According to an old adage, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent abroad to lie for the good of his country.”
Gender considerations aside, this view, expressed by Thomas Wotton, an early 17th century English diplomat in the service of James I., remains applicable to this day.
Diplomats are supposed to be people charged with forming relations of trust abroad and maintaining the required trust at home that, posted however far away, they do not disgrace themselves or the country they represent.
They are abroad to serve the constitutional interests, i.e., “the good” of their country, as far as and wherever its interests are at stake.
Precisely how they have to spin their message — or as Wotton puts it, “lie” — is a matter for decision in individual cases, with the iron proviso that if a lie destroys trust, the diplomat in question will lose all effectiveness in future.
Diplomats as policymakers, not just representatives
What Wotton’s pithy definition does not include is the role of diplomats as contributors to policymaking at home. They bring an indispensable perspective, and often a reality check to decisions of their political masters back in the capital city.
For that input to have value, it must be informed, complete and objective. Whatever diplomats do abroad, they cannot be less than fully candid with those making the policy at home that the diplomats are subsequently expected to execute abroad.
What the Ukraine investigation shows is that diplomats were obliged to make a critical choice: Should they be candid with the U.S. Congress — or indeed, lie to Congress in the partisan interest of the government in power.
Drawing a line
Different parts of the U.S. diplomatic system appear to have made different decisions on how to make these distinctions. Career diplomats chose to draw a line. Those ambassadors who essentially bought their commissions through campaign contributions, decided to cross that line of propriety and truthfulness.
Ambassadors are formally appointed by their Head of State, i.e., as a representative of the country they hail from and the values that constitute it. They are not the personal representative of the politician atop the government at any given time.
This distinction may seem like a constitutional nicety, but it is one that most professionals active in the field of diplomacy in advanced democracies take to heart. They represent their country, not just the political interests of those in power.
Is this to be judged differently in countries where, like in the United States, the President is both head of state and head of government?
The dual nature of the American Presidency can in some cases indeed create confusion as to whether national and political interest is supreme in the direction which the diplomatic representatives receive from him and his office.
The constitution vs. “the boss”
While conflicts between the constitution and the currently prevailing political order have not been common, in the Ukraine case, this does not apply.
Critical constitutional norms have been ignored in the management of U.S. diplomacy and diplomats have been directed to withhold or twist information from those providing constitutional oversight at home.
Professional diplomats know that not only must they work within the confines of the constitution both at home and abroad.
When challenged, they have to put loyalty to the national interest, which is permanent, above partisan preferences, which are transitory.
Two types of diplomats
Under Trump, U.S. diplomats appear to have to make this distinction at their own peril. This is what is at the root of the intramural war within the U.S. State Department.
On one side, the political appointees — i.e., those who essentially bought their commissions — were prepared to disregard the constitution in their actions abroad and were prepared to lie to their own countrymen at home. On the other side are the career diplomats who were not prepared to do so.
Mr. Trump has sought to discredit the latter as the “deep state,” as if holding onto the idea of the United States as the source of a values-based world order is a disgrace.
This severely misrepresents what career diplomats stand for and how they are trained to act. They are members of a duty-driven service that is sworn to uphold the values of the constitution even if those stand in the way of the current top holder of political power, whatever the consequences for their country.
The stakes in the Ukraine controversy are very high and go beyond the controversy itself.
If the “diplomatic code” of preserving the constitutional bounds is to be a victim of Trumpian politics, this will significantly alter the role of the United States in global affairs.
The world will have lost the long-time key engineer who has driven and given shape and direction to the present world order.
The alternative, as all have reason to fear, is entropy and chaos.
This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together. Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And sign up for our highlights email here.