BY TOM YAZDGERDI
This issue of the Journal focuses on dissent in the Foreign Service—one of the most important things we can do to ensure policymakers have alternative views on foreign policy and personnel issues. AFSA gives awards for constructive dissent within the system each year to an entry-, mid-, and senior-level FSO, and an FS specialist. These awards are unique in the U.S. government, and we are proud to honor our colleagues in this way.
Use of the Dissent Channel, which AFSA has also strongly supported over the decades, must be protected. But how any FS member uses it is incredibly important. As AFSA has said in the past, constructive dissent within the system can thrive and be successful only if it remains confidential and confined to internal discussion within the executive branch.
Failure to protect the confidentiality of constructive dissent can lead to a fear of disclosure or retaliation that may dissuade career employees from offering their best professional advice. We have seen instances of Dissent Channel messages leaked to the press—creating a lack of trust between the administration and the career Foreign Service.
As I write this column in late October, we are all still processing the horrific attacks by Hamas against Israeli and other civilians and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Many of our members have strong views about these developments—no one can be unmoved by the terrible images.
At such a fraught time—facing what is arguably one of the most intractable problems in the world, that of bringing durable peace, security, prosperity, and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians—the Dissent Channel is more important than ever.
AFSA has reminded our members that while free speech and expression are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, there are limitations on what actions you can take as a Foreign Service member, especially on official government time.
Most folks think dissent must involve an earthshaking foreign policy issue, and sometimes it does. But it does not have to. This year’s AFSA dissent award recipients each argued for policies that improve the way the State Department handles personnel.
This included getting State to provide benefits to same-sex partners of locally employed (LE) staff; improve an embassy’s emergency response procedures; and effect systemic change to bring greater support to FS dependents with disabilities.
These efforts made an impact and provided relief to our members, their dependents, and LE staff colleagues. Congratulations to them for their courage and initiative!
There are various ways to dissent, as the AFSA dissent award winners show. You can express your views through the normal supervisory chain, or through the Policy Ideas Channel and the newly invigorated Secretary’s Open Forum. But it is gratifying to know there is a time-honored institutionalized channel for dissent and that all those messages are read by the Secretary of State.
There may be times though when a member of the Foreign Service feels so strongly guided by the dictates of their conscience that they are compelled to resign.
I saw this in 1991 as a Presidential Management Intern in what was then the Office of Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia. My main task was to help prepare daily press guidance on the deteriorating situation in Yugoslavia. It was a depressing job, trying to put the best spin on a bad situation getting worse by the day. An FSO on the team felt so demoralized by what he saw as a lack of action by the administration that he resigned.
If you resign, you can go to the press and speak publicly. That’s your right. But where possible, I would argue that it’s best to stay in and try to change policy from within.
We should all take great satisfaction that Foreign Service agencies guarantee the right to express—internally—dissenting policy views, which is unknown in other parts of the U.S. government.
Wishing you and your family a joyous holiday season!
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