The Foreign Service Journal, September 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | SEPTEMBER 2021 19 SPEAKING OUT The Remonstrating Official BY TED OS I US Ted Osius, a career diplomat with the State Department Foreign Service for 28 years, served as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017. In October 2021, Rutgers University Press will publish his book, Nothing Is Impossi- ble: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam , with a foreword by John Kerry. I n the village of Duong Lam near Son Tay, west of Hanoi, is a quiet, terra cotta temple dedicated to a diplomat. A decorated scholar-official, Giang Van Minh served as Vietnam’s ambassador to China starting in 1637. He outsmarted China’s emperor, ending Vietnam’s annual payment of a heavy gold and silver tribute. For his courage in standing up to the Chinese Goliath, Minh paid the ultimate price. China’s emperor took revenge by cutting out Minh’s tongue and eviscerat- ing him. The emperor then had the dip- lomat’s body cast in silver and returned to Vietnam. China continues to represent an existential threat to Vietnam, as it has from the country’s birth as a nation. The work of a diplomat can be peril- ous. But Giang Van Minh’s example offers another reminder, as well. Diplomats have a duty to advocate for their country’s interests overseas; they also have a sec- ond duty, which can be equally perilous: to advocate internally for wise policies and to challenge poor ones. Catastrophe can result when diplomats sidestep that duty or are unable to carry it out because the ruler cuts off dissenting voices. In November 2016, shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in that year’s presidential election, I learned about the Confucian concept of the remonstrating official. While struggling with a decision about whether or not to leave govern- ment service, I received a message from Dave Shear, my predecessor as ambas- sador to Vietnam. Dave sent me a photo of a carving fromHanoi’s 1,000-year-old Temple of Literature. The plaque reads: “Virtue and talent are the soul of the state.” Vietnamese scholars, like their Chinese counterparts, Dave explained, pursued the Confucian ideal that a loyalty exists that is greater than that to the emperor, and that loyalty requires officials to speak out when the emperor goes too far. Confucius (551-479 BCE) taught his students to be loyal to the ruler, but also to stand up to the ruler when he (or she) was wrong. In the Confucian system, virtue sometimes required “remon- strance,” defined by Merriam-Webster as: (1) an earnest presentation of reasons for opposition or grievance; and (2) an act or instance of remonstrating. Mencius (372-289 BCE) warned that, by standing up to the ruler, the “remon- strating official” risked death—swift exe- cution or even a slow and painful death. In one instance, Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty punished Grand Historian Sima Qian for his dissenting views by offering the historian his choice of punishment: death or castration. Qian chose the latter. Confucian scholar-officials would remonstrate with a ruler to help him become a better ruler, not to overthrow him in favor of another. They corrected the ruler out of a sense of loyalty, because their loyalty was to principles greater even than the person of the emperor (see Anita Andrew and Robert André LaFleur in Education about Asia , Fall 2014) . U.S. officials—civilian and military— swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” In our oath, there is no reference to a political party or individual leader. In a democ- racy, when policies are debated openly, there should be space for “remonstrance.” The Need for Remonstrance After World War II, the United States became obsessed with communism. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that he had a list of supposed communists working in the State Depart- ment. Theodore H. White describes in his masterful In Search of History Diplomats also have a second duty, which can be equally perilous: to advocate internally for wise policies and to challenge poor ones.