Marie L. Yovanovitch served most recently as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
What I’d like to share with you is an answer to a question so many have asked me: What do the events of the past year mean for our country’s future?
It was an honor for me to represent the United States abroad because, like many immigrants, I have a keen understanding of what our country represents. In a leap of optimism and faith, my parents made their way from the wreckage of post-World War II Europe to America, knowing in their hearts that this country would give me a better life. They rested their hope, not in the possibility of prosperity, but in a strong democracy: a country with resilient institutions, a government that sought to advance the interests of its people, and a society in which freedom was cherished and dissent protected. These are treasures that must be carefully guarded by all who call themselves Americans.
When civil servants in the current administration saw senior officials taking actions they considered deeply wrong in regard to the nation of Ukraine, they refused to take part. When Congress asked us to testify about those activities, my colleagues and I did not hesitate, even in the face of administration efforts to silence us.
We did this because it is the American way to speak up about wrongdoing. I have seen dictatorships around the world, where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened with punishment or death. We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act. It has been shocking to experience the storm of criticism, lies and malicious conspiracies that have preceded and followed my public testimony, but I have no regrets. I did — we did — what our conscience called us to do. We did what the gift of U.S. citizenship requires us to do.
Unfortunately, the last year has shown that we need to fight for our democracy. “Freedom is not free” is a pithy phrase that usually refers to the sacrifices of our military against external threats. It turns out that same slogan can be applied to challenges which are closer to home. We need to stand up for our values, defend our institutions, participate in civil society and support a free press. Every citizen doesn’t need to do everything, but each one of us can do one thing. And every day, I see American citizens around me doing just that: reanimating the Constitution and the values it represents. We do this even when the odds seem against us, even when wrongdoers seem to be rewarded, because it is the right thing to do.
I had always thought that our institutions would forever protect us against individual transgressors. But it turns out that our institutions need us as much as we need them; they need the American people to protect them or they will be hollowed out over time, unable to serve and protect our country.
The State Department is filled with individuals of integrity and professionalism. They advance U.S. interests every day — whether they are repatriating Americans vulnerable to a pandemic, reporting on civil unrest, negotiating military basing rights or helping a U.S. company navigate a foreign country. As new powers rise, alliances fray, and transnational threats require international solutions, our diplomats are more than ready to address these challenges.
But our public servants need responsible and ethical political leadership. This administration, through acts of omission and commission, has undermined our democratic institutions, making the public question the truth and leaving public servants without the support and example of ethical behavior that they need to do their jobs and advance U.S. interests.
The next generation of diplomats is counting on something better. Our newest diplomats fill me with hope. They are smart, motivated and idealistic — and yet realistic about the unprecedented challenges facing the United States. While it is bittersweet to retire from a job that I love, I know there is a new generation of experts who will advance our interests in an increasingly dangerous world.
This Feb. 14, the newest class of diplomats will swear an oath, as so many before them have done, to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”; and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
These are turbulent times, perhaps the most challenging that I have witnessed. But I still intend to find ways to engage on foreign policy issues and to encourage those who want to take part in the important work of the Foreign Service. Like my parents before me, I remain optimistic about our future. The events of the past year, while deeply disturbing, show that even though our institutions and our fellow citizens are being challenged in ways that few of us ever expected, we will endure, we will persist and we will prevail.
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