He is exactly the type of diplomat any American would want representing their interests abroad, and he was sought after within the State Department for increasingly difficult and challenging assignments because he’s strategic, smart, savvy, curious, loyal and non-partisan…” (CNN, June 6, 2017)
That description could have applied to my father, Robert C. Amerson, who said of his 20 years in the Foreign Service within the United States Information Agency: “I can’t imagine a better career for anyone, at least anyone of my own makeup, than a career with USIA in the area of ideas and operations and communications directly with people overseas.” Dad was among the first generation of ordinary Americans whose skills in public relations, languages and journalism were newly valued by the State Department after World War II, to establish America as the leader of the democratic world. By “winning hearts and minds,” the USIA countered the threat of communism during the Cold War. He took pride in putting his personal politics aside and representing his country, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Following suit, I registered as an Independent when I came of voting age. That’s what one did.
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
It is not a job entered into lightly: a rigorous set of written and examinations winnow out all but the extraordinary few; and an “up or out” policy keeps the diplomatic corps lean and strong. It’s not a job easily relinquished.
In quote I began with, “exactly the type of diplomat any American would want” refers David H. Rank, a career Foreign Service Officer of 27 years serving in Beijing as the Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires, the acting Ambassador, pending confirmation and arrival of Trump’s nominee. This is not unusual upon a change in the White House, although typically the prior administration’s ambassador stays on until the new administration’s representative arrives. Trump ordered the mass resignation of all ambassadors January 16, leaving a whole batch of senior career Foreign Service Officers managing our embassies and lesser staff swirling in the dust. It will be a while before all open assignments are filled. Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has been confirmed as Ambassador to China, along with a handful of other nominees; but, although Trump has publicly identified the owner of the NY Jets as his pick for Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Johnson’s nomination and that of many others is not yet in front of the Congress. Until the process is complete, career Foreign Service Officers like Mr. Rank and Charge D’Affaires Lewis Lukens in the UK will be running our embassies. That’s not a bad thing. You may recall that Mr. Lukens is the person with a backbone that apologized to the Muslim mayor of London on Twitter after Trump verbally assaulted the man for not being tough enough on terrorism after the attacks on London Bridge.
Consider what our embassies all around the world have been charged with explaining to the leadership of their host countries: why this nation of immigrants is closing our doors; what role Russia may have had in electing Trump; whether we are changing, or not, our long-standing alliance with Europe; whether we care, or don’t, about human rights; and whether we believe, or don’t, that there is such a thing as global warming and that our collective behavior can alter the destructive path.
On Thursday, June 1, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, the 2015 landmark international commitment designed to combat global warming. Mr. Rank had been serving in China in 2015 when China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, and the United States, the second largest carbon emitter, jointly declared their commitment to the Paris agreement. On June 1, Trump broke ranks with China and 194 other nations, joining Nicaragua and Syria: Nicaragua didn’t think the voluntary nature of compliance was enough; and Syria did not participate due to its civil war. It is an odd trio: Nicaragua, Syria, and the United States of America.
On Monday, June 5, it fell to Charge D’Affaires Rank to convey the president’s decision to the Chinese government. Instead, Mr. Rank assembled the embassy staff to say that his conscience would not permit him to contribute to the implementation of the decision to withdraw from the climate agreement.When faced with the conflict between his duty and his conscience, Mr. Rank offered to resign his post. His resignation was accepted.
And so, just at the time we most need career Foreign Service Officers to carry out our most critical relationships, we have lost a key player. A colleague says: “Given he spent much of his career seeking to strengthen the US-China relationship to benefit all Americans, we need his expertise and skills now more than ever before. It’s heart-wrenching that we’re losing career officers of his talent, as they pride themselves on serving any administration, but some are increasingly grappling with whether they must take principled decisions as they balance their sense of duty with their conscience.” (CNN, June 6)
When duty and conscience collide, it is heart-wrenching.