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When you’re reporting back to a

superior on a task that didn’t go as

planned or a mission that just couldn’t

be accomplished, will they attribute it

to the practical impediments that you

describe, or to your previously stated

political disdain?

Origins of the Nonpartisan

Professional Ethic

The professional ethic of a nonpoliti-

cal military originated in the post-Civil

War period when General William

Tecumseh Sherman, who took com-

mand of the U.S. Army in 1869, insisted

on keeping the institution out of par-

tisan politics. The traumatic divisions

of the nation that had led to war were

often reflected among senior officers,

but in time the political neutrality of the

career military became well established.

Among other things, this contributed

critically to the effective function of

the civil-military relationship through

World War II and beyond.

Such nonpartisanship could argu-

ably have been maintained by senior

military leaders simply remaining silent

about their political opinions and voting

preferences. However, the professional

officer corps considered that insuf-

ficient: in practice, nonparticipation to

the extreme of complete abstention was

followed by most officers down to the

junior levels. It was impossible to draw

the line of when an officer would be

senior enough that their political loyal-

ties might be relevant, so the nonparti-

sanship of all officers mattered.

And, critically, it was thought that

even the most discreet conduct of

political participation still invited

speculation: partisan interlocutors

would simply assume political prefer-

ences based on whatever hints they

could glean, possibly with implications

more disruptive than if partisan affili-

ation had simply been declared. It was

best for all officers to simply abstain

from voting altogether.

A Baseline Standard of

Political Discretion

I initially anticipated that I would

make a case for principled nonvoting

in the Foreign Service in this space.

Our responsibility to faithfully and

effectively represent the interests and

advance the policies of the United

States is more important than scratch-

ing a personal political itch, supporting

a preferred candidate or taking a shot at

one on Facebook.

But forgoing one’s vote may not be

for everyone, and I recognize that for a

cohort as steeped in policy decisions as

this one it’s unrealistic to propose that

people completely abstain from politics.


this is a proposal for a baseline

standard of political discretion: keep our

ballots secret, along with the preferences

we bring to them; limit Facebook posts

to sightseeing, kid pictures for the grand-

parents and Trailing Houses questions;

deflect cocktail party questions about the

candidates with discussions about the

process, and limit the happy hour deri-

sion to other governments’ leaders.

This entreaty comes with two

important caveats. First, I am propos-

ing a professional ethos we should

collectively follow, not a policy that

should be implemented. The

Hatch Act

is more than sufficient for establishing

the minimum requirements to maintain

the apolitical nature of the bureaucracy.

This is a case to safeguard our profes-

sional efficacy, not make new rules,

set new limits or restrict anyone’s right

to make personal judgments about

appropriate, desired levels of political


The second caveat is the Nazi excep-

tion. We all have a moral responsibility

to reject policies we determine to be

immoral on a fundamental level and a

legal responsibility to refuse unlawful

orders. When we disagree with a deci-

sion, we obviously have the opportunity

to address the issue through the chain

of command.

When the chain of command is unre-

sponsive or shares the “party line” and

is unable to see the different perspective

objectively, we have a right (and arguably

a responsibility) to make use of the Dis-

sent Channel to flag the issue for senior

consideration. And, in the extreme, we

have the right and eventual responsibility

to resign in the face of a policy or order

that we consider illegal or immoral.

None of these actions are intrinsi-

cally partisan, and a call for diligent

nonpartisanship has no implication

for the appropriate use of any of these

avenues of dissent. But a campaign

My real hope in writing this is that

we have a conversation or at least some

introspection about the question:

Howmuch public political participation

is appropriate for the professional Foreign

Service to remain truly nonpartisan?