For President Trump, the State Department has been largely an afterthought. He has regularly proposed steep cuts to the international affairs budget, left top posts vacant and consolidated control of diplomacy in the White House as the negotiator-in-chief. But now, the much-maligned State Department may be the president’s undoing.
Multiple high-level U.S. diplomats have testified during the House impeachment inquiry that Trump committed what Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called “bribery” to force the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on the president’s political opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Trump is accused of withholding nearly $400 million in crucial military aid to Ukraine and an Oval Office meeting with the country’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, unless Zelensky publicly announced investigations into Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy firm and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine tried to help Democrats during the 2016 election.
State Department officials have also testified that Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, took over the Ukraine portfolio and waged a shadow foreign policy campaign to advance the president’s personal political agenda.
One by one, seasoned diplomats such as William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. envoy to Ukraine; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent; former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie L. Yovanovitch; former Russia adviser Fiona Hill; and Gordon D. Sondland, Trump’s handpicked ambassador to the European Union, have given testimony that lends credence to Democratic arguments that Trump abused his office by trying to pressure a foreign power for personal political gain.
Trump has dismissed the impeachment proceedings as a “joke” and a deep state witch hunt. Republicans initially criticized the process of the Democratic-led impeachment hearings instead of addressing the substance of the charges. Even though those hearings have since been opened to the public, Republicans remain largely united behind Trump (as are the overwhelming majority of his supporters, according to polls).
Some GOP lawmakers have suggested that any quid pro quo, while inappropriate, is not an impeachable offense; others have argued for the president to distance himself from Giuliani and Sondland. But most have echoed Trump’s line of defense that the accusations are the work of partisan, unelected bureaucrats who want to reverse Trump’s election and who have no firsthand knowledge of the president’s interactions with Zelensky (those who do have been barred from testifying).
As Republicans seek to discredit the witnesses who have come forward, the diplomat who has come under perhaps the heaviest fire is Yovanovitch, the veteran U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly removed from her job in May.
Officials such as Kent and Taylor have accused Giuliani of a smear campaign to get Yovanovitch fired, possibly because she would have stood in the way of business dealings by two of Giuliani’s clients.
Yovanovitch’s colleagues lamented that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not do more to protect a respected diplomat from false attacks. Michael McKinley, a career diplomat and senior adviser to Pompeo, resigned because of Yovanovitch’s treatment and because he was “disturbed” by the reported efforts of administration officials to enlist foreign powers to hurt political opponents, a tactic that could “have a serious impact on foreign service morale and the integrity of our work overseas,” he said.
Morale has by most accounts plunged at the State Department, which had barely recovered from the disastrous tenure of Rex Tillerson. While Pompeo boasted that he would bring “swagger” back to State, he has since been criticized for not defending his own diplomats.
One of those critics is former U.S. Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II, who argues that Pompeo had to “throw an ambassador under the bus” in his efforts to stick by the president.
Brigety, who most recently served as the U.S. representative to the African Union, is now the dean of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Brigety held numerous postings in the State Department, including deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs and deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
A former active duty U.S. naval officer who holds a Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of Cambridge, he also held several staff positions in the Pentagon and conducted research missions in Afghanistan and Iraq for Human Rights Watch.
While most commentators have focused on the impeachment inquiry’s effect on domestic politics, less attention has been paid to the global consequences of the Ukraine scandal and the repercussions it has had on U.S. diplomacy.
From his office in Foggy Bottom, only a stone’s throw from State Department headquarters, Brigety is in constant contact with many foreign service officials, whom he says have been wrongly impugned as “never-Trumpers.”
He argues that with no clear foreign policy guidance from the White House, diplomats are unable to do their jobs, hamstrung by the whims of the president’s tweets. Meanwhile, countries from China to India are equally uncertain of the president’s foreign policy and rushing to fill the void left by his retrenchment.
Above all, Brigety worries that the way Trump has handled the levers of soft power has upended decades of statecraft. As an authority on the inner workings of those levers, Brigety offered us a sobering analysis of America’s standing in the world.
The Washington Diplomat: The impeachment inquiry is being seen from a domestic lens but what is being lost is the fact that this controversy emanated from the president’s handling of foreign policy. How do you view the president’s actions and his impact on the projection of U.S. diplomatic power?
Reuben Brigety: It’s a complicated issue. You are correct, at its root this is a foreign policy question. [President Trump] is, after all, the chief arbiter of American foreign policy. He decides how to engage a foreign interlocutor about a matter he felt was significant. That is broadly speaking his prerogative and the Constitution gives him broad leeway to do that.
It also gives the president broad leeway about how the president conducts foreign policy and whom he entrusts to do it. There have been famously important backchannels to interlocutors, whether it was Henry Kissinger’s backchannel that led to the opening of China in 1972 or the Obama backchannel that led to the Iran nuclear deal. That is not unusual.
Crucially, every ambassador serves at the pleasure of the president. He could withdraw every single one of them at will if he chose. In fact, every time a president is elected or re-elected, every ambassador submits his or her resignation as a matter of course. None of that is without precedent.
What is absolutely without precedent in American history is Donald Trump — as president of the United States — used all of these tools for the explicit purpose of advancing his domestic political fortunes in the United States vis-à-vis a foreign power. This is textbook what the framers [of the U.S. Constitution] had in mind when they were concerned about foreign influence in our democracy and holding the president to account up to and including removal by impeachment. The [current impeachment] process is valid as it is playing out.
What concerns me is if we cannot agree on basic standards of conduct governing the president of the United States, it is hard to see how, in the words of Ben Franklin, we can have a republic we can keep. It is impossible how we hold ourselves up as a model for others to emulate.
TWD: I want to follow up on the issue of backchannel diplomacy. How is what the president engaged in through his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine different than what we have seen in past backchannel engagement?
RB: The two biggest ways this is different is Rudy Giuliani is not an employee of the U.S. government and does not have a security clearance. Therefore, it is hard to see any way he is acting on behalf of the people of the United States. The second issue, what he was doing was for the purpose of supporting the president’s re-election purposes. Those things are highly problematic and unprecedented in the history of the republic.
TWD: The State Department has not been able to get on track under this administration, be it Rex Tillerson’s aloofness or Mike Pompeo’s lack of support for staff. You worked there. What are you hearing?
RB: My office has become like a speakeasy for State Department officials. Many come and say, ‘You have no idea how bad it is.’ Let me be clear, the State Department is not filled with ‘never Trumpers.’ Republican giants [James] Baker, [Colin] Powell and [George] Shultz understood the importance of diplomacy as a core component of American power and the State Department specifically as the means of projecting American diplomacy. They prided themselves on being able to do so regardless of a Democrat or Republican in office.
What they never had to presume is whether they served a president who took the oath of office as serious as they did. Not because morale is low, but [because diplomats] don’t know for sure if the president is acting in the interest of us or someone else. That’s the depth of the concern and why so many are willing to come forward.
The power of the secretary of state comes from the belief he or she speaks for the president and is the vicar of American diplomacy. And everyone in the rest of the world has to believe that and everyone in the State Department has to believe that. You have to be on the side of the president and have the support of people in the building.
Tillerson lost the building trying to cut the staff in an effort to get the support of Trump. Pompeo saw that and decided to stick close to Trump no matter what. To get his Ukraine deal, he had to throw an ambassador under the bus. The rest of the department saw that and said, ‘If it can happen to Yovanovitch, it can happen to any one of us.’ Given his dispute with Michael McKinley, it’s hard to see how Pompeo has any credibility left in the building.
TWD: How is the rest of the world looking at this Ukraine imbroglio?
RB: When I often give talks about Africa, a friend said there are enough countervailing facts that you can pick any set of facts to support any counter-narrative you want. One can argue that’s where we are in the current perception of American foreign policy. There are those — many of our allies in Europe — that think the U.S. is no longer thinking about them but thinking about ourselves and the president is acting on a mandate to withdraw and retrench and therefore they need to be thinking about their own position.
There are others who are arguing, ‘We don’t know if the word of the United States can be trusted.’ If you are Japan or South Korea, you have to be hedging your bets with regard to your strategic posture in the region because you don’t know if the United States is going to be there — certainly under the context of the current administration.
The counter-narrative is, to the extent Europe is more intently focused on its own security, great! That’s exactly what the president was elected to do. To the extent the president is withdrawing from a lot our positions in the Middle East, particularly Syria with regards to the Kurds, fine. You might not like the way he did it, [but he] pulled the poison, drew the knife out quickly. That’s the counter-narrative.
What is compelling is that there is even a debate. American foreign policy after World War II has been played within the 40-yard line with the exception of a couple of outliers. A Democratic president might focus more on human rights; a Republican president might focus a bit more on hard security.
But this president, through his words and actions, has challenged — in very real consequential terms — some of the underlying assumptions in American foreign policy, such as: we support trade and trade wars are bad; we support a global trading regime; or we absolutely, unquestionably are committed to NATO; or we are absolutely committed to the defense of South Korea. All these sorts of things are … now up for debate about where America stands. That, in a chaotic, challenging world, is problematic. And you will see or are seeing other countries, principally the Chinese and Russians and other places, trying to fill in those voids to their own benefit. That’s the danger.
TWD: Aside from the big and oft-repeated nations seeking to fill the void as you say, such as China, Russia and Turkey, what are some other nations that might seek to operate in a more open landscape without a heavy presence from the U.S.? And can the U.S. reclaim the space it’s now vacated on the international stage?
RB: Every nation is looking to see how it can position itself given current events. Take a country like India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is arguably in the mold of a number of increasingly nationalist leaders that have a particularly ethnic view about their country’s role. They see themselves less as a cosmopolitan international order [and more as] advancing the interest of their state by ethno-religious perspective. Take a look at what they’re doing in Kashmir, which is a play [the Indians] arguably would not have made four years ago if they thought they would get a much stronger rebuke by the U.S. Everybody is trying to be much more assertive about what they perceive as a decrease of American interest in maintaining these worldwide commitments.
Now to your question: Can America ever get back in the game? No, in the sense the rest of the world is figuring out what’s it like to get along without American leadership.
If President Trump woke up tomorrow and said, ‘I realize there are a number of things we need to do differently’; or if another Republican president were elected and took us back to the George H.W. Bush internationalism; or a Democrat were elected and wanted to take us back to a promotion of human rights, the rest of the world will know the U.S. no longer plays between the 40-yard line in terms of its foreign policy. The world will know a new president can come in and upend all these traditional commitments that they’re making.
The second thing they’ll know is there are other arrangements and new players they can make deals with. That’s what’s happening with China and Russia with respect to Africa. What the president has tried to do is not to argue that the idea of American leadership undergirding an imperfect but still discernible international order is no longer in our interests. We now, like any other country, just happen to have a stronger military and bigger economy than most. And that approach leads necessarily to a series of circumstances where everyone else tries to be the next bigger or powerful country as opposed to operating in a system in which we invite everybody or as many countries that want to play by these rules.
TWD: How does the U.S. diplomatic corps reset to meet this new paradigm shift?
RB: With regard to our professional diplomatic corps, they will advance whatever foreign policy they are getting from the president to the extent they can understand it, and to the extent it is discernible. No ambassador in the field knows that the instructions they are getting from D.C. via cable today will be relevant by the time they wake up tomorrow by tweet from the president…. [Trump’s] players don’t know what play the coach is going to call and secondarily, they’re not even sure if the coach is on the same team as they are — given what we’re seeing play out in Ukraine. That’s the challenge.
TWD: By this standard, the rest of the world has moved on and is no longer playing by the same standards as the U.S.?
RB: The world has moved on and they know: Why should they speak to the secretary of state or the country ambassador because they know the only thing that matters is getting to Trump. A number of countries are playing this out: the Saudis, the Japanese, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Turks. For the love of God, the president completely undercut years of painful counterinsurgency strategy to defeat ISIS with a 30-minute phone call with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan.
TWD: So not only has the world moved on without us, but even internally (within the State Department), there’s an irrelevance of leadership because all signs begin and end with Trump?
RB: That’s correct. The meta question underlying all of this as we head into an election year for the American people: Is this how we want to run our place in the world? Democracies get the leaders they deserve. If it is the judgment of the American people that this particular moment in our history and our world’s history that, not withstanding all the criticism, yes we are comfortable with this, then this is where America is going in terms of its place in the world. And the rest of the world will take notice.
About the Author
Eric Ham is a national security/political analyst on BBC, SkyNews and SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel and the creator of “The PJs! a.k.a. The Political Junkies” digital political show.