Teaching Ethics and International Affairs (#3)

Conversation with Al Pierce

This is one of three interviews with leading educators in the international affairs field, asking them to describe their teaching challenges (particularly after 9/11) and to discuss ways to meet these challenges. The interviews took place at the 2003 ISA Conference.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL (MARY-LEA COX): I understand that you are now heading up the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. When did you last teach courses on ethics and international affairs?

AL PIERCE: I last taught spring semester of 1998 at the National War College. It's a school for senior military officers, diplomats, and career civil servants. There were two courses that would be relevant to today's conversation. One was "Ethics and the Use of Military Force," and the other was "Ethics and Statecraft." As these titles suggest, ethics was the central theme of both courses. I also taught a course for many years called "The Political Use of Military Power," and ethics was incorporated into one of the course units.

Do you think it's better to teach ethics per se, or to weave it into other courses?

I don't have an absolute position one way or the other. There's plenty of room in most college curricula to do both.

But is it typical of the military core curriculum to include classes with the title of "ethics"?

"Typical" would imply that most military education schools have ethics courses, and I don't think that's true. At all of the service academies, there is a core ethics course that covers ethics and the use of military force. So at service-academy level, all the cadets, all the midshipmen have to take at least a one-semester course that deals with ethical issues.

But when you get to the more senior-level schools, I would hesitate to generalize more broadly. For example, at the National War College, ethics is a standard part of the core curriculum, but the elective menu is more or less up to the instincts and interests of the individual faculty. I don't know for sure, but I don't think anyone has been teaching ethics electives there since I left.

When you say "senior-level schools"—what kinds of students are we talking about?

I'm talking about mid-career professionals who are taking graduate courses. Most War College students are at least forty years old—twice the age of your typical undergraduate student population. Each student has anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five years of practical experience—so they're also very different from your typical graduate student population. Now the service academy students are more like typical university undergraduates, the main difference being that they've all chosen to pursue a military education.

How does teaching ethics differ from teaching straightforward IR courses—does it carry any special challenges?

There are a couple of challenges that arise when teaching this topic. One is: What does ethics have to do with war? What does ethics have to do with foreign policy? What does ethics have to do with international affairs? This is essentially the realist position: international relations is all about state interest and state power, so ethics shouldn't play a part in the discussion.

This is an easier hurdle to overcome sometimes than the second challenge—particularly if you're teaching in a professional military setting. The second challenge arises once you start analyzing real-world case studies. There's sometimes a tendency for the students to say—and even if they don't say it, to think it: this isn't fair, here we are, sitting in this quiet, well-lit, calm classroom dissecting decisions that real people made in the real world under real pressures. There's a sense of the Monday-morning quarterback. (I would say that I never lost a football game on Monday morning because I always knew what every player should have done in every game, after having lost the previous week-end.)

You can overcome that hurdle, but you have to be explicit about what the point is of doing ethical analysis. The point is not to arrive at certain legal or even moral judgments about Colonel So-and-so, Ensign So-and-so, Private So-and-so. It's really to see what we can extract from their experience that could help these students in the future, when dealing with similar issues. So there are a couple of sensitivities or challenges that you face; neither of them is insurmountable, but they're there.

Are you saying that your students feel inhibited out of loyalty to their colleagues in the military?

I wouldn't say it's loyalty so much. More, it's a sense of: who are we to do this at our leisure and in the luxury of sitting in this classroom? To overcome this with military people, it helps if I say, we're not here to pronounce moral judgment on someone.

Another thing I do is to point out that the military are very good at after-action analysis and "lessons learned" as far as the technical, tactical details. So I say that an ethics course is very similar to that, but on a different plane.

The purpose of "lessons learned" is not to arrive at a judgment about whether that commander did the right thing or the wrong thing, or how competent he is or isn't. It's really to say, what lessons can we learn from that experience that would help future commanders? I am trying to do a parallel thing with my course—but it's moral lessons learned as opposed to technical lessons learned.

In my conversations of yesterday and the day before, we were speculating as to why ethics is so rarely connected to international affairs—and why society in general seems to resist making that connection.

I would argue that it's true of any domain, not just international affairs. Whether you're talking about medical ethics, or ethics in the business world, or ethics of personal choice—when you get away from the ethics of the issues, from the ethics of the abstractions, and get down to the level of personal choices, you're treading on some very thin ice.

This touches very deep, very important things inside people. You're bound to get some reluctance and reserve; I think, in fact, you get reluctance and reserve more than you get resistance. These are delicate issues. You have to make sure that you create an environment where not only are we not making judgments about what this guy did five years ago, but we're also not making judgments about each other's positions around the table. We're trying to illuminate better answers, and poorer answers.

But in that case, wouldn't it be easier to do hypothetical role-playing with your students?

No, I don't think so. The difficulty with hypotheticals is that they either lack verisimilitude—you're looking at something that isn't very realistic—or else they're pretty thin, meaning they're not rich in detail. You can of course have hypothetical case studies as well, but I think you're better off with a rich, real-life case study than you are with a one-paragraph hypothetical.

There's a role for the one-paragraph hypothetical, but you can't do as much with that as you can with a thorough, thoughtful case study.

So the process of taking the students through a case study helps to break down some of the inhibitions you were talking about?

Yes, eventually students come to recognize a) that this is a productive process and b) that it's safe. But you have to create the sense that this is safe. That's the challenge.

Returning to the first challenge you mentioned, the realist argument that ethics doesn't have much to do with international affairs: why did you maintain that this is an easier hurdle to overcome?

Because you can easily show students that in fact, the practice of statecraft has not always been a subject completely apart from values, ethics, principles, morals, and so on—that factually, this is incorrect.

I remember once at the National War College we had a speaker who was talking about the Carter foreign policy, but during the question-and-answer period, someone asked him about the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy. He said something really remarkable: for all of their brilliance and for all of their accomplishments, the Nixon-Kissinger team ultimately had serious problems because they failed to recognize that the American people have a deep moral streak. I think he was onto something there.

There's of course the Wilsonian school versus the Kennan school of foreign policy: we can take the students through all of that. But we can also factually refute that foreign policy hasn't always been about pursuing state interests to the exclusion of all else; therefore, we can't say it should always be that way.

But surely it's a more challenging hurdle than that? The Council's president, Joel Rosenthal, has often commented to me that people in Washington who are involved in foreign affairs find it extremely difficult to connect what they do with ethics.

As I say often about ethics and the use of military force: you can walk the walk even if you don't talk the talk. Ethical dimensions can get worked in without using the ethicist's vocabulary. For example during the Gulf War—soon to be known as the first Gulf War—we had something called "the highway of death." Colin Powell said that this "piling on" [continuing the ground war] has got to stop. Piling on is a violation of proportionality. He wasn't using just war terminology, but he was still reflecting just war concepts.

So it's not essential for policymakers and other leaders to be well versed in ethics?

I didn't say that. It is better statecraft, better policy, and better strategy for political and military leaders to be familiar with these concepts. That's why we teach this stuff in military educational institutions. But while it is better if you have this background, you don't have to have this background to be ethical. It's not a case of: you have to take this course, or you can't be ethical!

I'll use another example. When considering a hypothetical military operation, military commanders and planners often say, let's talk about feasibility. Well, feasibility is a military term that is exactly comparable to the just war concept of probability of success. They don't use just war vocabulary, but they're talking about the same thing. If we do this, how likely is it that we'll really be able to accomplish the goal that we set out? Again, you can walk the walk even if you don't talk the talk.

Here's another piece of it: military folks are held—whether or not they are systematically introduced—to the law of armed conflict. You don't have to be Slobodan Milosevic to be tried for war crimes. So even if you are blissfully ignorant of the just war tradition, you need to know that if you're a commander and you kill prisoners, you can be court-martialed. From this point of view as well, it's helpful to be exposed to ethical concepts. There is a close—though not a complete—overlap between the law of armed conflict and traditional ethics.

And, getting back for a moment to the point that speaker made about Nixon-Kissinger (though I wouldn't say it's exactly the same point), the American people—through the press—hold the military responsible for their conduct. There are mechanisms of accountability beyond the formal legal mechanisms. This adds to the case for why military students need to know about ethics.

In my conversation with Chris Brown of the other day, he mentioned that his students feel uncomfortable with situations of moral ambiguity: they don't like thinking that the only way to preserve human rights, for instance, is through military intervention. You said that your students have all been out in the world; they're mid-career professionals. Does that make it any easier for them to accept the existence of competing moral claims?

Yes, they bring a lot of real-life experience to the classroom, and those who have been in combat will often talk about that. Again, you have to create an atmosphere where they feel safe and comfortable enough to raise what can be very sensitive issues. And you may have to peel the onion a little bit to get at it . . .

I'll give you an example. I was teaching a course called "The Ethics of Personal Choice: Examples from Fiction." We read only fiction. There was a student—he was not in the course—who said to me one day, "I understand that in your ethics course today you're going to talk about The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial."

I said, sure, here's a copy of the book, you can sit in if you like. And he sat in. He came up to me afterwards and said, "I feel I owe you an explanation of why I was interested in this."

I said, "You don't owe me an explanation," but he went ahead anyway, saying that before the Gulf War, he had been an executive officer in an army battalion. The members of that battalion thought that their commander was mentally unbalanced, and they didn't know what to do. They didn't want to go to war with him as their leader. They really wrestled with it, and then they finally got him removed. So you will definitely get people raising their own experiences in these courses.

I realize you haven't been spending much time in the classroom since 9/11, but are you under the impression that there is increased student interest in international relations, and in signing up for IR courses, since the terrorist attacks on American soil?

That's been my impression from talking to people who teach in the field, also from doing a lot of guest lecturing.

Does that mean more military students are interested in the ethical component of international affairs? For instance, all the discussion in the news these days about justifying the preemptive use of force on Iraq . . .

I don't know that there has been a rise in demand for military ethics courses, but there may well be a greater appreciation of the significance of ethics to the military profession. At the War College, you often have skepticism: Why are we doing this stuff? I imagine that students of today more quickly, more easily, more rapidly come to the conclusion they would have come to anyway, which is that ethics is central to their profession.

Are they searching for ways to interpret the debate surrounding the need to go to war with Iraq?

Yes and no. "Yes" in the sense that they are all intelligent readers of newspapers and followers of the news, so they're searching for answers. But "no" to the extent that some of them will say (many of them will think) that that's not really our job. Our job is to fight the war, and implicit in that is to fight the war within the parameters of legal and moral constraints. I would think there's more demand for discussions of the preemptive use of force and so on in a non-military setting.

Are people in war colleges having free and open discussions of these issues?

Absolutely. I used to always say in my classes, there's a difference between the classroom and the real world, and we know the difference. Nowadays, I expect you'd get the full range of opinions around the table. Some will say, "My country right or wrong, my country," while others will say, "My country—wrong!" Actually, not so much of the latter in military settings. But you do get a wide range of opinions.

Can you recommend some resources for people who are setting out to become educators in this field?

When I teach ethics and the use of force, I almost always build the course around Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars. That's not all we read—we supplement it with other readings. While I don't agree with Walzer on a lot of very important issues, his book provides a good way to introduce students to these topics, to give them a solid foundation.

The argument unfolds from chapter to chapter, and there's an intellectual coherence to the book—as opposed to assigning an article on this topic, an article on that topic . . . Walzer doesn't end most discussions or arguments, but they probably ought to begin with what he has to say.

We also have some case studies that we've developed in the Naval Academy's Ethics Center, which we hope to put online some time this year, and make them more widely available. I'm really committed to the case study method; indeed, one program area at the center is "case study development."

Finally, I'd like to get your take on future trends. I know you're focused primarily on the ethics of armed conflict. But where do you see the field going from here?

One area that interests me—I wouldn't declare it a "trend" but it is certainly an area that warrants a lot more systematic attention—is the nexus of, the overlap between law and ethics.

Not just empirically—by that I mean, how much attention do policymakers or military commanders pay to legal requirements and ethical principles?—but also in an evaluative sense: where should they put their emphasis?

As you may know, we are currently working on a project on this topic with the Carnegie Council and with the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law.

I see law and ethics as two lenses through which you can look at the same reality. Sometimes those two lenses give you essentially identical pictures, sometimes they give you interestingly different pictures, and sometimes they give you opposite pictures.

I came to that realization back in the days when I was teaching Ethics and the Use of Military Force. One of my students was an army officer—with no formal background in the law, no formal background in ethics, just a conscientious army officer—who wrote a paper on the experiences he had in Mogadishu, Somalia (prior to the Black Hawk Down time). He said there was a period there where the American troops were getting mortar rounds shot at them. And with a certain technology the U.S. uses, you can pinpoint, within two or three minutes, exactly where the mortar round came from. And they would have a legal officer right there with the commander who would "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" as to whether they should return fire.

Now the problem was that the bad guys were often just setting up a mortar [firing device] somewhere, popping off the rounds, folding it up, and then running . . . so that by the time you knew where it came from, they were gone. Well, it would have made a big difference if they had launched it from an open field or from, say, the playground of a school.

There was one particular incident that this student focused on where the lawyer said, "good to go," but this student came to the conclusion that it may have been legal but it was probably not ethical. So that introduced me to the potential for tension between law and ethics. You can use those two different lenses and arrive at very different answers.

So Joel Rosenthal and Tony Lang of your institution, Scott Silliman of Duke Law School, and I got together to brainstorm about how we could study this area. We recently applied for funding to support a project on this theme.

There is also, of course, a whole other cluster of issues educators will be looking at—having to do with the ethics of the war on terrorism. This gets us back to what we were discussing earlier: preemption and so on. It's one thing if you go after bad guys with a wink from the Yemeni government; but what if you go after them in a country that doesn't give you a wink? Then you're violating a traditional notion of sovereignty.

Press accounts seem to indicate that there is in fact a list with names on it of people we are seeking out and trying to kill. We essentially have a "hit list." What are the ethical implications of that? And what ought it to take to qualify to be on the hit list, or not be on it?

One of this year's Resident Fellows at the Naval Academy is writing on the ethics of assassination. There's another, related piece. Going back to Afghanistan in fall of 2001: there were U.S. special operations troops in that country. Because they are part of the military system, I feel pretty comfortable that a) they understand the legal requirements and b) that they have some familiarity with the broader ethical requirements.

At the same time, however, there was another group of people under the U.S. government doing very similar work in Afghanistan, but they were working for the CIA. I don't know to what extent they were taught about the law of armed conflict; I don't know to what extent CIA employees have in their professional development, education in the ethics of these issues.

That's another under-studied area. It's clearly important that we all be on the same page. Yet another related piece—this, too, is a project I've been talking to Joel and Tony about : there's a concept in military affairs called interoperability, which usually means that within NATO, people all have the same caliber of ammunition, so that we can use each other's ammunition if we run short. You can also talk about interoperability of communications equipment and frequencies . . .

Well, I have this concept I call "ethical interoperability." If we're going to be in a humanitarian intervention with troops from two, six, twelve, twenty different nations, and we're all intertwined, do we have any common basis for building an ethical understanding? And if not, what do we do about that?

This, it seems to me, is another area deserving of study, resulting from the increased globalization of humanitarian military efforts. Clearly, it reflects the era of humanitarian intervention, when most interventions were multilateral. 

Read More: Warfare, Ethics, Armed Conflict, EthicsJust War Tradition, Preventive War,

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