The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2023 29 Secretaries of State have valued the channel as a tool for personnel to offer expert advice to the political leadership on issues central to U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly underscored the value he places on the right to dissent and the Dissent Channel. In 2021 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said: “This Dissent Channel is something that I place tremendous value and importance on. It is a way for people in the State Department to speak the truth, as they see it, to power. … I factored what I read and heard into my thinking and into my actions.” At the Foreign Service Institute in October 2021, he said: “I’m reading and responding to every dissent that comes through the Channel. And I hope the Dissent Channel will encourage a culture of constructive, professional dissent, more broadly throughout the department, because dissent makes us stronger.” The channel is a valuable conduit of communication between senior leaders and the workforce at State. As former AFSA President Ambassador Eric Rubin wrote in the December 2022 FSJ: “Constructive internal dissent can lead to better policies, better ideas, higher morale, and a stronger United States if it is encouraged and taken seriously.” The continued practice of keeping Dissent Channel messages “in-house,” and requiring S/P to distribute them carefully and respond to them quickly, enables more honesty and candor. Leaking Dissent Channel messages undermines the value of the channel itself and potentially turns an apolitical policy tool into a political weapon, either against dissenters or against senior officials. Most drafters use the channel because they want to dissent confidentially and within the confines of the institution, to better inform department policy, and to influence the thinking of the Secretary. An effective dissent is drafted not to give the dissenter the satisfaction of speaking out but rather to influence. With the On Dissenting Well—The ABCD Anticipate the counterargument. You need to know the issue well enough to be able to articulate the disagreement to what you are putting forward. Define the issue, provide data, identify gaps or needs, and know your audience. Build curiosity, offer what is possible. Aim to create a space where people want to hear more, not set off their threat radar. Outline the potential consequences, and demonstrate previous efforts to address the issue. Collect allies. Take the time to engage people one-on-one to build support. When you do this, you are showing respect to others and demonstrating that they are valuable to you. Demonstrate your loyalty to the group. People often skip this step, but it is critical to show how your dissenting position is aligned with the mission and the group and to demonstrate that you are committed to the welfare of the team or institution. —Holly Holzer audience being the Secretary, strong dissents offer straightforward analysis and propose alternatives. (Even the most experienced ambassadors and assistant secretaries pause before sending a direct message to the Secretary.) The messages demonstrate that the dissenter has worked to influence decision-making within the existing policy process and has tried to build consensus with other stakeholders, but that they believe the issue is so important that they must continue trying to convince senior officials, even when they’ve exhausted all their other options. The Dissent Channel also serves as a symbol of the value and importance of dissent within the department. Every year AFSA offers four awards for constructive dissent by members of the Foreign Service. Many of the awards are given not for Dissent Channel messages (which AFSA does not receive) but for advocacy within the department to change an issue or policy or put forward alternative perspectives within our normal operations. Indeed, most of the dissent in the department happens routinely, in memos and meetings, in conversations and cables, and not in the Dissent Channel. This is as it should be, a part of our responsibility as diplomats and leaders. At a recent Open Forum event on the Holocaust, one of the panelists asked: If there had been a Dissent Channel in the 1930s, would restrictive U.S. immigration policy toward Jewish refugees have been challenged or changed? We will never know, but the question gets to why the existence and use of the Dissent Channel remain important. For 52 years, the Dissent Channel has embodied the value placed on dissent by our institution and our leaders. Speaking truth to power with integrity and expertise is critical to the State Department’s role as the lead foreign affairs agency in the U.S. government, and integral to the ability of the U.S. to continue its primacy in world affairs. n