When is it all
too much?

Former Ambassador to Poland and Serbia, Charles Crawford CMG, asks what it
takes to resign and step away from the foreign ministry on an issue of principle

Here’s a tricky question for you diplomats. When should you resign your from your job and step away from the Foreign Ministry once and for all on an issue of principle?

 The right answer: “It depends!” But depends on what exactly? There are lots of things to consider.

Most sane Foreign Ministries these days have a grievance procedure that allows a diplomat unhappy about major policy decisions to make private representations to senior colleagues. It’s unlikely that any such representations will get the policy substantively changed: major policy decisions taken ‘in the national interest’ have a lot of political and bureaucratic inertia, so why should just one diplomat’s concerns count for much? Some policy tweakings, however, might happen if this Disgruntled Diplomat has enough senior personal authority on the issue concerned, and makes a strong case that some changes really will be in the national interest.

There’s another option. The Disgruntled Diplomat might say that s/he has such grave reservations about the wisdom or morality of the policy concerned that s/he asks to be moved to another Ministry position where the issues are less personally impactful. A sane Foreign Ministry might well go along with that (if it won’t prompt a stampede of other unhappy diplomats wanting an internal transfer): it’s good to show that the Ministry cares.

These limited options for some diplomats may not be enough. Perhaps the whole situation is (they think) so ghastly that they must quit the Ministry altogether. What might bring them to this point? In the (few) British cases I know about, it seems to have been the tension between what they knew (or thought they knew) about the policy, and what they were being instructed to say to their host government or other diplomatic missions or the wider public.

Thus Alexandra Hall Hall, who in 2019 resigned from her senior post at the British Embassy in Washington and from the UK Diplomatic Service when she found her position ‘untenable professionally and personally unbearable.’ In 2021 she wrote about her decision with stark clarity in the Texas National Security Review:

Is our primary duty to the elected government of the day, even when it may be breaking the law or wilfully deceiving the public? Or is our duty to some broader notion of the “public good”? If the latter, how is that to be defined, and by whom?

If we stay silent in the face of wrongdoing, do we become complicit ourselves? But if we speak out, are we breaking our pledge of impartial service to the government of the day and undermining the foundation of trust between politicians and officials?

If we resign, do we let down our colleagues and institutions? Do we merely allow others with fewer scruples to fill our shoes? But if we stay on, are we knowingly violating our duty to provide ethical public service to our fellow citizens?

Good questions. All diplomats want to be loyal to the ‘national interest.’ But when things get unusually tense or dangerous, is it really OK to accept that the current group of perhaps misguided/corrupt/mentally disturbed national leaders can demand unchallenged loyalty to their self-serving definition of that national interest?

I recall a piece on Diplomatic Loyalty that I wrote here for Diplomat magazine back in 2011:

Few diplomats go through a career without having grave doubts at different points about the morality or wisdom of the instructions coming from HQ. Yet a microscopic number of diplomats resign on principle … reasons and rationalisations are found for staying loyal even under extreme circumstances 

… No doubt sheer cowardice or fear of losing a privileged position is one driving motivation. Yet it is not all about cynicism: every state needs a professional diplomatic cadre, so perhaps little is gained in the greater scheme of things by resigning when things get difficult.

Back still further, another one on Diplomacy and Morality in 2009:

Late on the evening of 15 April 1986: I was a youthful FCO overnight duty officer (Resident Clerk) on duty when US planes bombed Libya.

An Emergency Unit had been opened in upper rooms in the Foreign Office. I strolled in. I found a nervous atmosphere. The US jets were nearing Gibraltar, speeding to attack their targets…

I grasped that this attack involved me. I did not work on the Libya issue. Yet in moral terms I surely was one link in a long British policy chain… which in a few minutes would kill or mutilate unknown numbers of people.

I did not resign or even think about resigning. Insofar as I thought about what was happening, I concluded that Mrs Thatcher’s decision to allow President Reagan to use British airforce bases to launch these attacks was well within the scope of honourable democratic political discretion. Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi was actively supporting international terrorism (including the IRA). Hitting back at him after his agents had blown up a nightclub in West Berlin and murdered a US serviceman was more than justified.

It might have been different many years later. In 1999 NATO planes attacked targets in Serbia as a response to Slobodan Milošević’s crazed Kosovo policies. At the time I was on a mid-career secondment to Harvard and well out of the UK’s Balkan policy loop; I did not feel personally implicated in these painful decisions. But had I been a senior official on the case in London, I would have had serious reservations about NATO targeting policy.

And so we spare a thought for Russian diplomats now. They are some of the smartest and best-trained diplomats on the planet. Most will have family or other close connections with Ukraine. Hundreds if not thousands of them must be privately appalled at the brutal stupidity of Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Whatever clever FCO lawyers might say about international law, it was (I thought at the time and still think) unjust if not immoral not to try to blow up Slobodan Milošević himself, rather than killing over 1,000 hapless Serbian soldiers. And, worse, it was unwise. Killing hundreds of junior Serbian soldiers while not going for the very top leadership causing the problems would poison the wider Serbian population against NATO for decades to come. As, of course, has happened.

Still, had I made this case at the highest level but lost the argument, would I have resigned? Probably not. As one of the UK’s very few senior diplomatic experts on the region, I would have done British policy more harm than good by jumping off the bus.

And so we spare a thought for Russian diplomats now. They are some of the smartest and best-trained diplomats on the planet. Most will have family or other close connections with Ukraine. Hundreds if not thousands of them must be privately appalled at the brutal stupidity of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. There cannot be a single sensible patriotic Russian diplomat who believes their own Foreign Minister’s insistence that the invasion is all about ridding Ukraine of ‘Nazis’, or who is not now aghast at the staggering damage done to Russia’s own interests as the war and ensuing sanctions drag on.

Yet what is to be done? Every Russian Embassy will have its cabal of fanatical GRU or other intelligence agents who spy on their Russian colleagues to watch for ‘disloyalty.’ Any Russian diplomat thinking of resigning on principle will fear for his/her future employment prospects in Russia and even personal security.

One fairly senior Russian diplomat has resigned and made his views public. In May last year Boris Bondarev walked out of Russia’s Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. He is now a self-proclaimed ‘diplomat in exile.’ He openly attacks the Putin policy in Ukraine with vim:

The war shows that Russia is no longer just dictatorial and aggressive; it has become a fascist state.

Bondarev hints that several of his colleagues have quietly resigned or otherwise left the Ministry, to get away from direct personal responsibility for selling Putin’s policies to global opinion and from being forced to lie about it in their internal reports. He seems to be the only one to announce bluntly and fearlessly what he thinks. A brave man.