Trump’s Bureaucratic Arson

The real threat to democracy comes not from an imagined deep state, but from a weak state of hollowed-out institutions and battered and belittled public servants.

The U.S. flag and its shadow falling on the Harry S. Truman Building at the Department of State
Larry Downing / Reuters

In their public testimonies, Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Masha Yovanovitch demonstrated professionalism, integrity, and plainspoken courage.

I had the good fortune of seeing those qualities up close over our many years together in the diplomatic trenches—out of sight, out of mind, and far from the public spotlight. It saddens me that our fellow citizens will learn about these patriotic Americans because of an impeachment inquiry, but I’m heartened that they’ve provided a vivid reminder of the dignity of public service in these undignified times.

Through their actions and words over recent weeks and months, they’ve also reminded us that human beings animate our institutions and civic norms, not faceless bureaucracies. And they’ve reminded us that the real threat to our democracy is not from an imagined deep state bent on undermining an elected president. Instead, it comes from a weak state of hollowed-out institutions and battered and belittled public servants, no longer able to uphold the ever more fragile guardrails of our democracy or compete on an ever more crowded, complicated, and competitive international landscape.

It’s not just the Trump administration’s acts of bureaucratic arson, such as the systematic sidelining of career officers or historic proposed budget cuts, which have brought applications to the Foreign Service to a two-decade low. And it’s not just its acts of political arson, such as the groundless, McCarthyist attacks against career professionals perceived to be disloyal to the Trump regime. It’s the cronyism and corruption that have infected so much of our diplomacy and that we see on full and gory display in the Ukraine scandal.

Why shouldn’t governments ignore tough messages from ambassadors and embassies about fighting corruption across the board when the signals they get in other channels suggest a much seedier, transactional approach? Why shouldn’t authoritarian rivals conclude that the only thing that matters is the vanity of an eminently manipulable president? Why shouldn’t allies lose confidence in the requests of our diplomats when they can be overturned by the next tweet? And how much longer can we rely on officers with the experience and guts of this past week’s witnesses to do the right thing?

Tensions between elected political leaderships and career public servants are not new. Each of the 10 secretaries of state that I served over nearly three and a half decades harbored concerns about the diplomatic corps—some more openly than others.

We didn’t always ingratiate ourselves. We tended to relish telling new administrations why their big, new ideas were not so big, not so new, and not so workable. While individual officers could be remarkably innovative and resourceful, the State Department as an institution was rarely accused of being too agile or too full of initiative. As we lost our centrality in the foreign-policy process to the military and other agencies, we tended to become passive, and all too often passive-aggressive. Like other threatened species, we sometimes prioritized the survival and autonomy of our tribe over everything else. All of that led to inevitable—and understandable—frustration by new administrations looking to put as many points on the board as they could before the clock ran out on their time in office.

There is a difference, however, between bad habits and bureaucratic malaise, and active sabotage. In all the reporting, thousands of pages of deposition transcripts, and hours of public testimony, we’ve seen no hint of disloyalty and not a shred of evidence pointing to career officers in Kyiv or Washington or anywhere else skulking around and plotting against the president. In fact, we’ve seen exactly the opposite—disciplined Foreign Service officers committed to their country’s national interest and faithfully implementing policies of an elected leadership. That is their obligation.

When a new administration lays out its policies, it has to be able to depend on career officers to execute them. Those who labored on the Iran nuclear deal in the previous administration are now charged with its undoing. Those charged with implementing President Barack Obama’s directive to expand refugee resettlement and mobilize a global coalition to respond to the worst refugee crisis since World War II are now implementing massive cuts to the resettlement program and quashing the coalition they helped build. The senior diplomat on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish partners to fight the Islamic State one day, read President Donald Trump’s tweet the next day and then told them they were on their own. The fact is that the most undisciplined administration in generations can still count on a disciplined diplomatic corps to implement its policies.

But the obligation of diplomats—like all public servants—is not just to implement directives robotically. It’s also to be honest about their views and concerns, provide their best judgment, and blow the whistle on wrongdoing. That’s why dozens of officers took to the State Department’s authorized, internal Dissent Channel when the administration banned immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. It’s why another senior officer sent a cable to Washington laying out the dangers of the president’s Syria decision and advice on how to mitigate the fallout.

And it’s why, when asked to apply diplomatic leverage to advance the political interests of the president over the national interest, American diplomats in Washington and Kyiv did what they are duty-bound to do. They expressed dissent—within the system and up the chain of command. They did so at considerable risk—ambassadors in the twilight of distinguished careers, and officers just on the verge of entering senior ranks. When asked by Congress to testify, they walked up to Capitol Hill, heads held high, told the truth, and upheld their oaths to the Constitution and the American people. There is a difference between dissent on policy and disloyalty to the president or the Constitution. No one should question the loyalty of these officers.

During the course of my career, I’ve watched and admired colleagues who struggled to act with integrity within the system, and those who concluded that they could no longer carry out policies with which they fundamentally disagreed, whether over nonintervention amidst ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s or the invasion of Iraq a decade later.

In the run-up to that conflict, I was the senior diplomat responsible for the Middle East. My colleagues in the Near East Bureau and I had deep concerns about the rush to war. We tried to be straight about our practical and strategic misgivings, summarizing our concerns in a hurriedly written, 11-page, single-spaced memo for Secretary Colin Powell titled “The Perfect Storm.” We felt we owed the secretary—and our colleagues—our unvarnished views. Years later, I’m still deeply conflicted about whether I should have resigned, or at least taken a tougher personal stand.

Once the decision was made to overthrow Saddam Hussein, however, we implemented the administration’s policy. Not a single officer in the bureau resigned in protest. In fact, hundreds volunteered to do hard work in hard places in postwar Iraq and across the region, picking up pieces of the wreckage, and trying to fix what we had broken.

That ethos of service lives on in America’s diplomats—a bright spot in the darkness of the Ukraine scandal. Yet behind the inspiring profiles in courage we’ve seen in recent days (and countless others we’ll never see) lies a more troubling reality. The State Department is adrift, fragile, and neutered, its leadership too often complicit in the worst tendencies of this White House.

For much of American history, the interests of political leaders and the state were one and the same. The government service was a system of spoils, not the meritocratic, professional system we have today. Political leaders handed out jobs to their supporters. In fact, President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait Trump displays in the Oval Office, replaced one in 10 government workers with his political devotees.

The professional civil service was created more than a century ago to curb the excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age—the kinds of self-dealing at the heart of the Trump impeachment inquiry and so much of his administration’s behavior. The modern Foreign Service emerged in the same spirit in the 1920s, as the United States was beginning to come to grips with the realities of its growing influence in a more competitive world.

In the decades since, we’ve all too often taken for granted our institutions and their capacity to uphold the rule of law and sustain our democracy. We’ve certainly taken for granted the significance of career expertise and commitment at the State Department to help ensure continuity through administrations, manage crises, and promote American interests. After decades of dysfunction and drift, and now three years of unilateral diplomatic disarmament, it would be foolish to ignore the growing risks of a weak state.

Trump is the accelerator of this drift, not its inventor, as I’ve argued. After the Cold War, we grew complacent about diplomacy and its utility. We were the biggest kid on the geopolitical block, and sometimes felt we could get our way on our own, or by force alone. With Jesse Helms wielding the knife with relish, the budget for diplomacy and development was cut by 50 percent from 1985 to 2000. Then came the terrible jolt to our system of 9/11, and a further emphasis on military and intelligence tools, with diplomacy an under-resourced afterthought. State did itself no favors throughout this period, often more attuned to mounting challenges abroad than mounting challenges within its own building.

However sound his instincts on some policy issues—such as pushing back against predatory Chinese trade practices—Trump has badly undermined American influence through his erratic unilateralism, disdain for expertise, and obsession with diplomacy as an exercise in narcissism. It is exactly the wrong prescription for this plastic moment in world affairs, when we’re no longer the only country calling the shots, and when diplomatic tools to cajole and coerce friends and foes alike are more important than ever.

The results are predictably grim. Partners are insecure and hedging, worrying about the “brain death” of crucial alliances. Adversaries feel the wind in their sails, with Russian state television crowing over dysfunction in Washington and vulnerability in Kyiv. The international landscape is hardening against our interests, and our diplomatic toolkit is being emptied by design and disuse.

If we’ve learned one thing during the impeachment inquiry, it is that we ought not to fear the revenge of the deep state. The only thing to fear is the prolonged atrophy of a weak state, precisely when we depend on its strength, purpose, and resilience to carry us through this moment of testing for our country and the world. Those are the qualities we have seen in such full measure from my former colleagues in recent days. They are a reminder of what real patriotism is all about, and of the costs of demeaning it.

The day will come when Trump exits, but the damage created by his disdain for diplomacy and public service will remain. The question will be whether we can take on the task of diplomacy’s renewal with the same zeal that this administration has applied to its destruction.