When Is It Ethical to Resign in Protest?

Using a case study from the Bosnia War, a Senior FSO discusses the ethics of resignation over policy.


State Department employees are professionally obligated to publicly support the policies of the administration they serve. But policy disagreements can become moral quandaries. At what point should an employee who disagrees with U.S. policy resign?

This article, drawing on the case of Stephen Walker [no relation to the author!], a Foreign Service officer who resigned his position in 1993 to protest the Clinton administration’s policy on the war in Bosnia, argues that resignation should be an ethical act—that disagreeing with policy may not be adequate justification.

The Bosnia War and U.S. Policy

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Yugoslavia imploded in a violent frenzy of nationalism, ethnic clashes, and historical score-settling when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia declared independence in 1991, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Serbia and Montenegro formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but became separate countries in 2006. Kosovo, previously a part of Serbia, became independent in 2008.

In Muslim-majority Bosnia and Herzegovina, the minority Serbs declared an independent “republic” and, with support from neighboring Serbia, launched a brutal war of territorial expansion. Bosnian Serb militias fired on civilians; committed sexual violence; engaged in prolonged, indiscriminate shelling of innocents in Sarajevo and other cities; tortured prisoners in detention camps; and refused to allow humanitarian assistance to sick and starving civilians. Anyone who lived through the period remembers the horrifying photographs. “Ethnic cleansing” entered the international lexicon as Bosnian Serb forces destroyed entire Muslim villages and engaged in mass killing.

United Nations actions—an arms embargo on all parties, deployment of peacekeepers, sanctions, declaration of a no-fly zone over Bosnia, and establishment of “safe areas” for Bosnian Muslims—did not stop the horrific violence. NATO forces, including the U.S. Air Force, enforced the no-fly zone and agreed to intervene to protect U.N. peacekeepers if they were attacked but refused to engage in offensive combat operations.

For the Clinton administration, Bosnia was a wicked foreign policy problem exacerbated by a lack of consensus on how to deal with it. Europe and NATO were divided on whether to intervene in Bosnia. European public opinion was hesitant about becoming militarily involved in the Balkans. There was humanitarian intervention versus let’s-avoid-a-quagmire disagreement in the U.S. interagency. Americans, exposed almost daily to images of the war broadcast by CNN and other international media, were ambivalent, believing on the one hand that the United States was morally obligated to do more to stop the humanitarian disaster in the Balkans and, on the other, reluctant for Washington to be the world’s policeman in the emerging post–Cold War era.

U.S. policy supported imposing economic sanctions on Serbia, enforcing the no-fly zone, providing humanitarian aid, and establishing a U.N. war crimes tribunal, but was based on a strategic assessment that an imposed solution would fail. “We believe the quickest, best, and most sustainable way to stop the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in February 1993, “is to help create an environment in which all parties see it in their own self-interest to negotiate a political settlement.” In other words, the United States would use diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks to encourage the Serbs to negotiate, but would not use force to stop them.

Discontent at Foggy Bottom

In April 1993, 12 Foreign Service officers sent a joint Dissent Channel message to Secretary Christopher asking that the administration make good on its campaign promise to support the besieged Bosnian Muslims. Christopher met with the dissenters, but U.S. policy did not change. The humanitarian plight of the Bosnian Muslims got even worse. In June, flagrantly defying U.N. and international opinion, and with a viciousness that would make the atrocity a metaphor for the war, the Bosnian Serbs attacked Srebrenica, allegedly a U.N.-protected “safe area.” In July, they intensified their siege of the capital, Sarajevo; its fall appeared imminent.

The administration’s noninterventionist policy on Bosnia had by this time led to considerable dismay and frustration among career diplomats, especially those working on the Balkans at the State Department. In July, the administration’s decision to embrace an ethnically based partition plan proposed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic deepened their dismay. For Bosnia desk officer Marshall Harris, intelligence analyst Jon Western, and Croatia desk officer Stephen Walker, Secretary Christopher’s repeated public statements that the United States was doing all it could in Bosnia consistent with its national interest made it worse. The United States government, they believed, had moved from tolerating what they thought should have been recognized as genocide to being complicit in it. In their view, U.S. policy was in violation of international law: The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide requires signatories to prevent, stop, and punish genocide.

Harris resigned on Aug. 4, Western on Aug. 5, and Walker on Aug. 23, 1993.

In essence, Dobel is insisting that, ethically, it is incumbent on government officials to operate and be effective in the real world, which is often morally ambiguous.

It is critical to appreciate how psychologically difficult it was for all three officers to sustain their support for U.S. policy as they worked on the Bosnia War, and the emotional pressure they felt as they battled with their consciences to try to change the policy from within. Western recounted for The Washington Post the psychological toll exacted by spending day after day looking at thousands of photographs and videotapes depicting “human beings who look like they’ve been through meat grinders.”

It was clear to him that the Bosnia War “isn’t a civil war. It’s the systematic slaughter of civilians.” Concurring, Harris told The Post: “What we were doing was not only wrong. It was something I couldn’t participate in.”

Walker told me in an interview that he had trouble sleeping and was increasingly depressed and withdrawn at home. “Genocide felt different to me than just another issue I might have disagreed with,” he explained. “The issue wasn’t so much that we weren’t intervening; it was that we were de facto intervening on the perpetrator’s side.”

The Ethics of Resignation

At some point in their careers, most State Department employees have disagreed with policy. Not a few have had to defend and support these policies in public or with foreign interlocutors. Faced with such a dilemma, they know resignation is an option, but most would only make such a personally and professionally significant decision after serious consideration. How does one know if resigning is the right choice?

In his insightful meditation Public Integrity, the ethicist J. Patrick Dobel suggests a set of criteria—a “triangle of judgment”—to guide such a decision. Dobel argues that professional integrity is the product of the harmonious interplay of three sets of “ethics”—legal-institutional, personal responsibility, and effectiveness—that interact synergistically and dynamically.

Legal-institutional and personal responsibility ethics are straightforward: U.S. government officials must not violate the law and should act in accordance with their moral beliefs. Effectiveness ethics consist of two elements: Officials must be personally and materially able to do their jobs, and—this is the interesting part—they must “prudently” seek to achieve their mission even in ethically complex situations. To act “prudently” for Dobel is to use discerning judgment, to be politically savvy, to make small compromises to accomplish larger goals, and to be bureaucratically skillful—all the while maintaining a moral compass.

It is an art, not a science, and requires constant vigilance lest “prudence” become an excuse for ethical laxity. In essence, Dobel is insisting that, ethically, it is incumbent on government officials to operate and be effective in the real world, which is often morally ambiguous. Refusing to do so—and (my elaboration) to hastily resign simply because one disagrees with policy—to preserve one’s moral purity is no virtue.

When does personal conscience take priority over professional obligations? When does “working within the system” become complicity? How do you know when it’s time to resign? A closer look at the decision-making process FS-3 Croatia desk officer Stephen Walker went through provides some answers to these questions.

The November 1993 edition of The Foreign Service Journal put a spotlight on FSO resignations over Bosnia policy, featuring a discussion with three resignees. The cover photo by Liz Allan shows, from left, Stephen Walker, Marshall Harris, and George Kenney during an FSJ interview. Kenney was the first to resign, in 1992, when he was serving as acting Yugoslavia desk officer. Walker and Harris, Croatia and Bosnia desk officers respectively, resigned a year later, in 1993. The three met with FSO Brandon Grove, then chair of the FSJ Editorial Board, to discuss their resignations. The transcript of that discussion, “The Agony of Dissent,” appears on page 36 of the November 1993 FSJ.

Legal-Institutional. While Walker does not believe the administration broke U.S. domestic law or engaged in unambiguously illegal conduct with regard to Bosnia, he contends that by the summer of 1993, senior officials were at best dissembling and at worst misleading Congress and the American people on both the situation in Bosnia and the government’s policy. For example, Secretary Christopher’s frequent public statements that both sides had committed atrocities were technically accurate, but masked the fact that the vast majority of atrocities were perpetrated by the Bosnian Serbs and their proxies, whose genocide was systematic.

Christopher’s formulation implied a moral equivalency on both sides. It became apparent to Walker that the real goal of the administration’s Bosnia policy was to keep the war out of the headlines so that there would be less pressure on the president to do something about it. In Walker’s view, the State Department, including by extension himself, was compromising its public mission to advance the administration’s political needs, and in a way that violated U.S. values and international law.

Personal responsibility. As described above, Walker believed that the Clinton administration’s inaction was a tacit acceptance of genocide. This violated his moral principles. Yet his commitment to the Foreign Service outweighed his moral disagreement, even after Harris and Western had resigned. “Foreign Service officers are told from Day One when they join that during their careers they will be called on, and should be prepared, to defend policy with which they disagree,” he explained. The nation’s diplomats may express their dissent as policy is being formulated, but “once a decision is made, they are professionally bound to publicly support and advance it.” Despite his considerable reservations, Walker was still prepared to publicly support the Bosnia policy as he prudently sought to change it from within.

The “final nail in the coffin,” he recounted, came on the evening of Friday, Aug. 20, when a senior official in Walker’s chain of command informed him of an evolution in policy that he would be expected to support and help execute: The United States would privately pressure the Bosnian Muslims to give up and sign a Milosevic-drafted partition plan and, once the agreement was finalized, arrange for the U.S. military to implement it. Walker was horrified by the plan, which in his view ratified the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing.

“At this point the United States was not simply preventing the Bosnian Muslims from defending themselves (by not acting to lift the U.N. arms embargo),” Walker explained to me. “It was now contemplating putting the full weight of American diplomacy behind an ethnic partition plan and, in essence, put a gun to their head to get them to give up. This was morally abhorrent and counter to American values and interests.” Walker left the meeting knowing he would return on Monday with his letter of resignation.

Effectiveness. Dobel argues that morally conflicted officials should remain in government as long as they are still able to fight the good fight and correct what they believe to be wrong. But, he says, “if individuals have no power to act or speak and are ignored, then all their good intentions and tortured integrity will accomplish little good and probably abet harm,” and they should leave.

This is the position in which Walker found himself in the days leading up to his resignation. As he told me: “On the one hand, we felt a sense of disillusionment and that the Dissent Channel mechanism had failed. It was clear to me that the policymakers understood our reservations and concerns but were determined not to change policy. Twelve people had already formally dissented to no avail. If that didn’t change their minds, why would a dissent from me do it? Also, by the time I resigned, [the Bureau of European Affairs’] Balkan Conflict Group had been frozen out of the policymaking process because they suspected we were the source of leaks. There was a sense of: they know what we think, and they’ve made it clear that they don’t care or trust us.”

Continuing, Walker described what he perceived to be his possible dissent options: “Leaking wasn’t an option because I took my oath about protecting classified information and the process very seriously. From an integrity point of view, that was not an option for me. I didn’t formally convey my concerns to my chain of command because I didn’t feel I needed to: these were abundantly clear from conversations we had with the Front Office every day. Everyone knew what we thought. One thing we could do, and did do, at the working level to act on our dissent was to prepare and send forward accurate daily press guidance. Our drafts would inevitably get changed by the time it got to the Spokesman, who would reiterate the administration’s ‘moral equivalency’ line at the noon briefing. But the guidance we sent up was honest. After consulting with our embassies, press reports, and intel analyses, we would truthfully state what happened and suggest text for what the department should say publicly about it.”

As the end of August neared, the choice was clear to Walker: “Suck it up and go along, or resign.” It felt “black and white,” Walker recalled. “I felt I couldn’t be effective trying to change the policy from inside the organization … we were frozen out, distrusted, and I was just a mid-level FSO. And the policy was starting to go in an even more cynical direction. I had to get out.”

Exhilarating Clarity

Stephen Walker vehemently disagreed with the Clinton administration’s Bosnia policy, but this was, in his mind, insufficient justification to resign. What tipped the balance for him was his determination that he could no longer be effective: His “disloyal” office was frozen out of policymaking, and formal dissent had failed. He had acted “prudently”—as a good Foreign Service officer, he had tried to navigate a morally complex environment, publicly supporting established policy while seeking to change and challenge it from within, but eventually reached a tipping point where he could no longer do this.

Looking back, Walker, who now teaches high school in New York, vividly remembers the liberating “clarity” he had when he quit. “I knew I was taking a stand and doing the morally correct thing,” he said. “It was frustrating and hard, but it was a rare opportunity to make a little bit of difference.” The exhilarating clarity Stephen Walker experienced following his resignation is what professional integrity feels like.

Steve Walker, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and no relation to the Stephen Walker discussed here, is a senior diplomatic fellow at the Wilson Center. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of State or the U.S. government.


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