I spoke first to Eric Rubin, a career diplomat since 1985 at the State Department, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, and currently president of the American Foreign Service Association. He is crystal clear that “you cannot speak publicly against government policy. If you want to do that, you must resign. It’s anti-democratic. It is inappropriate to believe you know better than the people’s elected representatives.”
Rubin also believes that resignations rarely have any impact on policy. “You might be a ‘One Day Wonder’ — generating a bit of a splash in the news for a few days, perhaps be invited to write an op-ed, or speak at a think tank, but that’s it.” He believes that people frequently overestimate the consequences of their resignations. “I have had people tell me they want to influence policy or stop something happening, but my view is that you can’t — you can’t fix foreign policy.” He cites the case of Iraq, where people who resigned in protest over the decision to invade “had no impact on the rush to war.”
That’s Alexandra Hall in TNSR, who in 2019 resigned as Brexit counselor at the British Embassy in Washington. Margaret Thatcher once said, “Advisers advise, and Ministers decide.” Being a civil servant in a democracy means implementing policy you disagree with. But as politics gets more polarized, and sometimes more populist and authoritarian, Thatcher’s advice becomes harder to bear.
In her essay, Hall talks about why she decided to be a One Day Wonder.
I had had enough. I realized I was not going to be able to influence what was said or done on Brexit, but nor could I distract myself by working on other parts of my portfolio, since Brexit was the entirety of my job. Worse, my job actively required me to go out and speak in public about Brexit, day after day, using talking points that were nakedly dishonest. The stress was materially affecting my mental health and relationships. Moreover, Parliament had finally agreed to resolve the political impasse by holding a general election on Dec. 12, 2019. This meant that the British people would have a chance to cast their verdict on the government’s approach. This was the democratic way forward, but whatever the outcome, I no longer wanted to be part of it. I wrote my resignation letter and sent it.
But Hall doesn’t just describe her own tortured decision, she spoke to others and describes their decision to stay or go. There are too few essays like this one. Highly recommended. Please post similar essays kin the comments, or send them my way.