The impeachment investigation of President Trump has thrust several senior career diplomats into the national spotlight as witnesses, including Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted ambassador to Ukraine; William B. Taylor Jr., the chargé d’affaires (acting ambassador) to Ukraine; and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state who oversaw Ukraine policy. But if the careers of specific diplomats are casualties of the president’s misdeeds, the entire ranks are affected in a deeper sense because Trump has replaced Reagan’s American exceptionalism with American pedestrianism.
It takes decades to rise through the ranks of the Foreign Service. Most senior diplomats who are around today started their careers in the five years before or after the Berlin Wall fell. Their careers — their lives — have been forged in the world that followed the fall. They have worked to expand the reach of freedom, to welcome new states to the community of nations, to cooperate with allies and partners to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the end of the Cold War. Our moral leadership was damaged by the Iraq War and its interrogation program, but even then, the United States continued to invest in supporting civil society and democratic institutions around the world.
For a generation of U.S. diplomats — the current generation — the values and agenda that inspired Reagan’s speech have defined their careers. Whether they were working with the states that emerged from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe or elsewhere in the world, the goal of supporting peaceful, open, democratic, rights-respecting societies was the thread running through decades of American diplomacy.
I worked at the State Department when thousands of diplomatic cables were illegally leaked and posted on WikiLeaks. One fascinating aspect of the aftermath was the reaction of so many of our counterparts in Europe and elsewhere: Wow, you guys say the same things in private that you say in public — you really do care about democracy, freedom, fighting corruption and protecting the vulnerable. The cynics were shocked by the earnest American voices that appeared in the leaked cables. I was proud to be such an earnest American and to work with so many others.
Today, we are necessarily focused on the president’s apparent abuse of power and attempted extortion of a foreign government with taxpayer dollars. But I worry that when the drama of impeachment has passed, we will be stuck with one old truth and one new one.
The old truth is this: Ukraine and many countries like it still need us. In nations where civil society and political reformers have a shot at making progress on democracy and the rule of law, the forces fighting for change need tough love and assistance to lock in their gains. The United States isn’t the only partner that can help with this, but we often take the lead. After a democratic revolution in 2014 and a subsequent Russian invasion and ongoing occupation of parts of the country, progress in Ukraine has been — let’s call it nonlinear. But the election of a new president, a political outsider, last spring suggested an opportunity to press forward with reforms.
Imagine, then, the confusion among Ukrainian government officials when the United States — a key partner in helping them try to instill the rule of law, and to fight the corruption that makes them vulnerable to internal unrest and threatens to subjugate them to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies — turns out to be asking them to engage in a sham legal process. It must have seemed like upside-down land.
But they didn’t have the luxury of asking questions or raising concerns — because, like others, they still need us. That’s why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he wasn’t pressured by Trump. He had to say whatever he needed to say to get the assistance his country required. And when the impeachment process is over, Ukraine will need us still.
And that brings us to the new truth: Trump’s erratic approach to foreign policy, including his subversion of national security to suit his personal agenda, has changed the way American diplomats are seen in the world. We are not who we were. Whatever skepticism of American motives existed before Trump, it was far less an obstacle to U.S. effectiveness in advancing human progress and American interests than what Trump has done. His actions — aided and abetted by Republicans in Congress and by Pompeo, Attorney General William P. Barr and others — have given observers around the world reason to believe that the United States is really quite ordinary, no different from any other country. We are transactional and inwardly focused, not idealistic and worldly.
If Reagan, a man who believed that America really was a “city upon a hill,” was the most eloquent expositor of the apex of American exceptionalism, then Trump is the harbinger of its nadir.
I haven’t spoken to most of my former colleagues since I left the State Department in 2017. But I’d guess many are experiencing a kind of patriotic grief — grief for the damage done to a project in which so many have invested their whole professional careers, grief for the way an ethic of service to the Constitution and universal values has been replaced by a demand for fealty to the person of the president, and grief for the diminished role and stature of the United States.
I’m solidly in my 40s now; no longer young. But I’m among the youngest Americans who remember where we were when we learned that the wall had fallen. I was in Mrs. Baucum’s English class. I was a relatively precocious seventh-grader, but my sense of the significance of the moment was shaped more by the stupefied awe of the adults around me than by my own experience or awareness of international politics. I saw in their faces the effervescent hope that emerges when gates open — and I felt it, too. On tomorrow’s anniversary, we might remember that the United States has always been better at opening gates than tearing down — or building — walls.