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It is highly unusual for American diplomats to speak out about events at home, particularly in a critical or opinionated way. But the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ensuing wave of protests and clashes with police have created an exception. More than 600 retired foreign service officers and civilian national security officials have signed an open letter criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the protests as repressive.
In particular, the diplomats express dismay over the use of the military to disperse peaceful protesters in Washington as exactly the kind of repressive actions many witnessed while posted abroad and were called on to condemn as undemocratic and unacceptable.
“All these expressions of concern reflect a deep frustration that the rhetoric and abuses and policies we’ve seen from this administration over recent weeks have diminished how we are seen around the world,” says Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former career diplomat, was the highest-ranking African American woman at the State Department when she retired in 2017. “For African American diplomats especially, it’s been important to speak out on this particularly horrific killing after we’ve watched these awful killings for too long,” she says.
Brian Nichols recently posted on social media how the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police touched him personally. He was reminded that, as a young Black man in America, he knew that many considered him a lesser human being.
“As an African-American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own,” wrote Mr. Nichols, who grew up in Rhode Island. “In a long unbroken line of black men and women, George Floyd gave the last full measure of devotion to point us toward a new birth in freedom.”
In and of itself, Mr. Nichols’ post was not extraordinary. Social media in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s killing is full of similar comments, while the protests that have drawn millions to America’s streets shouting “Black Lives Matter!” spring from the same sentiments.
What does make Mr. Nichols’ “letter” stand out is that he is the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, and his honest and personal commentary was posted on the Harare embassy’s Facebook page.
It is highly unusual for a high-ranking American diplomat to speak out about events at home, particularly in a critical or opinionated way.
But as it turns out, Ambassador Nichols is far from a lone voice among foreign service officers, both serving and retired, in commenting publicly on the Floyd killing and the ensuing social tumult over institutional racism, police brutality, and threats to America’s democratic values.
“I can’t speak for Brian, but I would guess he was thinking that these are issues that we’ve been addressing with the government of Zimbabwe, so I need to be honest and frank about my perspective on this if I’m going to be effective,” says Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former career diplomat. When she retired in 2017, she was the assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs and the highest-ranking African American woman at the State Department.
“For African American diplomats especially,” she adds, “it’s been important to speak out on this particularly horrific killing after we’ve watched these awful killings for too long.”
Retired diplomats’ letter
Other U.S. embassy websites – particularly in Africa – have posted statements on the Floyd killing and nationwide protests. The embassy in Seoul, South Korea, unfurled a large banner declaring “Black Lives Matter” on its facade, until State Department management ordered it taken down.
Moreover at home, more than 600 retired foreign service officers and civilian national security officials have signed on to an open letter criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the American protests as repressive, both rhetorically and in its actions.
In particular, the diplomats express dismay over the use of the military to disperse peaceful protesters in Washington – outside the White House and at the Lincoln Memorial. They deplore those events as exactly the kind of repressive actions many witnessed while posted abroad and were called on to condemn as undemocratic and unacceptable to their host governments.
“Misuse of the military for political purposes would weaken the fabric of our democracy, denigrate those who serve in uniform to protect and defend the Constitution, and undermine our nation’s strength abroad,” the letter states. Serving across the globe, “We called out violations of human rights and the authoritarian regimes that deployed their military against their own citizens,” they add. “Our values define us as a nation and as a global leader.”
For seasoned and proudly nonpartisan foreign service officers and civilian national security officials, sounding an alarm on domestic affairs does not come easily.
Moral authority under attack
But for many who signed the letter, it was the trampling of rights and principles guaranteed in the Constitution – first among them that the military will not be used at home against American citizens – that compelled them, they say. It was the sense that the values and principles of governance they spent their careers promoting overseas were under attack at home that emboldened them to take unprecedented steps.
“It was a confluence of events that brought to the surface very deep concerns about a straying from the Constitution and from American values of democracy and freedom of expression that prompted such a large number of diplomats and civilian national security officials to speak out so forcefully,” says Earl Anthony Wayne, a retired career ambassador who signed the letter.
“I can’t say if the number [612 signatories by Wednesday] is unprecedented, but it is certainly extraordinary and reflects the degree of concern particularly across a wide spectrum of very senior diplomats and nonpartisan professionals.”
A strong sense that the moral authority that had girded them as American representatives overseas was under attack at home, for all the world to see, prompted many to speak out.
“Many of us have a firm belief that our leadership in the world is based not on a strong military, not even on the economy, but on the values and principles that constitute the core identification of the United States,” says Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen.
“But there is a recognition that what happens here doesn’t stay here ... but is picked up in the rest of the world with tremendous interest,” she says. “All these expressions of concern reflect a deep frustration that the rhetoric and abuses and policies we’ve seen from this administration over recent weeks have diminished how we are seen around the world.”
Ambassador Bodine points to the Arab Spring as an example of a movement that flourished as publics sought to advance the principles embodied by America.
“One reason the Arab Spring was able to get as far as it did is that the police in Tunisia refused to go against the protesters as [President Zine El Abidine Ben] Ali ordered them to, and the police in Egypt refused to go against the protesters in support of [President Hosni] Mubarak,” says Ambassador Bodine, now director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
“Comfort to the autocrats”
She and others say they were particularly motivated to speak out by the rhetoric used by President Donald Trump – that governors and other officials needed to use armed security forces to “dominate” the demonstrations, and dismissing the protesters as “thugs” to be repressed.
“That kind of language gives comfort to the autocrats around the world whose impulse is to use violence against their own publics,” she says, “and is not the sign of the moral leader of the world.”
The former diplomats who are speaking out underscore the importance they place on their comments being seen as nonpartisan, and they stress that almost all of them served administrations of both parties. They are not criticizing America, they say, but sounding the alarm about shortcomings that diminish its moral authority abroad.
“This is not a condemnation of our country,” Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield says. “It’s a condemnation of the racism that exists in our country and that we know must be rooted out for the good of all of us.”
She recalls walking into her State Department office the day after Minnesotan Philando Castile was killed by police during a routine traffic stop in 2016.
“I told my staff, ‘Today I’m not the assistant secretary; today I’m an angry Black mother. That could have been my son.’”
Out of that discussion grew a “conversation on race” that was extended to other bureaus and agencies of the State Department, and even out to the field.
Need for recruitment
But Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield says that despite the encouragement she feels from all the “speaking out” across her profession, she knows there is tremendous work to be done for America to fully embody the values it promotes.
She notes, for example, that when she joined the foreign service in 1982, the State Department was facing two class-action suits over employment, one from women and one from African Americans.
“And yet the numbers for African Americans are worse today than they were all those years ago when they won that suit,” she says. “As for ambassadors, today we have only three African American ambassadors – imagine, three!”
Still, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield says she’s optimistic. She notes that the nonpartisan American Academy of Diplomacy responded to the Floyd killing by demanding the recruitment of a foreign service corps that “looks like America” and pledging to work with the State Department to help make that happen.
The House Oversight subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on a Government Accountability Office report published in January that finds a significant lack of diversity at the State Department and recommends steps to address the problem.
“What all of us are calling for right now is for our country to strive to embody the values and principles we worked to promote and strengthen overseas,” says Ms. Thomas-Greenfield. “We have to deal with these ways we’ve fallen short, but we know the strength is there to do it.”