If their example is buried under the rubble of impeachment, all of us will lose. We cannot allow their principled behavior to be dismissed as an anachronism in a world where power trumps principle. We cannot allow their experience to become the realization of Steve Bannon’s fever dream of the defeat of the “administrative state.” And we cannot become resigned to the corrosion and purposeful hollowing out of our institutions.
The evidence of rot within the State Department is pervasive: historic decline in applications to the Foreign Service; unprecedented sidelining of professionals from senior roles in the department; a cacophony of scandals, abuse, and improprieties; and morale that keeps finding new lows. Across the executive branch, the bureaucracy is increasingly beaten down, battered, and belittled.
The risk is that a culture that has sought, however imperfectly, to respect expertise and the disciplined airing of contrary views will gradually be worn down. The risk is that the temptation to go along to get along will become irresistible—that well-meaning officials will become unaware of their own complicity in feeding the callousness of this administration and distorting and undermining the principles that inspire public service in the first place. Government experts may find it harder to resist the stray Sharpie sketches of a meteorologically challenged chief executive, or to convey reservations about policy choices untethered to reality. Policy making may become an exercise in narcissism and adulation, not a principled process shaped by rule of law and informed by facts and experience.
The consequences abroad are just as severe. At the end of his 1946 Long Telegram setting out the Cold War strategy of containment, George Kennan warned that “the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with the problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Thirty years after America’s triumph in the Cold War, we are falling into the trap that Kennan feared.
The power of our example—however much we may have exaggerated it over the years—was always more important than the power of our preaching. But that example today only feeds the arguments of our adversaries, emboldens authoritarian leaders, normalizes racists and xenophobes around the world, and unsettles our allies.
The image we are furiously feeding—of unfettered self-dealing and disdain for principled public service—just reinforces the autocratic conceit that democratic systems are no different and no better than dictatorial ones. It weakens our greatest competitive advantage: the alliances and institutions that we built and led to multiply our power and influence.
It’s not just that our friends don’t trust us and our adversaries don’t respect us; it’s that American citizens are (with some reason) losing faith in their own government. Many years of indiscipline and smugness have led to a yawning gap between the American public and the Washington establishment. But when the administration can declare that up is down, that troop deployments are troop withdrawals, and that the president’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect,” then we’re not in Kansas (or Kansas City) anymore. The task of repairing that distrust is growing harder by the day, and with it the task of renewing American diplomacy for an era in which we will need to rely on it more than ever, in a much more competitive international landscape.