How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In my three and a half decades as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, proudly serving five presidents and ten secretaries of state from both parties, I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging, to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence, as the one now underway.
The contemptible mistreatment of Marie Yovanovitch—the ambassador to Ukraine who was dismissed for getting in the way of the president’s scheme to solicit foreign interference in U.S. elections—is just the latest example of President Donald Trump’s dangerous brand of diplomatic malpractice. His is a diplomacy of narcissism, bent on advancing private interests at the expense of our national interests.
Ambassador Yovanovitch is not the first professional diplomat to find herself in political crosshairs in the history of the State Department. Trump is not the first demagogue to bully career personnel. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not the first secretary of state derelict in his duty. But the damage from this assault—coming from within the executive branch itself, after nearly three years of unceasing diplomatic self-sabotage, and at a particularly fragile geopolitical moment—will likely prove to be even more severe to both diplomatic tradecraft and U.S. foreign policy.
Almost 70 years ago, in the early years of the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted a savage campaign against “disloyalty” in the State Department. Partisan investigators, untethered to evidence or ethics, forced out 81 department employees in the first half of the 1950s. Among them was John Paton Davies, Jr., an accomplished China hand. His sin was to foresee the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. Davies was subjected to nine security and loyalty investigations, none of which substantiated the paranoid accusation that he was a communist sympathizer. Nevertheless, in a moment of profound political cowardice, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles fired him.
Purging Davies and his colleagues was not only wrong but also foolish. The loss of such expertise blinded American diplomacy on China for a generation and had a chilling effect on the department and its morale. One of the United States’ most distinguished diplomats, George Kennan, was also pushed out of the Foreign Service during this era. He tried to defend Davies, who had served with him in Moscow and on the Policy Planning Staff, to little avail. Years later, Kennan wrote in his memoirs that McCarthy’s onslaught and the department’s failure to defend its employees was the most “sobering and disillusioning” episode of his long career.
That Senator McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, was also Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor is one of history’s sad ironies. Trump’s scorched-earth tactics, casual relationship with truth, and contempt for career public service bear more than a passing resemblance to the playbook that Cohn wrote for McCarthy. And when Trump cried out for a “new Roy Cohn” to replace the late original, it was hardly a surprise that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared—or that he dove into the muck of the Ukraine scandal and agitated for the removal of a career ambassador whose integrity and expertise proved to be an obstruction.
One might imagine that the State Department’s leadership would stand up to the president and for its personnel—so many of whom are doing hard jobs in hard places around the world. If only that were the case.
Trump’s scorched-earth tactics, casual relationship with truth, and contempt for career public service bear more than a passing resemblance to the playbook that Cohn wrote for McCarthy.
Instead, today’s leaders have shown no more spine than Dulles did. Secretary Pompeo apparently worked around the embassy in Kiev to advance the president’s private agenda, allowed specious opposition research about Yovanovitch to circulate around the department, and sat on his hands as Trump slandered Yovanovitch on the infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and warned ominously that “she’s going to go through some things.” The ghost of Roy Cohn was smiling somewhere.
Even before the Ukraine mess, the Trump administration had been waging a war on diplomacy for nearly three years. The White House regularly pushes historic cuts to diplomacy and development spending, which is already 19 times smaller than the defense budget. Career diplomats are sidelined, with only one of 28 assistant secretary-rank positions filled by a Foreign Service officer, and more ambassadorships going to political appointees in this administration than in any in recent history. One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, including critical posts.
Not coincidentally, applications to join the Foreign Service have declined precipitously, with fewer people taking the entrance exam in 2019 than in more than two decades. The pace of resignations by career professionals is depressing, the pernicious practice of retaliation against individual officers just because they worked on controversial issues in the last administration is damning, and the silence from the department’s leadership is deafening.
Last spring, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Lost Art of American Diplomacy.” It was meant less as an elegy than as a reminder of diplomacy’s significance. I’m feeling much more elegiac today.
To clean up the institutional wreckage in the State Department will take many years. The damage to our influence and reputation may prove to be even longer lasting—and harder to repair.
The practical consequences are not hard to discern. If a U.S. ambassador doesn’t speak for the president, and the embassy is seen as an enemy of the White House, why would the local government take seriously its diplomatic messages? Why use official channels, rather than speak directly to the president’s personal lawyer and his grifting confidants? If the key to unlocking aid is stroking the president’s vanity, why undertake the hard work of economic or political reform, with all the risks that entails?
For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing.
The president’s actions distort diplomatic practice and decapitate the American interest. Because of them, a new Ukrainian administration is all the more exposed to corruption and democratic backsliding, and all the more vulnerable to Russian manipulation and aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin, professionally trained to manufacture compromising material on all sorts of opponents, couldn’t have produced a more disruptive document than the summary of the Trump-Zelensky call last July, which has sowed political dysfunction in both Washington and Kiev.
By using his public office for personal gain, Trump has affirmed Putin’s long-held conviction—shared by autocrats the world over—that Americans are just as venal and self-absorbed as they are, just more hypocritical about it. For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing. So much for enlightened self-interest. So much for the power of our example. So much for our credibility.
We are digging a deep hole for ourselves in a world that is changing fast, filled with players who won’t wait for us to stop digging and a landscape that is quickly hardening against U.S. interests. Our allies are confused. Our adversaries are quick to take advantage. The institutions and coalitions we shaped over decades are wobbling. The confidence of the American people in the power and purpose of disciplined American leadership is evaporating.
The Trump administration’s dereliction of duty takes place at a time when the United States will need to rely on diplomacy more, not less, to advance its interests and values in an ever more competitive world.
I closed my essay six months ago on a reasonably optimistic note. I acknowledged that a long, tough journey lay ahead—that American diplomacy would take a lot longer to fix than it has taken to break. But I also emphasized the opportunity before us, which the malpractice of the Trump administration has thrown into sharp relief. The journey toward renewal will be even more arduous now, and even more urgent.
Joseph Welch, the legendary attorney in the Army-McCarthy hearings, burst the balloon of McCarthyism in 1954 when he posed his unforgettable question: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The question was rhetorical then, just as it is today for the McCarthy imitators in and around the Trump administration. Their sense of decency is well hidden, their venality and vindictiveness on full display.
But the decency that burns brightly, and that gives me some lingering faith even in these dark times for American diplomacy, is that which career officers like Yovanovitch have displayed. Their honor and commitment characterize professional diplomacy and public service at their best. So long as those qualities remain intact, however much they are battered in the age of Trump, there is still hope for diplomacy’s renewal.