Halloween is when people don costumes and pretend they’re someone else, so this is a great day for supporters of the current president to pretend they are bullish on America’s global reputation.
Pretense is all that’s left because America hasn’t been so bereft in decades. If international diplomacy can be likened to a game of strip poker, then Uncle Sam is naked, alone and in the dark.
Strategic alliances are essential in a world of pervasive threat, which is why second-graders form cliques in the lunchroom and prisoners form gangs in the exercise yard. The more allies you have, the safer you are.
So it’s disheartening to watch President Donald Trump carelessly roil America’s long-term alliances. Eight days after taking office, he was picking a fight with the prime minister of Australia. Since then, he’s gone out of his way to tangle with the leaders of Canada and Great Britain, to name a few of America’s best friends.
Really? A man with no foreign policy experience, barely warm in his chair, sticking his thumb in the eyes of our closest allies. Really?
It’s diplomatic malpractice, and it gets worse.
As we pull back our small, low-cost and low-risk military force from Syria, you can be sure the Islamic State will be back. And as we dangle the promise of military aid over Ukraine’s head, you can be sure there will be further meddling in America’s internal affairs.
Alarming as these developments are, they are ephemera compared to our president’s sneering contempt for America’s intelligence agencies and diplomatic corps.
Grievous damage is being done, but don’t take my word for it.
“In my three and a half decades as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, proudly serving five presidents and 10 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 to our international influence, as the one now underway,” writes William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state.
Before dismissing Burns as a “deep state” apparatchik, consider his Oct. 14 essay in the prestigious, nonpartisan journal, “Foreign Affairs.” It is a sobering look at where American foreign policy has been in the past 33 months – and where it’s heading.
Not since the days of Joe McCarthy has an American politician done so much to demoralize – and defenestrate – the career diplomats he purports to lead. For those keeping score, McCarthy drove off 81 State Department employees with his shameless, Red-baiting accusations.
Of Trump, Burns writes, “His is a diplomacy of narcissism, bent on advancing private interests at the expense of our national interests.”
As Trump trashes the expertise of America’s career diplomats, and his toadies stand by passively, the State Department is emptying as good people — with irreplaceable institutional knowledge — simply give up and walk out the door.
Applications to join the Foreign Service are at their lowest level in more than 20 years, Burns writes. Meanwhile, more ambassadorships have been filled with political appointees – usually donors – than in any administration in recent history.
“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,” Burns writes.
“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.”
Trump’s response to criticism of this sort is that he doesn’t need advice because, well, he’s an expert on everything. “I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” he famously quipped.
Thanks to our president’s ample gut, American diplomacy will take a lot longer to fix than it has taken to break.
William Brock lives in Pullman.