Safeguarding a Nonpartisan Foreign Service

Speaking Out


In 15 years of working for the federal government, I’ve always tried to remain diligently apolitical. I believe that I am most effective in advancing or implementing the policies and interests of the U.S. government when I haven’t previously articulated my personal opinions on those policies or the elected leaders making them.

I was introduced to the concept of “principled nonvoting” as a young ROTC cadet. Abstention from politics, to the extreme of not voting, was part of the professional ethic of a nonpolitical military. It was meant to reassure elected leaders—and the public—that the military’s loyalty would not have to be questioned every four years. The practice prevailed among the officer corps in the U.S. military from the end of the Civil War until the aftermath of World War II, when it began to break down.

Over the years, I have personally found principled nonvoting to be a valuable practice, yet I have also repeatedly questioned that belief. Voting is a civic responsibility—not just a right—and that consideration has often challenged my thinking on this matter.

There have also been elections where I thought passionately that the outcome mattered, and I strongly supported (or opposed) one alternative over another. But each time I have returned to the arguments supporting principled nonvoting and concluded that, for me at least, they take precedence.

Never has that belief and that practice been as difficult as in 2016. It’s one thing to disagree with the policy judgments of a party or candidate, but it is quite another to believe that a candidate is fundamentally unfit for office and would pose a bona fide danger to the republic if elected: Yet I remain silent.

The Value of Nonpartisanship

Being apolitical is actually pretty easy in epochs of the muddled middle. Apart from the most committed partisan, did anyone really feel at the time that the country would have been led in wildly different directions depending on the outcome of Bush/Clinton, Clinton/Dole or Gore/Bush? The true test of the principle of an apolitical bureaucracy—and its essential value—is when one side offers a candidate, platform or policy so fundamentally unacceptable that every fiber of your being compels you to speak out against it.

Opinions about each of our last three presidents were relatively polarized, either due to their actions, policies, attributes or the political climate at the time. So I feel safe in assuming that anyone reading this can think of at least one friend or colleague who regularly voiced disdain for one or another of them, whether in the form of a shared link on Facebook, idle talk at a bar or something more formal and politically active. How would those opinions shade your confidence in the opinion-makers’ diligence implementing the policies of their despised commander in chief?

This is a proposal for a baseline standard of political discretion: keep our ballots secret, along with the preferences we bring to them.

Between career stints in the Army, at the FBI and now at State during those three presidencies, I have repeatedly heard such opinions expressed about candidates, sitting presidents and former presidents. Never, in my experience, has such opining improved the dogmatists’ ability to accomplish their missions—in fact, it is often easy to identify ways that it has detracted from it.

How can you effectively motivate subordinates to work on a task when you’ve made clear your personal opposition to the policy it supports? How can you effectively advance a position when you’ve made clear your disdain for the person who established it?

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 nonpolitical military originated in the post-Civil War period when General William Tecumseh Sherman, who took command of the U.S. Army in 1869, insisted on keeping the institution out of partisan 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 arguably have been maintained by senior military leaders simply remaining silent about their political opinions and voting preferences. However, the professional officer corps considered that insufficient: 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 loyalties might be relevant, so the nonpartisanship 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 preferences based on whatever hints they could glean, possibly with implications more disruptive than if partisan affiliation 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 scratching 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. Instead, 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 grandparents and Trailing Houses questions; deflect cocktail party questions about the candidates with discussions about the process, and limit the happy hour derision to other governments’ leaders.

This entreaty comes with two important caveats. First, I am proposing 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 professional efficacy, not make new rules, set new limits or restrict anyone’s right to make personal judgments about appropriate, desired levels of political participation.

My real hope in writing this is that we have a conversation or at least some introspection about the question: How much public political participation is appropriate for the professional Foreign Service to remain truly nonpartisan?

The second caveat is the Nazi exception. 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 decision, we obviously have the opportunity to address the issue through the chain of command.

When the chain of command is unresponsive 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 Dissent 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 intrinsically partisan, and a call for diligent nonpartisanship has no implication for the appropriate use of any of these avenues of dissent. But a campaign speech that includes a proposal that could merit any of these actions is not the same as a policy directive to be followed or rejected.

In the event that such a proposal becomes policy, each of us will have to determine what our personal red line is to merit rejecting it. This will vary, not just on the basis of personal judgment, but on rank, position and responsibilities. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, the police chief in Dachau likely reached a point of personal moral responsibility for regime actions long before the postman did.

A Conversation Needed

I started this piece with the observation that this is a particularly difficult year to remain nonpartisan. In the end, it hasn’t wound up that way for me. I find one candidate for president to be completely unacceptable in fundamental, unalterable ways. (I’m comfortable stating this, despite the thrust of this article, because from the Army to the Department of State my social network is broad enough to include people who would say that about either major candidate in this election; so my statement is actually more ambiguous than it seems to any one reader.) But that absolute abhorrence for one electoral option drives home for me how important it is that I not participate, for the sake of my professionalism.

This is a sensitive topic and my position is a relatively extreme one, so I know it won’t be for everyone. I’ve made the case here for my answer, but my real hope in writing this is that we have a conversation or at least some introspection about the question: How much public political participation is appropriate for the professional Foreign Service to remain truly nonpartisan?

Matt Tompkins is currently a vice consul in Santo Domingo and previously served in Guatemala City. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he held intelligence and policy positions with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and served as a U.S. Army officer.