James D. Melville Jr. is a former member of the U.S. Foreign Service who served as ambassador to Estonia from 2015 until his resignation in July.
When you serve as U.S. ambassador to a foreign capital, you represent your country, of course. But you are also the personal representative of the president. Professionalism demands that career foreign service officers — like career military officers — follow the orders and pursue the policies of our elected civilian leadership.
If you cannot do that, the honorable and right thing to do is resign. That is what I did in July, when I stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Estonia. Now, with my formal departure this week from the U.S. Foreign Service after 33 years, I can more fully explain why.
Service in the diplomatic corps and the military are alike in another key respect. In both worlds, a special burden attaches to any individual in leadership. Within both hierarchies, each of which bears a share of responsibility for conducting U.S. foreign policy, those in leadership roles can — and should — advocate the policies and strategies they believe in.
Along with many colleagues in the executive and legislative branches, I devoted tremendous energy and time trying to convince officials in the new administration of the importance of our NATO alliance. When then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was going to skip the first NATO foreign ministerial meeting of his tenure, I made sure Washington knew what a poor signal that would send to our frontline allies such as Estonia.
Ultimately, however, I knew that it wasn’t my call what “U.S. policy” is — nor should it have been my call. Under the Constitution that I swore to uphold and defend, the duly elected president, working through the executive branch, sets U.S. foreign policy.
This spring, I reached the point where I could no longer support President Trump’s policies and rhetoric regarding NATO, our European allies and Russia.
What do I believe? I am extremely uncomfortable with the trade policies the United States is pursuing. I also believe it is a historic mistake to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is in the United States’ fundamental interests to champion a rules-based world order. After the dark years of World War II, we worked in accordance with our values to pursue, nurture and achieve a peaceful and prosperous world. The great global and transatlantic institutions — NATO, the United Nations and, to an extent that would surprise many of my fellow citizens, even the European Union — are the fruits of policies carried out and resources expended by the United States over decades.
The refusal of the United States to give up on Estonia’s independence through the entire Soviet occupation is the cornerstone of Estonians’ deep appreciation for America. But it is the values of our nation and the leadership and role we have played in protecting the democracies in Europe that give them the confidence to stand up to the genuine threats emanating from their eastern neighbor.
There is an old proverb that says , “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That is the principle the United States has followed for decades and, while there are still many problems to be grappled with, it is why the world is as peaceful and prosperous as it is.
The alliances we have built and the friends we have made all around the globe look to the United States for leadership and guidance as we, together, tackle the world’s challenges. There should be no question that we are more effective and powerful when we work in concert with our allies and partners.
Arrogance does not suit us well. “America First” is a sham.
Russia and its corrupt, authoritarian government are a threat to the rules-based order and the fundamental values and interests of the United States and its allies. Trump’s habit of denigrating our allies and their leaders while lauding Putin and other authoritarians is no way to lead. It placed me in an untenable position in Tallinn whenever I was asked, as chief of mission, to explain our intentions.
I had no choice but to resign. I have no sympathy or understanding for those who remain in government service while claiming to be ignoring or otherwise violating their instructions. I certainly don’t understand an anonymous op-ed proclaiming some right to fight a rear-guard action behind the president’s back. That approach is devoid of integrity and seems cowardly to me.
Now I am free to speak for myself as a citizen. I want to use my voice to advocate policies more in accord with our history, our values and the global good. And I also hope to convince as many ambitious, smart young people as I can that a life in service to their country is a wonderful way to make a contribution toward a better world.