[Introduction by Ryan Goodman, co-editor-in-chief:
One year ago, Thomas Countryman delivered Farewell Remarks to his colleagues at the State Department. Days before, he and five other top State Department officials had been suddenly discharged by the Trump White House. Countryman’s farewell powerfully captured a moment and his concerns for the country in the months ahead. We published those remarks at Just Security, which became our most widely read piece in 2017. I invited Countryman to write an essay at the one year anniversary of his farewell. What follows is a powerful set of ideas to reflect on the year that has passed for our country including America’s place in the world. It is fitting for this new essay to be published on the same day that President Donald Trump will provide the State of the Union Address. Countryman provides yet again deep insights into the world of public servants and into the true state of our union.]
One year ago, I retired after the new White House relieved me of my duties. My farewell allowed me to put into public words a topic we don’t discuss often enough: the real meaning of love of country. Through 35 years of service and beyond, the United States has held an enduring value, a promise, for me and the many public servants with whom I served and who continue to serve our government. For so many of us in the Department of State – as in the military and other public service – a government career was not ever simply a paycheck, but a way to pay forward the marvelous gift of liberty bequeathed by our foreparents, to demonstrate our real concern and love for our fellow Americans.
Now happily unemployed, I still have better luck than a lot of people I know.
— No one in my family has been deported, killed with a handgun, or died from an opiate overdose.
— I haven’t been required to report to a shuttered government office, unsure whether or not I would have work to do or would be paid.
Beyond all that did not happen, I have had the opportunity to begin to pay back my debts to sleep, exercise and spousal attention. I took a long drive through our beautiful and vibrant southern States. And I have volunteered to serve as Chairman of the Arms Control Association, a small, impactful and – yes – idealistic NGO.
However — as most of us know — the rest of the nation has been less fortunate.
Start with my former professional home, the Department of State, once the most respected diplomatic service in the world. I had the highest hopes for Rex Tillerson, an intelligent, ethical leader with a reputation for sound management. The irony is that his policy instincts have been solid, for instance on the right approach to North Korea and Iran, but his management has been — to be polite — ineffective. He presides over sinking morale, internal communication failure, and a decline in influence within the rest of government and with foreign partners. The State Department is becoming marginalized precisely when foreign policy dilemmas are becoming most acute. I would be happier if I could blame amateurs at the White House for the Department’s problems, but at Foggy Bottom, the buck has to stop on the Seventh Floor. I don’t know whether the Secretary accepts that, or shares the view of some in the Administration that the Department creates its own dysfunction. Their view – and perhaps his – reminds me of a film in which a character played by Michael Douglas, criticized for being a lousy father, replies “I was a great father! I got dealt a bum kid!”
I still see little sign from the Department’s new leadership – and none at all from the White House – that they grasp the difference between foreign policy, which must follow the President’s priorities, and diplomacy, which is a profession and a skill. State Department professionals, both Civil Service and Foreign Service, are ready and keen to follow a new policy on Iran or elsewhere, but they can’t fulfill the essence of their profession – getting inside the decision cycle of other countries – if their very professional skills are routinely demeaned.
There are real world effects of the amateur diplomacy I warned against last year. I marvel at the combination of ignorance and mendacity required of our Vice President to claim repeatedly, “The US has never been more respected in the world.” The complete opposite is true, as demonstrated in numerous opinion surveys. This government has renounced a leadership role in the exact fields that marked the last seventy years as “the American Century”: free trade; human rights; promotion of democracy; fighting global poverty; nonproliferation and arms control. Our President’s pronouncements sound ever more like those of President Putin and President Xi: less grammatical than theirs, but equally oblivious to facts. When we vacate leadership, we abandon the opportunity to spread our goals and values. This void is filled by other countries and their interests. As a consequence, American citizens are less secure in their homes and in overseas travel, American businesses are less competitive in foreign markets, and American leaders are less influential in setting the global agenda. And in the topic I work on now, the risk of nuclear war has risen from negligible to remote but conceivable.
The damage is not only to American citizens. I have seen countries from Russia to Serbia to Hungary to Poland slide from imperfect democracies into nouvelle-authoritarian plutocracies. This White House seems determined to follow the same course, with no meaningful resistance offered by the Congressional majority. The US is not only encouraging the most autocratic of foreign leaders, but sapping the spirit of an entire generation of advocates for democracy and human rights in foreign countries.
Some of these changes will take years, if not decades to repair. Other changes will be simply irreversible.
I don’t shed a tear for my senior Foreign Service colleagues who have left State, most from a combination of deep unease with this Administration’s approach to the world, and the clear signal that the new leadership at State had no further use for their talent. They have mostly (not all) landed on their feet, either to my style of semi-retirement, to universities or activist NGOs, or as candidates for Congress and other offices. Several have moved to the private sector at well-deserved multiples of their government salary.
But I do bemoan their loss of service to the American people. Just looking at a few people most recently departing – John Feeney, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, Linda Thomas-Greenfield – you realize we are losing not just policy expertise, but people who were inspirational leaders, and role models for women and minority officers of the next generation.
I continue to encourage my old colleagues, at all levels, to stay the course as long as they can. When I speak at universities, I encourage young people to enter federal service now, despite all the obstacles and moral quandaries. Like many Americans, my faith in our political leaders has been deeply eroded, as they show more fealty to money and holding power than to democratic norms. Yet I retain faith that professional federal employees – much more than their political counterparts – take seriously their oath to defend the Constitution. Among the dedicated employees at State, there will be both undeserved casualties and battlefield promotions in recognition of their work – the kind of life events that build the leaders of tomorrow. Theirs is not a political battle, but a struggle to preserve and promote basic American concepts now under attack: principles and excellence.
With distance, I look back at my colleagues still in State with even greater admiration. My career was long, but not as personally trying as it is for many Foreign Service officers. So many have endured assignments to war zones, physical attacks, hostile surveillance and harassment, long separation from family, all while presenting America’s human face to a world wary of our power and skeptical of our intent. It is not a surprise, but it is a blessing that – even now – they endure. They still believe in the ideals that have refined our democracy, and still resist the efforts to coarsen both our domestic and our foreign dialogues. With a longer view of history than the next election, they continue to work to build the institutions and relationships that will sustain our freedom, our security and our prosperity.
The women and men of the Department of State remain as I described them last year: firm in their principles, steadfast in their ideals, and tireless in their determination to defend the Constitution. And that is why, even as we struggle to realize the promise of America for this generation’s citizens, my faith in our capability to build on this Earth a more heavenly kingdom for future generations is undiminished.
They deserve our respect and thanks. As my Arab friends would say “May God give them strength!”