Diplomatic Discourse and Dissent

by Peggy McGuinness

One of Julian’s earlier postings linked to an anonymous group of Republican Foreign Service Officers who appear to have a lot to say — most of it in the form of invective and ad hominem attacks — about the efficacy of UNICEF, foreign aid programs generally, and their fellow American diplomats. The blog would hardly be worth mentioning, except for the fact of its very existence. Assuming that these bloggers are who they say they are, is what they are doing proper? This is an interesting question for anyone teaching foreign relations law and those of you who advise students on careers in the Foreign Service.

As a former FSO myself, I feel strongly that the Foreign Service should reflect America’s geographical, racial, religious, cultural, socio-economic and, yes, political diversity. FSOs have a difficult but crucial role to play in our foreign policy-making process: to interpret American policy and, increasingly, business and societal trends, to their foreign counterparts and interpret and analyze foreign political, economic and cultural trends for policy makers in Washington. They also play a crucial role of protecting the interests of the 2 million or so Americans living overseas. (And you need look no further than the names of FSOs killed while in service of United States etched in marble in the lobby of the State Department for a grim reminder of the sacrifices American diplomats and their families have made in protecting American interests.) Diversity of perspectives is crucial to carrying out effectively the reporting and representation aspects of the job. But the very nature of that role requires FSOs to limit public statements to the contours of US policy as laid out by the President in the exercise of his foreign policy powers.

The rules governing what FSOs can and cannot say in public recognize this need and quite explicitly require approval of public statements, even those made in an “unofficial” or “private capacity”, if the statements touch on “official matters”, which would include just about any international policy issue. (Full text of the regulation, 10 FAM 121.1, is available on the State Department website.) The reality is, when an FSO is serving overseas, she is rarely, if ever, in a setting that is not “official” in nature. What, then, is an FSO permitted to do if she disagrees with the President’s policies?

During the Vietnam war, in response to complaints that dissenting views on policy had been shut down at the intermediate level before reaching senior policy makers in Washington, the Department instituted the “dissent channel,” which allows any State Dept employee, regardless of rank, to have her views heard by the Secretary and Under Secretaries. (Here is a brief history of the dissent channel and here is a copy of the full policy, which includes protections against reprisals for using the channel.) It has been invoked hundreds of times in the past three decades, and saw quite a bit of traffic during the early 1990s when many FSOs felt frustrated by the lack of a US military response to atrocities in the Balkans.

If attempts to change the policy through use of the dissent channel fail, an FSO has only one resort: resignation. Indeed, FSOs have made public their resignations due to disagreements over the Vietnam war , failure to intervene in Bosnia, and, most recently, the invasion of Iraq. (Here is an illustration of how an FSO handled disagreement, dissent and finally resignation from the Foreign Service over opposition to Iraq policy.) Otherwise, an FSO’s job is to keep her personal views private and carry out the agenda that the President and Secretary of State have set out. It’s part of the deal you sign onto when you take the oath of office.

Admittedly, there are times when FSOs, particularly those in more senior policy-making positions, have ignored the rules and “gone public” on policy disagreements without Department approval and without invoking the dissent channel. (Unauthorized leaks were almost de rigueur during the Vietnam era, and some observers have claimed that the dissent channel was in part designed to keep disagreement out of the papers.) Isn’t the blogosphere the same thing? I don’t think it is. Journalists generally talk to more than one source in reporting the story. The FSO that goes on “background” with a reporter is not guaranteed a public statement and faces potential rebuttal by other sources. And, when an FSO leaks without authorization, she knows she is also risking reprimand inside the department. That does not, so far, appear to be the case for the bloggers.

Vigorous debate within our foreign policy apparatus is crucial to good decision making. But taking personal rants on issues of international policy and national security to the blogosphere while hiding under a cloak of anonymity appears not only against the rules, but — how shall I put it — undiplomatic.


2 Responses

  1. The above is a cheap shot that grossly misrepresents the contribution of diplomadic.blogspot.com, which has been to provide fact-based, firsthand evidence of UN incompetence and self-promotion at the expense of people actually delivering aid and saving lives in Aceh and elsewhere. The notion that these bloggers are out of line is ridiculous. Wrong century, my dear.

  2. Peggy McGuiness is right on target. The foreign service should reflect the best of America, and serve as a model to the world of what a diverse society can accomplish. Slight change of subject: There is a growing controversy in the State Department over changes in the security clearance process, which threaten to undo the strides State has made to become more diverse. I call your attention to Steve Barr’s column in the Sunday (August 13) Washington Post. Security functions should not be abused as a tool for reducing diversity. Moreover, once you start down this road, you can actually negatively impact American security, by reducing the efficiency of the Department.

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