Saturday, September 28, 2013

Diplomatic Life: Diplomacy, Which Should Come First, a Definition of the Profession or A Code of Ethical Conduct?

The Hippocratic Oath in Greek and Latin publis...
The Hippocratic Oath in Greek and Latin published in Frankfurt in 1595 in Apud Andreae Wecheli heredes by Claudium Marnium, & Ioan. Aubrium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  Since my retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service in September 2012, I have been involved in a number of projects that have interested me for decades. One of the most important, though, is the development of a code of ethical conduct for the U.S. Foreign Service, a project I’m working on in conjunction with a number of my colleagues, both active and retired.

As might be imagined, such a project has provoked much discussion. One topic of interest is the question of which should come first, the development of a professional ethics code, or a definition of the profession. While there are a number of definitions of diplomacy, it has not to my satisfaction (and many of my colleagues) been clearly defined as a profession. This is in all likelihood due to the American experience from colonial times when talented amateurs were sent abroad to represent the new nation’s interests in European courts. It is also seen in the modern practice of rewarding political loyalists with ambassadorial posts in some of the more desirable embassies.

That this practice will continue into the indefinite future is undeniable; it is much a part of the country’s political DNA. But, in the dangerous age in which we currently live, whether those named to represent the country are political loyalists or career government servants, if we are to maintain America’s position in the world, there must be a professional framework within which they operate.

This will require, I’ll be the first to admit, a clear definition of diplomacy as a profession; one which must be understood by all who practice it. But, the question at hand is: must we define the profession before we have a code of ethical conduct that guides and shapes the activities of diplomatic practitioners?

Reasonable people can, and will, disagree on this point. Based, though, on my 30 years as a practicing diplomat and 20 years before that as a career army officer, my own bias is for a code of ethical conduct based on universally-accepted core values as a guide to clearly defining the profession. I see no reason that these two tasks cannot be undertaken simultaneously, but I firmly believe that priority should be given to the ethical code. I offer two historical examples in support of this view.

The Hippocratic Oath Preceded Development of the Profession of Medicine.

While the Hippocratic Oath, believed to have been written by Hippocrates, or one of his students, in Ionic Greek in the 5th century BC, is often misunderstood, and is not in its original form sworn to by modern physicians, its core values continue to guide the practice of medicine around the world. Hippocrates is widely regarded as the father of western medicine. While there were  healers at the time the oath was written, one has to concede that the definition of medicine as a profession has undergone dramatic change since the 5th century.

Following is a rough translation of the oath:

I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art; and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher's sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws, and no others.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practise my art, respected by all humanity and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my life.

One can see many of the practices of modern doctors in this ancient document. But, as technology has advanced, the definition of the profession has accordingly been modified.

The U.S. Constitution Can Be Considered a Code of Conduct for a Nation

When the Founding Fathers took up arms against King George in the 1700s, the definition of the United States as a nation was only a vision. Since 1775, the nation has undergone numerous changes, from the Articles of Confederation to the Civil War to Manifest Destiny.

While not a profession, the transformation of the fledgling former colony into one of the world’s greatest powers was shaped by the Constitution, which is basically a code of ethical conduct for a nation.

The Danger of Defining a Profession Without a Code of Professional Conduct

One could, I suppose, put together a panel of learned practitioners and come up with a definition of modern American diplomacy that would satisfy everyone. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but I’m willing to concede that it just might be possible. But, in the absence of a set of commonly accepted and clearly understood core values enshrined in a code of ethical conduct; a Hippocratic Oath for diplomats, there is a clear and present danger.

As professional diplomats, like professional soldiers, we serve those who have been elected by the people. But, it has always been the case that politicians have a short-term focus, and in today’s toxic political climate it is the rule rather than the exception. Politicians have, by and large, always viewed the instruments of state power – and diplomacy is one of these instruments – as tools to advance their specific political agenda. When the statesmen of this country, in the main, were people who put the needs of the country writ large ahead of partisan interests, this was workable – just barely. In the last several decades, however, American politics has become a zero-sum, winner-take-all game, with the prime goal it seems, winning elections and getting ahead of the opposition.

International relations, however, must be based on longer-term interests. Relations between and among nations transcend specific elections. Diplomats, therefore, like soldiers, must be professionally conditioned and educated to reconcile the short-term requirements of the moment with the longer term needs of the nation as administrations change, and the international landscape shifts. They must have a framework within they endeavor to serve those in power in good faith, but put the longer term interests of the nation first. After all, like soldiers, we serve those elected to positions of authority, but we are the servants of the people.

As we struggle to define diplomacy in the modern age, we would be well-served by a code of ethical conduct, much as a doctor must work with the hospital administration, which has issues of budget and politics to consider, but at the same time, put the interests of patients first. As we develop an accepted definition of our profession, we must be insulated from undue political influence by a code of conduct that enjoins us from ‘doing harm.’

We can’t afford to hide behind the argument that I have often heard that a code of ethical conduct in unnecessary because the people we hire as diplomats are already ethical, or that professional education throughout a career isn’t needed because they’re already educated. If we take our oath to the Constitution, which is administered to all new Foreign Service Officers, seriously, we must back it up with an ethical code that reinforces that oath throughout our careers.

This is an argument that I predict will continue, and I’m prepared to listen to all points of view. Mine as expressed here is my personal view. But, I would hope that all who enter the fray would be willing to listen to counter views as well.

Your humble and obedient servant.

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