The Foreign Service Journal, June 2009

This month, AFSAwill pres- ent its 41st annual Constructive Dissent Awards. This unique programbegan in 1968 with the WilliamR. Rivkin Award for ini- tiative, integrity and intellectual courage in the context of con- structive dissent by a mid-level Foreign Service officer. AFSA now offers simi- lar awards for Foreign Service special- ists and junior and senior generalists. Before attending his first AFSA awards ceremony, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked AFSA President Tom Boyatt what the constructive dis- sent awards were all about. After being told, Kissinger gave a knowing smile and asked rhetorically, “Youmean that I am giving awards to people who dis- agreed with me?” He proceeded to do just that, honoring Foreign Service members with the courage to speak out forthrightly, using appropriate channels, to take a stand by confronting the status quo, asking tough questions, offering al- ternative solutions, and giving the best counsel possible. This year’s ceremony will include awards in the categories of specialists and mid-level generalists. No nomina- tions were received for junior or senior FSOs. Before anyone draws negative conclusions about intellectual courage in today’s junior and senior ranks, please note that awards in those two categories were presented last year. Other evidence that con- structive dissent is not dead can be seen in the seven nom- inations submitted this year for the mid-level Rivkin Award. Hopefully, AFSA will receive multi- ple nominations in all four categories next year. Arguably, the problem is not a lack of dissenters, but rather a short- age of colleagues who recognized dis- sent by taking the time to submit nominations for an AFSA award. Along those lines, it is clear that not all members recognize the extent to which AFSA itself exemplifies con- structive dissent (not on foreign policy issues, but rather on management and personnel matters). One cause of this lack of recognition is that AFSA cannot always reveal everything that happens behind closed doors. For example, AFSA has engaged in numerous negotiations in recent years that succeeded in dissuading State De- partment management from taking shortsighted steps that would have had negative long-term implications on the Foreign Service. While we strive to keepmembers informed, some of these gains were achieved in tough negotia- tions that cannot be detailed without harming our ability to achieve future successes. Were AFSA to crow publicly about some of those victories, then fu- ture cooperation from powerful policy- makers might evaporate. AFSAmust also sometimes exercise prudent silence in the face of setbacks. As much as we might want to blast some agency’s poor decision, AFSA leaders must keep inmind that they will face that same policymaker in future negotiations. Foreign Servicemembers who have negotiated with foreign gov- ernments will understand this tactical decision not to burn bridges that may be needed in the future. Of course, blowing the whistle on personnel system shenanigans is some- times an effective way to shame agency management into following the rules. And sometimes the transgression is so blatant that AFSAmust make a “federal case” out of it, even if the result is re- duced cooperation on other issues. While AFSA will continue to speak out forthrightly, the ultimate objective is to advance our members’ interests. While members consistently say that they want AFSA to be vocal and as- sertive; they need it to be effective. Just like individual members who engage in constructive dissent, AFSA’s goal must not just be to point out what is wrong, but rather to effect a positive change in the situation. That is what the AFSA Governing Board has striven to do over the past two years. As our termof office nears its end, we thank you for giving us the op- portunity to fight the good fight on be- half of the U.S. Foreign Service. ■ John K. Naland is the president of the American Foreign Service Association. P RESIDENT ’ S V IEWS Constructive Dissent B Y J OHN K. N ALAND J U N E 2 0 0 9 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 5