Actually, they do—and recent events show why they are right to do so. The Ukraine quid pro quo crisis, in which it becomes increasingly clear that the president attempted to withhold desperately needed military aid from Kiev in order to extract political hit jobs on his opponents, shows why character matters. In the world as it is, it’s very simple for foreign policy to ease the path to the corruption of domestic politics. Indeed, that was one of the great fears of the Founders of the United States, and with reason. In 1797, Talleyrand, that consummate cynic, indirectly demanded a £50,000 bribe to ease Franco-American relations. Half a dozen years later, the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, put out feelers to the British about splitting off part of the United States in return for half a million dollars.
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The self-inflicted wound of the administration’s Syria policy—its wrenching and unnecessary abandonment of Kurdish allies who spilled their blood waging war on our behalf—is another example of bad character leading to disaster. Much of any country’s power in international affairs comes from its reliability and predictability: The “madman” thesis supposedly espoused by President Richard Nixon has its limits. Because international affairs is not ruled by contract and law the way domestic politics often is, one’s consistency matters. It is like the diamond business, famously conducted less by documents than by a handshake. Reputation matters, and those who think otherwise are themselves naive.
By abandoning the Kurds on a caprice, the United States has ceded predominant influence in the Middle East to Russia and Iran; it has paved the way for the resurgence of the Islamic State; it has impaired its ability to shape Iraqi politics; and it has put its principal ally in the region, Israel, in a worse situation. Above all, it has shown that its word is meaningless.
Good diplomats do not lie. Rather, they are trained to be exquisitely precise, both in their record-keeping and in their articulation of their own country’s views. They may be too nuanced at times, too keen to find the formula that is just ambiguous enough to satisfy (or lull) all parties. But, by and large, they are allergic to lying, partly because of their own values, and partly because they know how dangerous it can be.
And they are patriots. The diplomats of the Department of State are a disciplined, hierarchical body; they will, when necessary, don flak jackets and helmets in dangerous places, but for the most part they simply want to go out and represent their country. And unless you have worked there, you may not realize how committed they are to what the United States stands for, to its values and its founding principles. In this, they resemble the leadership of the United States military, which, to a remarkable degree, shares this values-driven, or at least values-informed, approach to foreign policy.