The Legacy of Tex Harris

President’s Views


The U.S. Foreign Service lost a giant in February when Tex Harris left us. Tex did more than any single individual to build today’s AFSA, and to lay the groundwork for AFSA to serve not only as the voice of the modern Foreign Service, but as its stalwart defender and advocate, as well.

Tex also believed passionately that members of the Foreign Service could not simply count on the goodwill of management, but needed rules and procedures in place to make sure that individual members of our Service were treated fairly and were able to defend themselves.

At AFSA, we take seriously our obligation to defend our members when they encounter difficulties. We are proud that we raised enough money for our Legal Defense Fund so that not one AFSA member who was called to testify in the recent impeachment battle is left with a single cent of liability for legal fees. We also have a significant balance of donations to cover our members facing legal bills in the future—and to defend our association if AFSA itself should encounter legal challenges.

The lessons of the McCarthy period in the 1950s resonate to this day. Hundreds of members of the Foreign Service were investigated, pilloried, persecuted and fired for specious reasons—in some cases for simply doing their jobs, reporting accurately on what they observed, or for being homosexual or suspected to be. At that time, AFSA did not stand up for them.

Let me be clear about where AFSA stands today: We will fight for our members, and we will fight for the practice of diplomacy, which is the alternative to war.

Our country’s security and prosperity depend heavily on our international engagement.

We are passionate about our commitment to nonpartisan, nonpolitical service to our country. We will loyally serve whomever the American people elect as their leaders and work assiduously to ensure the success of the policies established by our elected leaders. But we expect respect for our patriotism and service in return.

There are other things to say about the legacy of Tex Harris. More than any other U.S. diplomat, Tex advanced the notion that America is about values, that our country stands for more than just our own self-interest. Along with Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Derian, he pioneered the idea that our diplomacy must include a commitment to basic norms of human rights, and that ignoring or supporting gross violations of those values undermines our standing in the world. His human rights work in 1977-1979 Argentina still stands as an outstanding example for the Service.

Surely we have not always lived up to that standard, to our principles. But the world still needs the United States to be a leader among nations to work for peace and progress. The post–World War II era was shaped by the United States. Its institutions were largely our creation. And the result was the single longest period of peace and prosperity in human history.

We serve our country, with dedication and loyalty. But in working for our country, we work for the world. Our country’s security and prosperity depend heavily on our international engagement. No one can or will replace the United States if it withdraws from engagement in the world’s affairs. Americans need us—and the world needs us.

Tex also passionately believed in the importance of constructive dissent. The culture of the U.S. Foreign Service, and the value that we bring to the table, emphasizes the importance of speaking truth to power—confidentially and internally—and insists that we can only get the right results in policy deliberations when there is a real discussion informed by career expertise and knowledge.

For those of you considering whether to remain in public service, I repeat the request I have made before. Please stay. Please continue serving our country, and know that the work you do matters—a lot.

Ambassador Eric Rubin is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.