The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

24 DECEMBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL All of us at the State Department have had a moment or moments in which we have said to ourselves, this policy is ineffective, is incorrect, or even likely to fail to achieve our goals. In those moments, many of us have asked ourselves how we should, or if we should, voice our position. Philosophers have debated the meaning of dissent for centuries, often describing dissent as disagreeing with the sentiment of the majority. In the U.S., most Americans are familiar with the “dissenting opinions” written by Supreme Court justices. At the State Department, dissent can be understood as the act of putting forward a policy position that differs from current policy on an issue, country, or region. More than just a different opinion, it is the intentional presentation of an alternative or opposing approach to current or proposed policy that the dissenter determines will result in a better outcome for our foreign policy and national interest. At State, the Dissent Channel is often put forward as the way to dissent. In reality, the Dissent Channel is only one of many ways to dissent at State, the one reserved for when other options have not succeeded or, in certain circumstances, where timing is of the essence. Dissent is and should continue to be part of our day-to-day work. U.S. foreign policy and programs are better and stronger if we are considering and examining the options, risks, and alternatives. Sometimes dissenting is easy, when it is part of an ongoing discussion where we are thinking through options. At other times it takes courage to put forward a position that contradicts or differs from current policy. And when we dissent, it is important to consider why we are dissenting, when to dissent, and how to effectively dissent. Why Dissent? People are driven to dissent for multiple reasons—by personal conscience, a call to service, or a commitment to our institution and our mission. As public servants, we serve our nation and work to promote and protect the principles of democracy around the world. In this role, we have the responsibility to ensure our leadership and decisionmakers have all of the information and context they need to make informed decisions. They rely on each of us to make sure that the consequences, risks, and impact of policy choices are debated and understood. The presence of diverse voices and perspectives in a decision-making process is vitally important. Research has shown that a dissenting voice from the majority or popular position increases the intelligence of the group and improves the outcome. As a result of dissent, our institution and our policy are stronger and smarter. When to Dissent? When thinking about dissent, it is valuable to consider the issue, our values and mission, the other stakeholders or interest groups, and the risks you are willing to take. What is driving you—your integrity, the issue itself, the best interests of the United States? Personal integrity is a key motivator for dissent, but there is a fine line between acting out of personal integrity and being self-righteous and self-absorbed. You have to determine the risks and costs: Does the benefit of speaking out outweigh the cost of saying nothing? To successfully dissent, you may need to expend your social capital and accept that initially your positions may be rejected. Ask yourself: Do you care more about the issue in this moment than you do about your own psychological welfare? Can you live with yourself if you say nothing? While dissenters often immediately experience rejection and negativity, in the long run others appreciate and are grateful for the dissent. Psychologist and George Mason Professor Todd Kashdan calls this the “sleeper effect” of dissent. How to Dissent Effective dissent is a combination of art and science. Timing, opportunity, precision, and persistence are key to it. Offer alternatives in meetings and policy discussions, question the “why” of a policy, look for the unintended consequences and raise those. Be specific, know your issue, present data and trends, put forward historical lessons. What is Doing Dissent at State Dissent is and should continue to be part of our day-to-day work.