The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017



However, I can’t imagine that Arch-

bishop Tutu would have considered any

government employee in apartheid-era

South Africa to be “neutral” in any mean-

ingful sense. Similarly, executive branch

employees publicly engaging in or calling

for “resistance” to the Trump “regime” are

engaging either in very shallow advocacy

or very deep hypocrisy.

No Neutrality

As executive branch employees, we are

each part of the Trump administration.

Anything else we do or say cannot escape

that simple fact. This is not to call into

question anyone’s sincerity who believes

that a line has been crossed, thereby creat-

ing a moral imperative for resistance—but

rather to point out that if you’ve judged

that something really is so bad as to be in

the territory of moral imperatives, then the

only first credible step is to stop serving

the administration.

This is not a call for all of us to quietly

go along with every decision a political

leader makes. Our responsibility (and

right, and privilege) is to inform, advise

and persuade our political leaders on

what we consider to be the best decisions,

drawing on the full breadth of our collec-

tive experience, knowledge and expertise.

At the extreme, this includes a responsi-

bility to make use of the Dissent Channel

when we believe an already-made policy

decision to be fundamentally unsound.

But the most recent publicized use of

the Dissent Channel—in response to the

January executive order on visa policy,

“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Ter-

rorist Entry into the United States,” com-

monly known as “the travel ban”—high-

lights the distinction between the policy

advocacy within the system that is our

responsibility, and the policy advocacy in

public that is our doom.

The Dissent Channel cable itself was an

excellent example of the proper role of the

professional bureaucracy. Drawing from

a wide range of knowledge and expertise,

those responsible for the implementation

of a new policy worked within the well-

established channel to articulate clearly

and compellingly the many likely negative

ramifications of the policy.

However, the full text of the cable,

along with the fact that it had collected

close to 1,000 signatories, leaked to the

media, apparently before the cable itself

had even been submitted. This kind of

leak (as with the leaking of the Syria dis-

sent cable in 2016) undermines the Dis-

sent Channel system. It gives the appear-

ance—accurate or not—that the formal

memorandizing of dissent was largely

undertaken for the purpose of public

advocacy via the leak.

That puts the political leadership of the

administration on the defensive publicly,

inevitably affecting any response to the

cable within the now-preempted estab-

lished process. Under the FAM, individual

Foreign Service officers can’t write a press

release articulating their disagreement

with administration policy as a means

of either public advocacy or political

pressure. But leaking a Dissent Channel

cable has the same effect while cloaking it

under the auspices of a formal, protected


So there are certain types of within-

the-system policy advocacy that are our

right—and actually our job—with the

Dissent Channel process being the most

extreme variation. On the flip side are the

activities clearly prohibited by the Hatch

Act or the FAM. In drawing a line some-

where in between them, just what higher

standard of public nonpartisanship am I

calling for?

It’s something I’ll call the Golden Rule

of Nonpartisanship: serve under lead-

ers you oppose as you would have others

serve under leaders you support; imple-

ment policies with which you disagree as

you would have others implement policies

with which you agree.

Nonpartisanship’s Golden


In this construct, I would consider the

Hatch Act and FAM akin to the Ten Com-

mandments. As a list of behaviors that are

prohibited or prescribed, the Ten Com-

mandments are a pretty good baseline for

societal behavior.

But if you’re looking for an ideal moral

code, things like “don’t kill” and “don’t

steal” set a pretty low bar for social norms.

The Golden Rule—to treat others as you

would have them treat you—may be

lacking in detail, but it at least sets a more

elevated, ideal objective.

Similarly, the rules found in the FAM

and Hatch Act are important to keep the

Foreign Service officially nonpartisan, but

ultimately do nothing more than tell us

what is technically prohibited or required.

This leaves a world of behavior, speech

and activities that are technically permit-

ted, but not necessarily wise if we care to

maintain a productive and effective work-

ing relationship between the professional

Foreign and Civil Service and our political


My formulation of the Golden Rule in

terms of both policy and leader is deliber-

ate, and highlights the various permitted

behaviors that I think we should nonethe-

less circumscribe for the long-term health

of the bureaucracy.

In the office, our implementation

of even the most personally repugnant

policies should do nothing to betray our

opinion of them. No officer should try to

maintain “personal credibility” or save face

by ensuring that subordinates, local staff or

external interlocutors know that they are

implementing that policy under duress.