Monday, June 19, 2017

When diplomats rebel

Steven Pike,; see also.

When diplomats rebel
© Getty Images
Diplomats generally prefer to do their work quietly. They may make news, but usually seek to avoid becoming the news.  On those rare occasions when they do, it is worth notice. 
The resignation on Monday of the Chargé d’affairs of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, David H. Rank, over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords is one of several atypical incidents of American diplomats sounding discordant notes in the foreign policy symphony. Breitbart outlets are scolding the Chargé d’affairs [JB- sic] in London, Lewis Lukens, for positive comments about the Mayor of London, and other reports mention the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, tweeting that “news from home” (the firing of FBI Director James Comey) would make it harder to explain American democracy and institutions.  In fact, the Trump administration entered office to unprecedented criticism from America’s diplomats, as more than 1,000 American diplomats joined a “dissent cable” against the administration’s travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim countries.
Citizens who think that the executive branch exists simply to do as they’re told by the president may find such events confusing. Some denounce them as evidence of subversive sabotage by hangovers from a prior administration. That conclusion is not just wrong, it is dangerously misguided. Dissent by America’s professional diplomats has a long and principled history, and has often been a warning that foreign policy is hazardously off course.
The modern foreign service blends 18th and 19th century European traditions of diplomacy with American experiences as old as the diplomatic missions of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and as recent as World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, and Iraq. American diplomatic culture draws more from European tradition than just vocabulary — words such as attaché, démarche, and chargé.  Traditions of service to king and country imbue it with a sense of mission above simply following orders. Diplomats are hired for their expertise, knowledge, and judgment. They are well-educated, well-informed experts in the countries, cultures, and issues they manage, and problem-solvers in a complicated world. Their loyalty, importantly, is not to any particular administration, but to the American people and to the Constitution to which they swear allegiance.
The tension between just following orders and allegiance to a higher mission was repeatedly refined by fire in the crucible of 20th century American history, when a new corps of American diplomats sought to rebuild Europe and stop the spread of communism. They developed a deep sense of mission and moral duty, and a permanent sense of a higher calling than simply doing what you’re told.  
In the 1950s, State Department leadership ignored advice that Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists were a spent force and turned on its own diplomats as Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked their patriotism and integrity for “losing China.” A crackdown on all forms of dissent produced obeisance and acquiescence, but McCarthy’s ultimate fall left smoldering resentment that the foreign service had been both right and unjustly treated.
Dissent over the Vietnam War established, in the foreign service and the military, the principle that objection to bad policy was not only proper and legal, but a patriotic duty.
The Department and the American Foreign Service Association (the professional association of American diplomats) created mechanisms to channel dissent in dialogue. The Secretary’s Open Forum allowed diplomats to raise administrative, management, and policy concerns. Awards for constructive dissent turned complaints into searches for solutions.  A formal Dissent Channel guaranteed that principled policy disputes would receive high-level review and protection from retaliation. The frequency of its use and impact on policy has varied over the years.  A 1992 message castigating American inaction in Bosnia is credited with ultimately leading to the Dayton Accords; a 2016 critique of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria, however, produced no policy change.  
America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the formative experience for today’s foreign service.  Stung by accusations that Saddam Hussein interpreted unclear messages as acquiescence to invade Kuwait, the Department put all its expertise to building the coalition that reversed the invasion.  Patriotism likewise drove American diplomats readily to serve in post-conflict Afghanistan.  Conversely, expert advice from the State Department was dismissed and ignored at the start of the second Persian Gulf War (2001), just as it had been with China decades earlier.  That advice turned out to be disastrously correct, and insult was added to injury when diplomats were tasked to clean up messes that heeding their advice might have prevented.
Which brings us to the current day. Dissent cables, occasional off-message statements by professional diplomats, and the individual resignation on principle may not resonate loudly with the American public. In the context of history, however, signs that trained, professional diplomats cannot execute policy and expert advice is ignored are the proverbial canary in the coal mine: important signals of dire trouble ahead. 

Steven Pike is Assistant Professor of Public Relations and Public Diplomacy at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He retired from the U.S. foreign service in 2016 after a 23 year career as a diplomat.

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