Bleeding Expertise

Drip, drip, drip…

No, I’m not alluding to the daily emergence of new evidence confirming the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. I’m talking about the accelerating rate at which people who actually know what they are doing are abandoning this bizarre administration.

When the CEO of your company, or the Executive of your political subdivision, or the President of the United States is intellectually and emotionally unfit to lead, the people who work for that company or city or branch of the federal government face an uncomfortable choice: do they hang in there and try to make things work despite the dysfunction at the top? Or do they weigh their ability to do their jobs against the likelihood that their continued employment is simply enabling dangerous incompetence?

One long-time American diplomat who concluded that he had to resign wrote a column in which he explained his decision. David Rank had been a member of the U.S. Foreign Service since 1990. Most recently, he ran the U.S. Embassy in China.

This month, I resigned from the State Department’s Foreign Service, stepping down as the senior U.S. diplomat in China and ending a 27-year career. I served five presidents — three Republicans and two Democrats — and, like my colleagues throughout the Foreign Service, took pride in the tradition of loyal, nonpartisan service. I also took seriously my oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and the obligations that came with representing the American people.

When the administration decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, however, I concluded that, as a parent, patriot and Christian, I could not in good conscience be involved in any way, no matter how small, with the implementation of that decision.

The job he held all those years was hardly what you’d call “cushy:” Rank had his close calls with bombs, guns and grenades;  his father died when he was on assignment in Taiwan. His mother died while he was in Afghanistan. He missed both the birth of his first child and his only son’s senior year of high school.

Government workers make those sacrifices because they believe in the importance of the service they are rendering.

Rank says he leaves with gratitude for his experiences, for his colleagues and for the opportunity to serve his country. But he also leaves with deep-seated concerns.

I worry about the impact my departure will have on colleagues who remain. Many of these colleagues, some with decades of contributions ahead of them, share my dismay not just at the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement but also at the unraveling of 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy that has made the world and the United States safer and more prosperous. Rather than encourage them to follow my example, I hope my departure will send a message on their behalf so that they can continue to work within the system to make things a little bit better, a little bit at a time. That work will always be honorable work and, I suspect, will be more important than ever in the coming years.

I worry about the frequently politically motivated portrayal of those who work for the American people as members of some mythical elite, separate and suspicious. Such false characterizations drive talented Americans away from public service or discourage them from entering it in the first place. My experience has been that those who work for America look like America. For my part, I certainly never felt particularly “bicoastal.” I was raised in a decidedly working-class town south of Chicago. My wife grew up showing hogs and cutting corn out of beans. Like many of my colleagues, I am a product of a public education, from grade school to grad school.

I worry about the denigration of expertise at a time when a complex world demands it more than ever.

For my part, I worry about the loss of people like David Rank. And I especially worry, as he does, about the future of a country that sneers at knowledge and education as elitism, competence as snobbery, and uncongenial facts as “fake news.”