The Foreign Service Journal, February 2010

Taking constructive dissent — informed alternative views —seriously is essential both to healthy institutions and effec- tive policy. This means consis- tently promoting and nurtur- ing a corporate culture that publicly values creative, vigor- ous challenges to conventional wisdom, and is not satisfied with only the form, rather than the substance, of dissent. With this in mind, and motivated by experience with the consequences of failed foreign policies, the American Foreign Service Association established the Harriman, Rivkin and Herter Award programs in 1968 to recognize constructive dissent by entry-level, mid- level and senior Foreign Service offi- cers, respectively. AFSA added the Harris Award for constructive dissent by FS specialists in 2000. For its part, the State Department established the Dissent Channel in 1971 and codified the procedures gov- erning it in the Foreign Affairs Manual. Over the past 40 years, more than 250 dissent messages have been submitted, although the numbers diminished no- ticeably in the last decade. Yet as far as is known, few if any of them ever led to real changes in department policy. How can we reinvigorate and rein- stitutionalize constructive dissent in a way that is relevant to today’s Foreign Service? How can we give it the attention that it deserves? In today’s open- source environment, some of the areas meriting close re- view are the need to protect the confidentiality of dis- senters, their dissents and the re- sponses; the current procedures as outlined in the Foreign Affairs Manual; the relationship of dissent messages to the department’s Open Forum, which has largely withered in recent years; and the interplay between external and in- ternal critiques of policy. Some go so far as to ask whether the Dissent Channel still has any role. Do senior policymakers at State pay any at- tention to submissions, much less act on them? Others questionwhether AFSA’s constructive dissent awards program meets the high standards envisaged by the programs’ founders. Various explanations could account for the sharp falloff in the number of dissent messages submitted in recent years: the continuingmarginalization of the Foreign Service in the foreign poli- cymaking process; the decades-long budgetary starvation of all five foreign affairs agencies, leading to deterioration in physical and technological infrastruc- ture; the proliferation of think-tanks issuing foreign policy papers; and the growing number of political appointees in senior positions at home and abroad. Whatever the relative importance of these factors, one thing is beyond dis- pute. It is time for our career Foreign Service to rise again to the challenge of generating high-quality, thoughtful, constructive dissent, with the goal of contributing to more successful U.S. foreign policy and fewer policy failures. Surely we bring to the table special per- spectives to improve the shaping and implementation of policy. We recently circulated via AFSAnet the existing procedures for submitting Dissent Channel messages. We are also engaging with the Policy Planning Of- fice to revive the Open Forum process. And we continue to look for new ways to publicize and solicit nominations of members who have fulfilled themission of our four constructive dissent award programs, both in the pages of the Jour- nal and in other forums. We welcome your ideas on how to reinvigorate both formal and informal channels of dissent, thereby motivating more AFSA members to challenge conventional wisdom where it falls short. In particular, we invite all of you to nominate colleagues you see perform- ing this role for an appropriate AFSA Constructive Dissent Award. (The deadline for nominations is Feb. 26.) You’ll find the procedures and lists of previous winners on our Web site ( ). Or feel free to contact me at ■ Susan R. Johnson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association. P RESIDENT ’ S V IEWS Making Dissent Meaningful Again B Y S USAN R. J OHNSON F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 0 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 5