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Former US ambassador to Estonia speaks out about reasons for stepping down

Former US Ambassador to Estonia James D. Melville, Jr.
Former US Ambassador to Estonia James D. Melville, Jr. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

After 33 years of service, James D. Melville, Jr., who resigned as US Ambassador to Estonia in July before his successor had been appointed, formally left the US Foreign Service this week. In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, he detailed his reasons for stepping down as ambassador this summer.

The former diplomat said that he was disturbed the most by President Donald Trump's habit of denigrating US allies and their leaders.

"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," Melville said. "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 the US well, he continued, adding that "'America First' is a sham."

"There is an old proverb that says, 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,'" Melville recalled. "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.

"I am extremely uncomfortable with the trade policies the United States is pursuing," he continued. "I also believe it is a historic mistake to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"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," said the former ambassador. "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.

Right thing to do

"When you serve as US ambassador to a foreign capital, you represent your country, of course," Melville explained. "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 honourable and right thing to do is resign. That is what I did in July, when I  stepped down as US ambassador to Estonia."

"I had no choice but to resign," he said. "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."

The ex-ambassador said that now he is free to speak for himself as a citizen, and he wants to use his voice to advocate policies more in accord with the US history, 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," he concluded.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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