Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, July 17, 2017

Overflow crowd hears ex-diplomat Rank discuss foreign service

Former U.S. diplomat David Rank (second from left) talks with discussion attendees Former U.S. diplomat David Rank (second from left) talks with discussion attendees

Former acting U.S. Ambassador to China David Rank drew approximately 60 people to the La Follette School on Friday, July 14. After a 15-minute introduction, Rank answered more than a dozen questions from UW–Madison students, faculty, and alumni as well as community members.

Rank, who joined the State Department in 1990, resigned as the senior U.S. diplomat in China after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement in early June.

“David Rank offered a birds-eye view of diplomacy and politics at the highest level,” La Follette School Director Don Moynihan said. “An overflow crowd in the middle of summer is a good indication that they public really does care about these issues.”

Rank spoke on the importance of speaking truth to power, noting that a public official’s most loyal act is using his or her experience to explain why a president’s proposal is a bad idea. Ultimately, the president makes the policy decision, Rank said, but the country benefits from having civil servants who can offer an in-depth analysis of the consequences, such as President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

In response to the wide-ranging questions, Rank focused on loyalty, professionalism, and the need for dedicated public servants. One student sought advice about following his dream of working in the Foreign Service. “Absolutely; you have to pursue it,” Rank said without hesitation, adding that it was an honor to serve the United States.

Another audience member asked Rank about the secretaries of state he worked with. Rank described Hillary Clinton as dedicated, energetic, and smart, and said Colin Powell was “a really great leader, a dedicated American.”

Rank also spoke about the importance of diplomats’ credibility, saying that diplomats are effective only if they are credible. If they mislead the news media or the public, or are undermined by the president, they lose that credibility, Rank said. Ultimately, he said, diplomats are effective only as long as they are credible.

During his 27-year career, Rank also served in several senior State Department positions, including special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

He received the Distinguished Honor Award for his role in the safe return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of militant captivity, the Sinclaire Award from the American Foreign Service Association, and the Superior Honor Award on numerous occasions, including for his role in opening the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, China. The Distinguished Honor Award is the State Department's highest recognition.

A 1986 graduate of the University of Illinois, Rank grew up in the Midwest. His mother lived in Richland Center after she retired.