Building with sign reading 'Department of State' (© AP Images)
The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the U.S. Department of State (© AP Images)

Speaking at Columbia University in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower observed that Americans are descended from “men and women who dared to dissent from accepted doctrine.”

“As their heirs,” the president declared, “may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”

It was in that spirit that, in 1971, Secretary of State William Rogers established a “dissent channel” for U.S. diplomats to raise their policy concerns without fear of penalty, reprisal or recrimination. By providing a safe space for dissenters, the department’s leaders assure that employees can raise issues of conscience and that policymakers benefit from a range of views.

The channel was used that very first year by department employees who had concerns about Pakistan policy. Typically, diplomats register just a few dissents each year.

This year, some mid-level officers used the channel to criticize U.S. policy on the Syrian crisis.

The result? Secretary of State John Kerry met with some of those officers to hear their concerns firsthand. No retaliation, no penalty, just honest discussion.

In addition to the dissent channel, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) each year honors an officer who demonstrates “the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”

Writing in the Huffington Post and on a diplomatic blog, Assistant Secretary of State Charles Rivkin expresses pride in serving in a department “that has incorporated constructive dissent as a core value.” The AFSA award is named for Rivkin’s late father, William.

While dissenters have no assurance their views will prevail, the department takes seriously their right to raise concerns. In doing so, it not only upholds its own honored tradition but affirms what President John F. Kennedy once said: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive.”