Foreign Policy

History’s lesson proves American engagement is ‘America First’

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As we look out today on an ever more dangerous world, the world’s diplomats and the governments whom they serve need a reminder of Jan Karski.

Karski’s mission during World War II was to infiltrate enemy lines, bear witness to atrocities, report the facts and urge world leaders to take action. His heroism and his call for leaders to show ethical courage, and the deaf ears his pleas fell on, serve as a warning as the U.S. enters a new approach to U.S. foreign policy, and other countries voice similar inward-looking policies.

Karski, a Roman Catholic, worked in the Polish resistance on behalf of the Polish government in exile as a courier and diplomat. He twice infiltrated Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and separately posed as a Ukrainian guard at a Nazi transit camp — all so that he could be a reliable witness to the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis on Polish soil.

{mosads}Karski’s final mission was to report his eyewitness accounts to the Allies, which he personally delivered to British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt changed the subject. He was treated courteously by Eden, and dismissed. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter later tried to explain the disbelief that he expressed to Karski in their meeting, “I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.” Karski’s message was ignored; Britain and the U.S. elected not to intercede in the Nazi genocide.


Karski’s heroism was not one of triumph, but of ethical integrity and moral courage. The standards he set for himself and others were of the highest order. And he never gave up. He subsequently stayed in the U.S. and taught a new generation of diplomats at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for 40 years.

The world is again fraught with complex conflicts and dangerous, long-term geopolitical implications. These conflicts carry enormous risk of expansion in innocent casualties and geography. They involve state powers and stateless groups that claim to represent large populations. Solutions are not obvious or risk-free. It is at this very time that Washington is apparently seeking to extricate the United States from a primary role as an honest broker in the dialogues that seek resolutions. Is this America First?

One lesson is abundantly clear: now is not the time for American to abdicate its leadership on the world stage.  

Here is what ethical diplomacy is not: It is not an Ivory Tower ideal but a leadership reality; it is not optional nor is it motivated by nationalism or financial convenience.  And, we ought not be misled by political claims that diplomatic involvement is a code word for promoting regime change, military action or an imposed set of political ideals.

Active participation in seeking resolutions to complex global conflagrations must not depend upon the moment’s economics, trade deficits or electoral politics. Because diplomacy involves participation in the lives and even the survival of others, the impact of that participation must not change based on mood, the weather, or even individual or national self-interest.

Ethical leadership cannot be codified with objective do’s and don’t’s, or a single set of written rules. What is unique about our American experience is that we seek to model our behavior on the principles embodied in our formation documents. Inalienable rights, basic freedoms, due process, we the people. The founding of the United States was based upon principles that are to govern our human interactions, here in the U.S., and around the world.

Diplomacy is a profession, both because of the training that is required and the responsibility of leadership. We rely upon our professionals — doctors and lawyers, engineers and architects, clergy and teachers, business executives, journalists and others whom we expect to lead us — to set the tone for ethical behavior. And, to act on it. Not just in their own operating rooms, offices and classrooms and not just for their own patients, clients, customers and students. Our professionals must be the ethical leaders of our communities and of our larger society.

Jan Karski insisted on identifying behavior that was not acceptable, took it upon himself to ensure that his assessment was accurate and sought to convince world leaders to act. He did so with his words, courage and intellect, not with guns. That is the job of a diplomat. The fact that leaders did not abide his warnings was a costly decision.

The U.S. must take its diplomatic obligations responsibly, particularly at a time when fanatics are defined by more than national borders, and unprecedented global concerns have defied resolutions. These matters are about human life, health and welfare, with explosive and life-threatening implications.

We need American diplomacy to reflect the standards of Jan Karski. His leadership is a stark reminder of the personal responsibility in professional diplomacy. To those who believe in an America First proposition, pro-active ethical behavior on the world stage is in our ultimate national self-interest.

C. David Goldman is the founder of FASPE, the Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics and is a Partner in the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery.

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Tags America first Diplomatic responsibility Donald Trump Foreign policy Franklin Delano Roosevelt Germany Holocaust Republican Party Trump Administration United States Washington D.C.
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