Opinion | International

The State Department: Nonpartisan service on behalf of America

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for almost 13 years, I have proudly served under both Republican and Democratic administrations as a nonpartisan public servant. While you might have read pieces from those who have left the State Department, this is the perspective of one who is here and committed to staying. In the wake of recent Congressional testimonies from Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and others, there has been an outpouring of public support for American foreign policy professionals in op-eds, many from former officials in previous administrations. While the recognition of our service is greatly appreciated, in order for us to continue best serving the American people, we need more than op-eds: We need vocal, committed and continuous support of our work, from Congress as well as from previous, current, and future administrations. And we need more Americans to know - and care - what it is that we do on their behalf every day and why it matters.

The State Department was established in 1789 as the nation's first federal executive department. Since that time, all administrations have recognized the importance of a robust diplomatic corps.

Our value lies in a talent which cannot be outsourced or easily replicated: our professional judgment. 

Judgment doesn't mean omniscience; it is an umbrella term that includes, but is not limited to, deep institutional knowledge and subject matter expertise, knowing when to charge hard and when to hold fire, and an arsenal of strategic wiles and tactics. Judgment is critical in deciding how to best deliver a difficult message that we know will be unpopular with our partners abroad, while taking a long-term view of bilateral relationships. How to promote core American values in a way that will be understood by radically different cultures. How to sequence critical next steps in complicated foreign policy efforts.

Unfortunately, the value of our judgment and expertise, and our value as foreign policy professionals, have lessened in Washington over many years.

Even as diplomats, we are still bureaucrats. And historically, there has always been a natural tension between administrations and the institutional brakes and rail guards that bureaucrats provide.

It is fair to say that some of our work can seem quite dull to the casual observer. But I'd like to recall a scene from this season's "The Crown," where Prince Philip notes that the House of Windsor has always produced two strains of royals: the dazzling and the "deadly dull." In our day and age, there is no greater cultural sin than to be boring. But in the service of one's country, perhaps there is no greater virtue, for dull has other synonyms: "dutiful, reliable ... and heroic."

American diplomats are part of that dutiful, reliable, and stubbornly heroic strain which has helped see our great nation through innumerable crises at various points in its history. Yes, among our ranks we definitely have more than our fair share of the dazzling and brilliant, but the work we do is often far from glamorous, far from the public eye, and still very necessary.

Today, many Foreign Service Officers face existential questions. What is our role and value in an environment as heavily politicized and polarized as the one in which we find ourselves? How can we, as career diplomats, continue promoting effective, strong foreign policy in the U.S. national interest, especially when so few Americans know or understand what we do? And what if some of the policies we are helping to move forward, despite best intentions, have the potential to actually cause greater harm than good?

These questions are not just rhetorical. For a group of people driven by a need for meaning and public service, these are the questions that haunt us in the early mornings as we question the merits of a policy decision that we will be responsible for implementing, or contemplate moving a child to a new high school abroad for her final year.

One answer is that we endure what we must. But nested within that answer is a deeper question: Is simply enduring, enough? This is an intensely personal question that each must answer alone.

After years of working abroad and domestically on some of our most thorny and intransigent foreign policy issues - in Seoul, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and the United Nations in New York City - there is one thing I know: The world is a messy place. But as Americans, we have our north star to guide us: the best interests of our country. This also means support for the people in its service.

The State Department employs more than 75,000 of some of the most talented and dedicated people in the service of our nation. The foreign affairs professionals who work in Washington and our 276 missions around the world - Foreign Service, Civil Service, and our locally employed staff - are nonpartisan and serve every administration, with not insignificant personal sacrifices, and deserve recognition not only as subject matter experts and policy advisors, but also as patriots who have devoted themselves to their chosen profession and to our country, body and soul, as have their families.

We as Americans now have an important opportunity to strengthen the State Department by reaffirming the nonpartisan and apolitical roles of the professionals who work within it, as well as the value of our work. The military, for example, has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support from Congress and multiple administrations. The State Department is part of the same foreign policy tool kit and needs the same level of commitment. By doing so, we are not only better safeguarding the institution, but also our great nation.

Liz Lee is a Foreign Service Officer who has served in Washington, Laos and Seoul, including as staff aide to the ambassador, as political advisor to the U.S. Mission in New York City, political officer in Baghdad and in Jerusalem. In 2017, she was a John L. Weinberg Fellow in International and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Her next assignment will be in Thessaloniki, Greece. Although Ms. Lee is employed by the U.S. Department of State, the views expressed in this article are strictly her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

Outbrain