The Need for a US Diplomatic Code of Ethical Conduct

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French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-...

Nowadays, especially since the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, professions and organizations around the world are paying more attention to the need for ethical professionalism standards to guide their activities. Research has shown that cheating has become more commonplace, especially among young people, and while there is not enough data to indicate whether or not this is a clear global trend, it is nonetheless worth being concerned about.

What is inarguable is that any profession needs a grounded ethical code to guide the activities of its members if it is to be successful in our increasingly globalized world.

It’s worth thinking about just why this is so. First; a clearly understood code of ethical behavior helps guide the individual member of the profession in carrying out his or her responsibilities, and protects the individual from outside pressure to ‘bend the rules.’ A sound code is invaluable in explaining the profession to outsiders, and aids in professional interactions with those within and outside the profession. More importantly, for professions that serve the general public, a code establishes the expectations that those being served have regarding that profession.

For 30 years, until I retired in September 2012, I served in the US Foreign Service (and for 20 years before that in the US Army), working at a number of American diplomatic posts both in the United States and abroad. During my service as an American diplomat, I was often dismayed at the lack of understanding most people outside the profession have of what diplomats do. The most common phrase I heard throughout that time was, “a diplomat is someone sent abroad to lie for his country.” From the inside, I knew this to be false. Most of my colleagues were decent, dedicated individuals who operated according to a strict ethical code, serving often in dangerous situations, and performing heroic, but unheralded jobs in the service to their nation and its people.

Why, then, did people fail to understand the profession? There are probably a lot of reasons, but one that impressed me most was the fact that, while there are reams of regulations concerning proper ethical conduct, nowhere was there a clearly defined code of ethical conduct easily accessible to diplomats or the outside world. Other than anecdotal information, or the often distorted and inaccurate portrayals of bureaucratic and snobbish diplomats in popular media, there was no easy to access and understand code of ethical professional behavior that told anyone what the profession of diplomacy is all about.

It became clear to me, therefore, that diplomacy, as any other profession, would be best served if it was made accessible to the general public. Diplomats would be more effective in carrying out their important tasks if they knew, not just what they should avoid doing, but what they are expected to do. Our current ethical regulations, though scattered about dozens of volumes and almost requiring a law degree to fully understand, effectively distinguish between right and wrong behavior, but they are useless in helping professionals make the often hard choice between two courses of action, both of which are ‘right,’ but one of which might be more appropriate and effective. The individual is left to his or her own personal code of behavior in making such decisions, and, while the right (or appropriate) decision is made in most cases, it would be more effective if the individual had aspirational guidelines to help in the decision making process. Furthermore, such a code would help outsiders better understand the reasoning behind the decisions made.

Like the US Military Code of Conduct, promulgated after the Korean War and the unfortunate collaboration with the enemy by many soldiers who had not been prepared for the propaganda employed against them, a diplomatic code of conduct, introduced during the beginning of a career and constantly reinforced throughout that career, would better prepare our diplomats for the world in which they must operate today, where they must contend not only with officials of the governments to whom they’re accredited, but with the many nongovernmental groups and individuals who impact foreign affairs in ways not thought of in the early days of international diplomacy.

No longer should American diplomacy be burdened with the image of ‘someone sent abroad to lie for his or her country.’ As the new US administration prepares to face the challenges of the next four years, establishing a well-understood, respected, professional corps of diplomats should be one of its top priorities.

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3 thoughts on “The Need for a US Diplomatic Code of Ethical Conduct

    […] The Need for a US Diplomatic Code of Ethical Conduct. […]

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