REUBEN BRIGETY: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. My name is Reuben Brigety. I'm dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University. We are delighted to welcome you to this evening, discussing why ethics matter in the study of international affairs.
Let me introduce our panel before we talk a little bit about how we're going to conduct tonight. To my immediate left is Professor Chris Kojm, professor of practice at the Elliott School of International Affairs, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council; Professor Janne Nolan, a research professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University; and we are in his house, Dr. Joel Rosenthal, the president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
I often say to our students that international affairs students are a special breed of student because by definition they care about the state of the world. They want to prepare themselves to go off and face the world's toughest challenges. As a result of that, the other thing I say to our students is that if you want to go and engage the world's toughest challenges, I guarantee you you will find yourself confronted with challenging ethical dilemmas.
As a means of trying to ensure that we are giving our students the very best preparation to be effective foreign policy professionals, at the Elliott School we've started an initiative to ensure that ethics and ethics education is an essential part of everything that we do. We have a paradigm at the Elliott School called STEP, which stands for "Achieving Elite Excellence in Scholarship, Teaching, Ethics, and Practice." As a means of emphasizing the ethical component, we have also launched something we call the Leadership, Ethics, and Practice (LEAP) initiative.
What we hope to do tonight is talk a little bit about why ethics matter and how do you go about ensuring that it is a core component of not only an international affairs education, but frankly, international affairs practice as one goes off into the field, and make sure that we do so with a relatively brief conversation with our colleagues here at the table, but also to make sure it is as interactive as possible with our colleagues here in the audience.
I will observe one rule that I practice religiously at the Elliott School when I'm giving lectures, and that is ensuring that we have gender equity in questions, so we will go ladies, gentlemen, ladies, gentlemen, back and forth. Please prepare yourselves accordingly.
Chris, why don't we start with you? You have a decades-long career in the intelligence community of the United States, working through some very difficult challenges, and then coming out of that and coming to the Elliott School as a professor and now taking on this issue of leading the development of our ethics curriculum. I wonder how in your mind you marry what you have seen over the course of your career with how we ought to be thinking about teaching ethics to our students.
CHRISTOPHER KOJM: Thank you. It's a great question.
I think the first point I would make is the criticality of focusing on it in school at the graduate level and also the undergraduate level because young people are learning a lot of things about issues they care about deeply, and you go to the workplace and you may end up doing something completely different than what you studied, and there will be many surprises in terms of the content of what you do. But in terms of the skills you learn and start to develop in school and follow on, they will be with you all your life. That's why I embraced from the outset the emphasis of the dean here on leadership, ethics, and practice.
A brief word about the L and the P. Business schools and military academies teach leadership all the time. International affairs schools need to do the same. The practical skills you learn in terms of interpersonal skills, writing, briefing, and teamwork will be with you for the next 40 years after you graduate from school, and that course on China may fade.
To ethics, to the heart of the question here. You're going to face ethics issues from the first week you're on the job. We've got to get students thinking about how to think about those issues. I'm not very big on prescribing solutions—"Here's the ethics handbook, and here are the answers"—but just to think critically about ethical issues.
Let me just give one example from the intelligence community and my time in government. The hardest thing in the world of intelligence is telling really powerful people something they don't want to hear. My boss in the Congress, Lee Hamilton, who was chairman of the Intelligence Committee, framed it this way: "Presidents usually get the intelligence they want." The real struggle is to speak truthfully about the facts as best you know them, and that is really hard to do at senior levels.
Case in point—I won't belabor it—the Iraq War decision. I was in government at the time. It was clear that President Bush and his administration wanted to go to war in Iraq. It was clear that the most important argument was that Iraq was developing a nuclear capability. The facts didn't lend themselves to make that case as we learned later, but the argument at the time—forgive my brief discussion of technicalities—concerned aluminum tubes, and were they for centrifuges and making nuclear stuff or were they for artillery?
The experts in Britain and the experts in the Energy Department said: "You can't use these for centrifuges. They'll blow up." Everyone else in the community said: "Well, Mr. President, we're sure that the Iraqis are developing them for nuclear weapons."
I was at the Department of State at the time in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The bureau resisted that judgment and said, "These aren't for nuclear applications." But the bureau lost the debate, and that point of difference was relegated to a footnote.
What do you know about footnotes? Nobody reads footnotes. They did not appear in the executive summary, so this important point of dissent was lost.
Just to finish, moving forward to the time when I became chairman of the National Intelligence Council, I said: "We will never have footnotes again relating to substance. Yes, cite your sources correctly, but points of substantive difference must appear in the document, and when they're important they must appear in the executive summary, they must be briefed to policymakers."
Because the long and the short of it is the intelligence community only gets hard questions. All those questions have incomplete information because people are trying to hide information from you, governments, or others. So, smart people will take limited data and give different interpretations. It is really important that policymakers know about dissent.
Janne and others on the panel, and me, too, we're going to talk about how hard it is when you're way down the food chain to give that dissenting view and not get your head cut off and not lose your job. It's hard to do, but that's the challenge. I'll stop.
REUBEN BRIGETY: So a footnote to the footnote. I don't know if any of you have ever seen these things called challenge coins. They were started by the military, but now everybody has them. Apparently President Trump has them as well with Kim Jong-un. When you go to a meeting, someone gives you a challenge coin. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department has a challenge coin, and it says "INR," and there's a footnote at the bottom, which is their passive-aggressive way to say they got it right when everybody else got it wrong.
Janne, you are famed for many things, but one of them is for using scholarship based on real-world case studies to demonstrate to students and to others in the consuming public how ethics actually work and why they matter in practice. We also were chatting a little bit before about how many of our students are astounded when we talk about case studies from the dark ages of the late 1990s. They are always asking for more time-sensitive, real-world case studies.
Let me ask you about one that we have grappled with in this country recently, and that is the confirmation of now-confirmed Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel. I actually can't think of a more recent example where there has been played out in the public sphere such a profound debate on, frankly, the ethics of action in international affairs.
On the one hand, there are those who say that Director Haspel's involvement in CIA black sites where torture is alleged to have happened was by definition disqualifying for her to be director of the CIA. There are others saying that she was following legal instruction as a framework defined at the time, and by the way she was not alone.
How do you think about and parse that through, and how can that example be relevant for current students of ethics in international affairs?
JANNE NOLAN: Clearly it's hugely relevant to the discussion of what you do in a situation, as Chris has alluded to, when the prevailing consensus at the highest levels and wherever you are working goes against judgments that you are able to make based on training, information, and access to intelligence, and you are faced with the dilemma of whether you continue to support the policy or exercise judgment and find some way to have a voice. In this particular instance and in other instances, we were extremely critical of intelligence and policymakers who did not "speak truth to power."
This has become the latest injunction to younger people that you need to speak truth to power. I think Chris and I have both struggled with the issue of how do you teach people to be prepared to speak truth to power in situations like this where there are fundamental issues of morality, of actually strategic imperative, and of self-interest. But how do you teach people how to speak truth to power without getting shot in the face?
I say that not lightly, because there are two sides of this. On the one hand, there are people who have spoken truth to power and have ended up completely marginalized and not remembered historically. There are some who have survived in various ways. There is the alternative of going along with the prevailing viewpoint.
I think you're right that her case encapsulated all of the tensions that were going on post-9/11, the fact that there was no resistance to the idea of torture or so little resistance inside the decision making and inside the actual operations. There was such a sense of imperative to do something that would redound so badly to the United States quite apart from the victims, but to the entire reputation of the United States, and there you have—it's not about her, is it? It is certainly about her in the sense of the confirmation process.
The reason I find this topic so fascinating for everybody in this room and everyone who comes to an international affairs school goes back to what Chris said. We try to train military officers, as you know, to be loyal to the Constitution, to disobey illegal orders. There is at least some familiarity with the fact that there will be predicaments.
There is no tradition of teaching civilians that they are going to be up against these kinds of things. We will come back to this I am sure, but one example I will use when I try to teach—I got to know Robert McNamara very well. Robert McNamara was wracked by guilt for his role in the Vietnam War, for the fact that he knew that the strategy was failing, but he continued to work as secretary of defense and send people into combat and to die for a strategy that he knew was completely mismatched to the facts on the ground. This is not an isolated incident. He was just a celebrated person. He never recovered from that.
When people say ethics is kind of nice, it's sort of cosmetic, it's actually demonstrably true that your conscience is a living, breathing organism that you cannot mess with too many times before you become a broken person. That's the psychological aspect. Through the research that we did over a long time, looking at different cases, most from the 20th century like Iran, the failure to speak up has been the source of strategic failure over and over again for the United States. So we cannot train leaders unless we teach them about this.
REUBEN BRIGETY: Thank you.
Joel, as president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, obviously you have a critical role in this debate in American public life, I would argue. Let me also take this moment to express our gratitude on the part of the Elliott School for the partnership that we are continuing to build in this space.
I wonder from your perspective how does one take these sorts of concepts which may seem esoteric, may seem marginal, and inject them into a broader public discourse, not only for students but broadly for the public.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. First of all, thank you for coming here. Thank you for what you're doing in the school.
I do think that one way to get to a better public dialogue and better public understanding is to actually teach these issues at the graduate level, at the undergraduate level, and at the level of civics in public education all the way through our system. So I think what you're doing is essential.
I don't have any sort of magic answer to this, but I think that the best way to teach leadership, ethics, and practice is actually to show it, much as you're doing now, to raise it up, to shine the light on it, to, heaven help us, analyze it in some way, and to have a civilized discourse around it. The bar may be too low, but I think if we can in some ways depoliticize it and just say: "This is an ethical issue. It's about who we want to be as individuals."
I think ethics a lot is about just self-discovery: Who am I? What are my values? What are my standards? What do I expect of myself, and then also, of course, the institution that I'm in?
To have some personal reflection and some public reflection on norms. I see that this has become a more public word now. I think it's a good thing. What is the word "norm?" A norm is expected and required behavior. What do you expect and require from yourself? What is expected and required from the institution in which I serve? Think about it. Those things change over time. Norms are not static. They change a lot. Think about in your own lifetime the institutions that you're in. The norms change. That's a very powerful thing.
I thought I would just interject a couple of things that I've found very helpful in framing the discussion, some of them having to do with a couple of presentations that were given here at Carnegie Council that were informed by scholarship but were public-facing.
One was just a few weeks ago. John Lewis Gaddis was here talking about his book On Grand Strategy. He begins the book by actually citing a scene in the Spielberg movie Lincoln. Thaddeus Stevens asks Lincoln how he can use these means, these sort of smoke-filled rooms and bribes and payoffs and deception and all this to try to get through the Thirteenth Amendment, which was a noble goal. Lincoln says he uses the image of the compass, and he says: "I know my true north. My true north is to preserve the Union and to emancipate the slaves. That's my true north. I know where I want to go. But if I follow true north, I'm going to hit a swamp and a river and a mountain. I can't go straight ahead. I need to have situational—I need to move."
In order to think about ethics, think what is your true north, and what is the truth north of the policy that you're trying to get to, and what are the compromises you'll be willing to make?
I remember as an undergraduate there was a famous lecture given by Frank Freidel, who was the biographer of Franklin Roosevelt. He made a similar point about Roosevelt. Roosevelt liked to use a nautical analogy: "If you're trying to sail upwind, your goal is here, the wind is coming in that direction. How do you get there? You have to tack back and forth. You cannot go straight into the wind."
Leadership is goal-driven, but it is compromise-ridden. You will face compromises. There is no magic formula other than to reflect on what your goals and standards are.
REUBEN BRIGETY: That is the essence of the challenge, right? To keep going back to the navigational metaphor, how far can you go off course or how far can you tack port or starboard before you're finally off course, even if you do know what your true north is?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I'm going to give you one other point of reference. I have others later if you want to share readings. Avishai Margalit has written a book on this, called On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, and he tries to answer—without a degree of precision, but I think it gets close to what you're asking—what are the compromises that you're willing to make, and what are the compromises that you're not willing to make. [Editor's note: See Margalit's Carnegie Council talk on this book.]
He does have sort of a recipe. I'm not going to give it here, but we do have some guidance on these things to think through what's acceptable. But I do think at the end of the day some of it is, who do I want to be? What is my role in this, and at the end of the day maybe I won't be remembered.
JANNE NOLAN: Can I just say, sometimes compromise is tactics and strategy and knowledge of how to be more persuasive. This is again one of the problems, that if you don't at least warn people that they're going to get into situations where they should be prepared for pressures, they're not going to be very effective, even if they do dissent often. It may be very noble, but it doesn't achieve much.
You know the difficult case—I was on the investigation of the 1998 bombings, the first al-Qaeda bombings, simultaneous bombings of two American embassies. I was on that investigation, and I met the ambassador in Nairobi, who had been issuing warnings for quite a long time about security.
She ended up—and I'm not suggesting she could have done something differently; she did everything she could—not only with the tremendous guilt of having failed to save the lives of the people who were killed when the terrorism came, but her career was damaged. We have many cases of this, where the speaking truth to power business, really what you're doing is you're not even engaging in dissent, you're presenting intelligence or information that just doesn't comport with an impenetrable consensus at the time. So we have to teach people about the complexities of that.
REUBEN BRIGETY: And yet, to take an example that is not from international affairs but is one that has been news lately for me is the issue of what happened at Michigan State University with the doctor. Now-disgraced Dr. Larry Nassar has been convicted of abusing hundreds of young girls. Obviously, the allegation against the university is that multiple people knew something at some point, but no one did anything early enough, and it has now cost the university half a billion dollars at least in terms of settlements.
One has to ask the question on the one hand, clearly whether it is dealing with American lives at an embassy or dealing with the financial implications to a university, there is clearly a hard-case rationale for standing up and doing the right thing, either positively or negatively, and then one has to ask the question: So what do you do when you're with an institution that doesn't want to hear it? You must have seen examples of this, Chris.
CHRISTOPHER KOJM: Oh, sure, if you want to stay on the theme of Michigan State here. On Capitol Hill when I worked there, things would happen. The rule that was learned by me—and I learned it on time, but others were too late, I'm afraid—is that when you get a report like that, your obligation is to act. It's not that you know what the solution is, but it's to get this allegation into the proper channels just as soon as you can. It's not up to you to do the investigation but to ensure that professionals who have that responsibility are seized with that matter at the moment you learn it.
JANNE NOLAN: Everyone talks about how you change organizations by changing incentive structures, and incentive structures also are reward structures and punitive structures. The failure to report sexual abuse—for most of my adult life—and efforts to do so and finding that you have nothing but resistance has created this problem. Successive generations have lived with this, and now the tides have turned, and the incentive structure has changed.
It will be very interesting to see if this persists, but I really like what you just said. You don't sit on this information and say, "Well, I think you're probably exaggerating."
The analogy was: "There is no terrorism in East Africa. Terrorism is in the Middle East. What do you mean there are al-Qaeda cells in Nairobi?"
You're supposed to report that up the chain and do some analysis, and there should be procedures for these kinds of things, to have the marketplace of ideas that is supposed to ensure better policy.
REUBEN BRIGETY: Joel, let me ask you one other question. Meanwhile, everybody else start getting your questions ready—ladies, you're first.
I once heard as U.S. forces were sitting in Kuwait preparing to go into Iraq, they had an awful lot of time on their hands, and I heard that an infantry battalion commander set up a mock village so his soldiers could practice shoot/no-shoot drills. He said he was doing this so that his troops could know what "doing the right thing feels like," particularly when rules are ambiguous or when there are a series of countervailing pressures to the contrary.
From your long study and from your engagement with this, what can you tell aspiring students, aspiring policymakers about how to inform their moral compass, so that: (1) they know what doing the right thing feels like; and (2) have the strength to be able to execute it?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. This goes back to Aristotle. It goes back to habits, it goes back to how you behave over a period of time in a regular way. In psychology terms, social conditioning is what you're pointing to. It becomes part of who you are. It becomes habit. It becomes instinct. I think sometimes we think we just inherit that, that that's nature. But it's also nurture, the way we are socially conditioned to accept certain things and to not accept certain things.
Some of it is literally visceral instinct, but some of it changes over time. I'll give you the example of food, Scotch. At first you look at it like, "Ooh," right? "This is danger. This is wrong," your gut instinct might be, but over time you come to appreciate its finer qualities.
But also you can see certain kinds of behaviors. Some behaviors perhaps on the street or whatever which might have been acceptable a few years ago somehow seem not right now. Perhaps when people are asking questions, who gets recognized and who doesn't. The norm changes. It gets conditioned over time. Norms do evolve and change. I think that is really powerful.
If you look at the work of Jonathan Haidt, who is a moral psychologist, he gives you this example. He calls it the rider, the elephant, and the path. The rider is your conscious decision-making apparatus. You have an ethical dilemma; figure it out using reason. The elephant, though, is your socially conditioned gut response about what I should do. It's more immediate. The path is the organization that you're in.
In terms of ethics training, what he has found is that most ethics training focuses on the rider, the ethical dilemma: Let's talk about it, let's think about it. But he said actually that's not very effective. What's really effective is focusing on the elephant. It's focusing on the socially conditioned norms. What is socially conditioned to be normative or correct, and that's how most people will respond. [Editor's note: See Jonathan Haidt's Carnegie Council talk.]
I just think awareness of this kind of thing among future leaders and current leaders can be a really powerful thing. I think that is actually what will lead to path changes, to institutional changes, to changing incentives and structures and behaviors and so on. We can teach courses and make a good living on the rider, on ethical dilemmas that we can and should talk about, but I think we have to go deeper in looking at social structures.
QUESTION: I'm Molly Seltzer. I graduated from the Elliott School in 2015. I'm a journalist now.
I wanted to turn it a little bit more contemporary right now. I'm Washington-based, so obviously we've seen a lot of turnover within the Trump administration along the lines of people who are not able to stay in their roles for a variety of different reasons. My question would just be: How do you approach ethics and sticking with your post when there is such a flagrant distinction between your values and the values of your superiors?
REUBEN BRIGETY: Chris, do you want to take that on the premise—I'll just let the question stand for itself.
CHRISTOPHER KOJM: For people in government, when you serve in government you take an oath, of course, to the Constitution and not to the secretary of your cabinet department or to the president. Most people I know in civil service take that oath very seriously.
There is also a tradition certainly in the State Department, an important one, which is you work as hard as you can to help policymakers succeed with their goals. They were elected to carry out an agenda.
You've got a couple of choices. The classical ones are exit, voice, or loyalty. In the policy world, I guess I would view it this way, that what you're entitled to or should be entitled to is to have your views heard, and that they are seriously considered. That's important, and that's what you want to hope for. You're not entitled to have your views endorsed, but that you have been heard fairly.
Then if you stay in government, your choices are: Am I on board with the program? Do I want to transfer to a different position? Do I want to leave government? People are making all kinds of those choices.
Evan Osnos' piece in The New Yorker points out that sometimes, of course, it's not voluntary, where people sense that somehow you're disloyal, and then you are moved to what's colloquially known as the "turkey farm." You're given some office with some vague assignment but no real responsibility, and you're just marginalized, sidelined.
That is happening apparently quite a bit. In my personal view, that is an abuse of government authority. When you come into a government agency, it doesn't matter what your agenda is. You've got trained, qualified people, and you ought to harness that vast talent on behalf of whatever your agenda happens to be.
This is slightly off point, but it's a great story, so I've got to tell it. Carl Ford, who was the assistant secretary in INR when I was there after the Iraq invasion, and all these analysts who had been studying the problem said: "Oh my god. We're engaged on a terrible course that is going to just end in utter strategic failure."
What he said to the analysts was: "Look. If the policymaker wants to drive that car off the cliff, your job is to help him or her get that car to the ground as safely as possible. That's your responsibility."
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Kaye [phonetic]. I graduated from the Elliott School on Friday.
My question has to do with a common theme on the panel, which was refusing unethical orders and telling authority figures that they're wrong. While I admire the fact that the panel upholds these values, I think, at least in my assessment, materially speaking since the post-USSR era, the United States has had a problem of ,I suppose you could say, American hubris where there is this larger societal pressure, this almost patriotic pressure, to not question the government's foreign policy decisions, namely in Iraq like someone mentioned on the panel.
Obviously, this is a flaw in human psychology as the Stanford prison experiment showed and the abuse in Abu Ghraib showed, but larger than that even, I think that there is this problem where as soon as the war drive starts, as soon as these patriotic missile strikes in Syria happen, the American public just blindly rallies behind these interventions.
For example, with the first Trump strikes in Syria, so many Democrats and Republicans came behind Trump and said, "You know, this is his first presidential act," etc., the point being we jump to a lot of military conclusions very quickly. The tale of the tape does not look very good. The United States killed a million people in Iraq, Libya is stateless and anarchic, and the bombing of Raqqa displaced 150,000 people.
Do you think this American hubris or American patriotism, paternalism almost, on the world stage is a problem, and ethically do we have the responsibility to stop doing these things and to fix what we did abroad?
REUBEN BRIGETY: Janne, is there a patriotic or ethical duty to question American use of force, and how does one do that?
JANNE NOLAN: I'm going to answer your exact question by saying the following: The studies that Dean Brigety referred to—these are from the past, they are from the 20th century, not all of them—asked the question: How is it that the United States, which is the supreme power, especially after the end of the Cold War, unique in its capacity in every way, but certainly orders of magnitude more powerful militarily, consistently finds itself intervening in countries and regions that it knows absolutely nothing about, even after decades of extensive involvement?
One of the case studies was Iran in the 1970s, where we had a huge both contractor and military presence. Literally right up until the bitter end, there was an injunction against saying anything about the degree to which the repression of the shah was contributing to the insurrection and what ultimately led to revolution. Total denial of the role of religion.
There is a systemic issue here. This used to be so controversial that I couldn't possibly brief it even here, Joel. Our democracy was: leave it to the United States. There is a certain odd pathology about the difficulty of gaining consensus to act and then shunning that consensus in the light of contrary intelligence.
To answer your question, yes, there is absolutely an imperative to question. We have a tendency as Americans to think that military intervention is simpler and more decisive than all the other instruments at our behest. We do not rehearse diplomatic intervention the way that we do a briefing in the Oval Office and you show all the different strike patterns. It looks like you're actually going to do something very—we are remarkably ignorant about—time after time we say, "Wait."
Going back to the arguments I used to have with McNamara, he said, "I could not have known that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist." We argued until he died about that.
I said, "Why didn't you go meet somebody who knew him?"
He's like, "Well, who?"
But he said something, and this is what inspired all this work ultimately: "There was no one at the table. There was no George Kennan. There was no McGeorge Bundy for that part of the world to advise me. There was no one 'certified.'"
That was a moment of, this huge light bulb went off. What does it mean to be certified? I'm in the middle of my certification process of my career. It means that you are not going to rock the boat or knock the table over or question the fundamental consensus that there is a domino effect.
It is technically true that there wasn't—we had weakened the State Department during the McCarthy period, but the secretary of defense should have more information about the basic facts of where we are intervening. I still struggle to explain this because it is not uniquely American, but it is very American.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Veronica Dunlap. I'm Elliott School 2010. I work for a national criminal justice non-profit. We do a lot of work with police departments around the country, especially around the area of reconciliation and rebuilding trust and legitimacy.
When I think about the current administration I personally believe that because of ethical mishaps we have lost a lot of legitimacy in the foreign space and we've lost a lot of our power. I would love to hear your thoughts, especially given my experience with reconciliation in the criminal justice space, about what we should be looking to do when the time arises to regain some legitimacy, because we have had so many ethical missteps as a nation right now.
REUBEN BRIGETY: Joel, this is something that I hear an awful lot during my travels, and I expect you do, too, that American soft power is taking a real beating in the last 18 months or so for a variety of reasons, and I'm wondering if you hear that as well. Notwithstanding an electoral or political solution, if the Trump administration were to certify you today and say: "Dr. Rosenthal, we understand we're taking a beating. What can we do?"
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. It actually ties into the previous question. There are two big principles that I think are at stake here and can help inform the conversation.
The first one is humility as a fundamental aspect of ethics as we're describing it, because it is often hijacked by moral certainty. If I could just leave you with one thought for the evening, it would be anybody who says they're morally certain, I would be worried. Moral certainty often leads to violence, actually. I can refer you back to Reinhold Niebuhr and some other prominent American theological/public philosopher/ethicist types who emphasized the connection between power and humility and that any act in some way is going to be flawed and in some way self-interested. Before you get so morally righteous, you should be thinking in a much more humble way about that. I wanted to inject the humility principle in.
The other is if this country has stood for anything, I thought the core principle of it is—I was going to say "was"—pluralism. It is pluralism. We are a pluralistic country. That is based on the ethical principle that my interests are bound up in your interests and that we are in that together. Even from a Libertarian perspective, even from the most individualistic perspective you could take, even from Adam Smith, who actually makes this point, which is, "Yes, I'm a self-interested person, but the first thing a self-interested person has to understand is the interests of the other person," if you're going to have any kind of exchange, economist. It is a basic awareness of this.
This country has been known throughout the world as an exemplar of some imperfect, evolving notion of pluralism which goes to reconciliation and so on. I think you're right. If I could work on two big items, one would be this humility question, but the other would be getting back to that basic idea of pluralism and what we have in common, and hopefully that we can demonstrate that in some way to the rest of the world. Just some thoughts on that big question.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. My name is Alec. I'm actually a Columbian College graduate, Class of 2015.
I work for a decently sized public agency, and we have a new executive director. One of the priorities that he has set has been to rebuild—because we've had an interesting recent track record—a reputation of ethics and integrity. One of the things that he says over and over again is that, "You can have almost everybody in an organization doing the right thing for years trying to build a reputation for integrity, but one person who messes up or makes a wrong decision in one instance could squander all of those efforts."
As professors of ethics and leadership, you can only reach out to so many students. How do you teach those students to be teachers and influencers to try to scale that influence?
REUBEN BRIGETY: I'm actually going to take part of that because obviously we are all frail, imperfect individuals, and to the extent that institutions try to have a certain set of norms which they follow, and if there is departure from those norms by an individual or if multiple individuals in the institution are complicit, there are two things that have to happen: One, as to Joel's point, is a sense of acknowledgment and reconciliation, but it is vitally important that the leadership take ownership to re-embrace the norms.
In my view, one of the best examples of this in modern times is the Catholic Church and how fundamentally they failed in their mission to protect children for the purpose of trying, in their view—misguided clearly at the minimum—of protecting the institution for decades. As a means of trying to rebuild their trust and their own moral authority, two things started to happen: one was the engagement with survivors, but also it was the pope, Pope Francis in particular—I know Pope Benedict did some, but Pope Francis I think deserves the lion's share of the credit for this—saying, "I am sorry," and the pope, the "vicar of Christ on Earth," begging for the forgiveness of individual victims.
I suspect that is true for any number of other institutions, that when something has gone wrong the leadership has to take ownership in order to change it. I wonder if any of the rest of you have thoughts on this.
JANNE NOLAN: I think that was really eloquent. In a much smaller way, I remember briefing some of these cases of strategic failure that had resulted from a failure to take into account concrete intelligence, and we had all the intel, lined it up. I was briefing this.
When you come down to the prescriptive parts, it's always very difficult. You need to show some tangible examples of when someone speaking up actually changed the moments of policy, but also come up with some prescriptions.
I was talking about a modest suggestion. For example, in the Foreign Service, subordinates should be allowed to write evaluations of their superiors, and one of the elements would be whether or not they listened. Immediately, one of our very distinguished diplomats—who all of you know, actually—said to me: "Janne, Janne, Janne. It's just human nature. Some people listen, and some people don't."
I said, "Yes, and some people start businesses and read and succeed, and some people start businesses and don't do anything, and they fail. Surely we can even consider."
It was wonderful to watch, especially an established audience, when I said the idea that your underling would write a performance review. You could see the faces where it was already too late for them.
But even modest steps are very hard to take. Your boss or whoever is doing this, it's very interesting. I don't know what agency this is, but—
REUBEN BRIGETY: We don't need to know, for the record.
I have two boys who are almost 13 and 11. They will be 13 and 11 this summer. To your point of building the elephant underneath them as it were, I have been quoting Churchill to them since they were five and three this quote, that "courage is the most important virtue because it's the one that makes all the others possible."
One of the things that's incumbent—this goes to the leadership point as well—is that if you're leading an organization that is either trying to establish or reestablish ethical norms, the people in your organization don't need you to be their buddy. They need you to establish justice and the ground rules for expectations. Those organizations that succeed in these sorts of environments are those that get it.
I think another great example of this is Starbucks. There are a catrillion Starbucks outlets all across the planet. Most are franchised. Only some are owned by the organization. But if two African Americans in some outlet somewhere get the police called upon them, Howard Schultz could just as easily have said, "That is the fault of that store owner, and they are liable."
Instead, he owned it for the entire organization and said, "We collectively are going to think about how we can make sure this doesn't happen in our stores ever again." That's leadership. It's courageous ethical leadership.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Meredith Fortier. I graduated from the Master of International Policy and Practice (MIPP) program back in 2014.
My question is, you mentioned the Foreign Service and you mentioned soft power kind of taking a beating at this time. Given the students you see come through Elliott and the Foreign Service applications really being down right now, how do you talk to students about public service? How do you talk to students about why they should be inspired by it? How do you talk to them about managing their expectations, managing what they should look to when they think about service, and how they should think about it during this time period?
REUBEN BRIGETY: It's not merely a theoretical question. Arguably it's an historical one since we address this at the Elliott School. Chris, do you want to talk about it?
CHRISTOPHER KOJM: Students raise this question all the time. I am very clear in my answer to them that public service is a noble undertaking now and always. Look, you're going in, you should seek to go in, and if you go in, you're going to learn so much and make a contribution from the get-go.
Okay, you've got issues with current policies in this administration. Guess what? We have elections, and they change. I try to be very encouraging about the merit and value and importance of talented young people seeking to serve their country in a wide variety of ways.
QUESTION: Marc Garlasco. I'm a graduate of the Graduate School of the Elliott School of International Affairs in 1995. I am currently at the UN Syria War Crimes Commission of Inquiry and a former member of the intelligence community.
We've been speaking about ethics really writ large within the United States, but we're here talking about international affairs. How do we extend that to the international actors that we interface with on the micro level, for example, when I was with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in 2011 dealing with police officers who would shake down the local population, and now on the macro level, dealing with Syria and Russia and the problems that we face with them? How do we extend these ethical teachings that you are trying to extend to your students, and how do we do that on an international level?
REUBEN BRIGETY: That's a great question. Janne, Joel, when you're dealing with an actor whose interests are not only unaligned, but whose ethics are unaligned, what do you do?
JANNE NOLAN: There is a wonderful dad here—I hope I'm not singling you out—who asked this question during the cocktail hour: Is it actually possible that the liberal international order that the United States has done so much to encourage, with all of its norms, could actually be taken down in 18 months?
I'm not changing the subject, but it sort of goes to this question of whether our retrenchment from moral standing, is it possible to actually undo? I didn't answer the question, did I, so let's turn it to Joel.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I think it is related, Janne, that's right. It is tied into what we tried to build after World War II, a set of institutions that were based on a set of norms that would at least be functional in certain ways to promote some kind of stable, predictable world order that had some norms underneath it. Again, imperfect, but it means aligning the power of this country, the power of our allies, around certain core interests that have values embedded in them.
I think one of the great mistakes—it was amazing how it was exhibited, and I felt almost bad for former Secretary of State Tillerson when he came out of the box when he talked about, "We have to separate our values from our interests." You should look this up. It was extraordinary, and he just missed the basic point that interests and values do come together at some point; they do align.
Anyway, it's a big-picture answer to your question, but as we think about our interests and we think about building norms and institutions around those norms, it's going to be very imperfect around themes like corruption and so on.
We're not going to be able to change behaviors, but I think we can create norms, expected and required behavior, around certain issues that will help to promote a more stable and peaceful world. That would be my big approach. It's harder as you get into specific issues.
REUBEN BRIGETY: On that hopeful note, let me again thank all of you for coming. Let me thank in particular our hosts, Joel Rosenthal and his team here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Let me say a special thank-you to Elaine Garbe, who has done so much, and also to Shanae [phonetic] and all of our other colleagues who have done so much. Thank you all.