments.” Yet the diplomat noted that while he worried about the long-term effects of keeping sensitive communications off the official diplomatic wire, this was now the day-to-day reality, one he had opted for reluctantly to protect himself and the information he wanted to relay back to his home capital.
A similar story emerged repeatedly in our conversations with diplomats and officials. One, a serving ambassador to Brussels for another EU member state, said “the long telegram” in particular was dead as a result of WikiLeaks and, now, the Darroch affair, although he was less cataclysmic in his assessment of the overall impact on diplomacy, arguing that there are ways around the issue of institutional insecurity, including a mixture of written and oral briefings. A European government official, who previously served as a diplomat, agreed that the world would not change in the wake of the Darroch affair—but primarily because the primacy of the cable had come to an end long before anyway. “Emails and letters are where you actually say what you think,” he said, via WhatsApp. “Or WhatsApp.”
While each diplomat who spoke with The Atlantic had a different interpretation of how much had changed in the past decade—and how damaging or otherwise it was to the political system—almost all named Cablegate, when hundreds of thousands of American diplomatic messages were published by WikiLeaks in 2010, as the principal reason for the undermining of trust in the system. Most relegated the Darroch affair to just the latest example—albeit a particularly seismic one—of the new reality facing their profession.
To be sure, the two issues are wildly different in their impact. Whereas American diplomats, at the time of Cablegate and since, worried that the details of sensitive meetings in nondemocratic countries, such as with human-rights activists, opposition politicians, and others, were published, along with, at times, the names of those who were meeting with the U.S., the leak involving Darroch is viewed differently. Here in London, it has widely been interpreted as being related to Britain’s exit from the EU and questions among Brexit supporters over Darroch’s loyalty to that effort—though the British ambassador has publicly never deviated from government policy on the matter. And that has triggered uniform worry among the diplomats we spoke with about the corrosive effect of domestic politics seeping into foreign policy making.
In the United States, that has long been an issue. Whereas most of Britain’s serving ambassadors are career civil servants, many American envoys are political appointees, cycled in and out by new administrations following elections—especially to plum capitals such as London. And serving U.S. diplomats have, according to the three-time former American ambassador Ronald Neumann, found themselves in difficult positions over their analysis of divisive issues in Washington.“On Arab-Israeli issues, which have always been a presidential issue,” Neumann, now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said, “that’s an issue where leaks have made people subject to domestic political attack, so they’ve tended not to write about it.” The corollary of Neumann’s warning is that this trend could sink into other areas of politics in the U.S., or simply change the nature of European diplomatic services where foreign policy has traditionally not been as party-political.
In Britain, the Darroch leak has been weaponized by warring political factions, just the latest battleground between rival factions who take opposing stances over Brexit and its impact on the country. “We are replacing the Test Act of 1673 with a new Test Act of Brexit,” one British lawmaker, who asked not to be named discussing Darroch’s resignation, said, referring to a law, repealed in 1829, that banned Catholics from serving Britain overseas. This lawmaker said that while other countries appeared to be suffering from similar divisions, none were quite as “venomous” as those in Britain or the United States.
A number of the diplomats and officials said they felt the Darroch affair would blow over in time and that leaks were a fact of life and always had been, with one saying that the unique character of the American president, and Britain’s particular political situation—gripped by an ongoing campaign to replace Theresa May as prime minister and still grappling with leaving the EU, three years after it voted to leave the bloc—meant that the fallout from this latest leak would not have otherwise been so damaging. The scale of the threat might be different in the internet age, but the fundamentals had not changed: The more leaks, the less trust and candor there would be from diplomats. Others pointed out that senior diplomats and civil servants—including Darroch—should not be considered political novices, unaware of the risks involved in the world in which they exist.
Nigel Gould-Davies, the former British ambassador to Belarus and now an associate fellow at the London-based international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the Darroch incident was just “the most serious example of something that should not happen but sometimes does.” He said that while some things will inevitably have to change—security tightened—the cable will survive. “Diplomats will still have to report their analysis back to capitals. There also needs to be a preserved record, which you don’t get in an ephemeral WhatsApp or email. The more important it is, the more important it is that it becomes part of the institutional memory.”
This, then, is perhaps the most fundamental change to have emerged in recent years: The diplomatic cable might survive and even slowly return to health as systemic trust is rebuilt, but the age of WhatsApp and instantaneous, disaggregated messaging that has emerged in the meantime may prove to be an uncomfortable long-term bedfellow for the public and its expectations of transparency and accountability.