ETHICS, GOVERNMENT AND SECURITY The Democratic Imperative

ETHICS, GOVERNMENT AND SECURITY The Democratic Imperative

Gregory D. Foster

The subject of corruption–its causes, effects, and implications–is one that is central to the growth and preservation of democracy everywhere. Because the subject can’t be divorced from larger issues of responsive and responsible governance–especially that involving law enforcement and national security officials–I have chosen to address the larger theme of ethics, government, and security as a democratic imperative.

To set a proper tone for deliberation, I begin by quoting two important statements. The first was made by Army Chief of Staff General Omar Bradley in a 1948 Armistice Day address. He said, “The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” How regrettably little has changed in the past half century. Governments and those who serve in them continue to rely on power in the affairs of state but give little evidence that they have become any more ethically literate with the passage of time.

The second statement was made by the estimable nineteenth-century U.S. statesman Henry Clay, who reminds us still that government is for the people, not the other way around. “Government is a trust,” said Clay, “and the officers of the government are trustees; and both are created for the benefit of the people.”

Four propositions set the larger contemporary context for the subject at hand. First, transnational globalization in all its diverse forms–economic, political, cultural, technological, and military–is inevitable. Second, global democratization–the spontaneous, technologically driven diffusion of power–is therefore also inevitable. Third, the continued viability of the state will depend on how well the state meets society’s needs. Already there is much evidence to suggest that governments are increasingly ill-equipped to cope with the demands that now confront them. Fourth, the performance–and, by association, the legitimacy–of the military will be instrumental in determining the continuing viability of the state.

Let us remind ourselves at the outset that the purpose of the state is to govern society. So, what then is the purpose of government? Is it to preserve the state? Is it to do what the people can’t–or don’t want to–do for themselves (as Abraham Lincoln famously observed)? Is it to serve society? Or is it to secure natural human rights? This, of course, was the view of the United States’ founders, who believed that governments are instituted among a people for the very purpose of securing the inalienable rights that all human beings deserve to enjoy–from the rights to live and be free, to the rights to assemble and speak their minds, to the right to know what their government is doing both for them and to them.

Of the two general forms of government–autocracy and democracy–it is the former, wherein power is vested in the hands of the elitist few for the benefit of the few, that is most familiar to most of us. Autocratic regimes revolve around the protection of state sovereignty. True democracy, wherein ultimate authority resides in the hands of the many for the benefit of the many, is where the realms of the strategic and the ethical converge; for democracy is the most stable and the most just form of government. It vests sovereignty in the individual human being. But it also is the most difficult form of government to maintain.

How, then, do we actually govern? Power is the usual approach of choice–the very essence of politics and of human nature more generally. In fact, it is the exercise of power that gives the state its distinguishing coercive character. As an alternative, we extol the virtue of the rule of law. But the law, even as it purports to serve the cause of justice, may be merely another instrument of coercion in the hands of the few. The law is a minimalist approach to governing. It provides a floor for government action and human behavior. Notwithstanding the difficulty of determining common standards of right and wrong, only morality can provide a ceiling for government action and provide the basis for true moral authority.

Moral authority is the product of legitimacy. Legitimacy–the necessary precondition for the effectiveness of government–is a reflection of public trust and confidence. Such trust and confidence derives from respect and is best assured by the leadership that comes from setting a consistent example of principled action.

All government, of course, is a social contract between those who govern and those who are governed–a tacit ethical compact involving mutual rights, obligations, and expectations. The contract that unites the three parties to the civil-military relationship–the military, its civilian overseers, and the people –is perhaps the single most important arrangement in determining the viability of government.

Recognizing that this contract exists forces us to face up to the very purpose of the military. Is it to serve itself–the sort of self-interested behavior that marks the military as an interest group? Is it to serve the state (and thus those in power)7 Or is it to serve society–the selfless, altruistic devotion to democratic rule that truly gives the military the character of a profession?

The key question that commands our attention is this: how does an inherently authoritarian institution (the military) that employs violence on behalf of the state, subscribes to an ethos of obedience, cloaks itself in secrecy, and demands exclusivity achieve legitimacy?

At one level, as an executive instrument of the state, the military must be expected to adhere to the time-honored professional imperatives of governance. First, there are the imperatives for discretionary authority and what we might call neutral competence–that is, the right to exercise discretion commensurate with the specialized expertise the members of the institution possess, but to do so without favoritism or partisan influence. At the same time, there are the imperatives for public accountability (transparency) and popular consent (the public’s “natural” right to know). These are the symbiotic prerequisites of democracy that require both open government for effective popular rule and popular rule for effective open government.

At a deeper level, there are a number of imperatives that must guide the military in a democratic society. These imperatives are the public expectations that grow out of the civil-military contract. First, there are the requirements for operational competence and sound advice expected of all militaries under all forms of rule. But in democracy there are additional special demands for the military to be politically neutral (independent from the self-interested expediency of partisan politics) and socially responsible (a model of ethical propriety for which the ends it is charged with seeking don’t justify means that are socially destructive).

How, then, should we judge the effectiveness of the military: on the basis of mere military effectiveness (managing violence on behalf of the state) or strategic effectiveness (furthering the larger aims of society)? The answer, less obvious than it should be, is the latter.

There are three strategic aims of a democracy:

* assured security

* the prevention of disruptive, resource-consuming crisis

* the preservation of civil society–the interlocking network of institutions and values that give democracy its meaning and enable society to function with civility.

Of them, the first is the most crucial: securing the totality of conditions enumerated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution–namely, national unity (“a more perfect Union”), justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. A military that, in providing for the common defense, creates injustice or denies civil liberties to the citizenry or diverts valuable resources from the general welfare diminishes rather than contributes to national security. Such a military thereby fails both ethically and strategically to fulfill its end of the social contract.

It thus is a matter of ethical and strategic concern that the military be under the firm control of responsible, popularly elected civilian authority. Clearly, civilian control of the military can exist without democracy, but democracy cannot exist without effective civilian control.

There are two ways to exercise such control: objectively and subjectively. Objective control is externally imposed–the sorts of legal and structural checks and balances generally seen as necessary counterweights to the inherent weaknesses of human nature. But even if such mechanisms are necessary and in place, they can never be sufficient. Ultimate control must come from within through self-control (subjectively). This attitudinal demarcation is the difference between being a professional and being professional.

Such formulations may sound idealistic, even naive, but it is a short distance between the ideal values (or virtues) we commonly ascribe to the military profession–competence, courage, decisiveness, dedication, discipline, honor, obedience–and the distorted values that all too often come to be accepted as natural features of bureaucratic survival and success. Institutionally sanctioned forms of lying, cheating, and stealing aside, such distortion may take the form of alienation (from other institutions and society), arrogance, blind obedience, exclusivity, intolerance, parochialism, and obsessive secrecy, for example. It is an even shorter distance from these distortions to the total subversion of values–corruption, crime, and venality.

For legalistic reasons, we have come to accept as an operational definition of corruption the use of public office for personal gain. The usefulness of this definition lies, of course, less in the insight it provides into the phenomenon than in its reference to observable (and thus justiciable) acts. As an aid to understanding, this is not unlike the flimsy distinction we conveniently make between the illegal act of bribery and the commonplace political practice of influence peddling. In a more profound, if ambiguous, sense, where corruption exists something much more fundamental and disturbing is at play than just the use of public office for personal gain: a complete breakdown of character; a loss of the internal compass or tribunal we call conscience.

Two important questions therefore present themselves at this point. The first is this: should the military be representative of society? Simple logic suggests that a military that is reflective of the society from which it is drawn is more likely to be subject to self-control because there is a natural link of common affinity and empathy. But what do we mean when we say representative: demographically representative, experientially representative, ethically representative? If elements of society engage in and condone behavior that is more characteristic of vice than virtue, should that be acceptable for an institution that possesses authority to employ state-sanctioned violence? This, then, leads to a second question of significance: should the military be (or at least aspire to be) morally superior to the rest of society?

My answers to such questions are admittedly tentative and general–more in the form of grand (or grandiose) principles than specific policy proposals. First, democracies both nascent and mature must seek to foster conditions that endow the military with prestige (so as to attract and retain the right kinds of people), without conferring special privilege–real or perceived–on those who serve. Second, the military itself must strive for nothing less than moral excellence (and thus superiority) in the conduct of its members, without feeding misplaced attitudes of moral arrogance among them. Finally, the military, even as it must be accorded a respectable measure of professional autonomy, also must be sufficiently integrated into society that the likelihood is minimized of it becoming alienated from, and thus unaccountable to, the public it is charged with serving.

How can we achieve such ends? How do we institutionalize ethical propriety and discourage corruption among military, law enforcement, and other security officials so that they are worthy of democracy and democracy is worthy of its name?

For one thing, nothing less than a comprehensive response will do. Individual ethical conduct can only be guided in a positive direction within an institutional climate that recognizes and rewards such behavior. That institutional climate, in turn, can be sustained only when the larger society demands and supports high standards of human conduct. And if we extend our thinking to accommodate the forces of globalization, we may even be forced to concede that societies can be held accountable and deprived of the shallow cover of cultural relativism they so often hide behind only if the larger international community recognizes the validity of, and demands adherence to, universal norms.

In a more instrumental sense, there are few creative measures available for nurturing ethical propriety that haven’t already been thought of. For ethical propriety to thrive, there clearly must be enforceable and enforced laws and regulations that proscribe impropriety and provide for appropriate penalties. There must be organizational mechanisms available–inspectors general, ombuds, ethics officers, and the like–that symbolize the importance of the issue and

provide avenues for monitoring, investigating, and reporting abuses and enforcing standards. There must be sound personnel management programs for screening, recruiting, developing, and promoting personnel with the attributes, aptitudes, and attitudes that are most amenable to ethical thinking and behavior. And there must be adequate systems for remuneration (wages and benefits) and recognition that remove the temptations which lead to corruption, provide incentives for propriety, and demonstrate the value society and the institution place on moral excellence.

These, of course, are necessary measures that logically must be in place if ethical propriety is to take root and be sustained. But they aren’t sufficient to guarantee rectitude. Such measures may, in fact, be all but meaningless if they are not undergirded by what, in the final analysis, are the three cardinal preconditions for ethical propriety. First and most basic is transparency–the opening of government to public scrutiny through the various mechanisms experience has shown necessary for the purpose: mandatory reporting of public expenditures and political contributions, an independent judiciary, a free press, unfettered nongovernmental watchdog groups, and the like.

Even more important than transparency–at least in terms of its potential for engendering true self-discipline and self-control–is leadership: the consistent practice by those in authority of exemplary behavior, of walking the talk of virtue and thus demonstrating one’s worthiness for emulation by others.

If transparency is the most basic and leadership the most important of the preconditions for ethical propriety, then education and training is the most lasting. Ethical conduct isn’t something that can be imposed, nor is it something that can be acquired or adopted as a result of infrequent mass lectures on standards of conduct. It is a conditioned mode of critical thinking that has to be regularly and consistantly instilled, exercised, and tested through rigorous inquiry, reflection, and dialogue. Only individuals thus prepared can be reasonably expected to wear the badge of virtue; and only institutions that invest in such preparation can reasonably expect to harvest the fruits of such virtue.

To sum up, I invoke two aphorisms from the Analects of Confucius that offer enduring guidance for all who would seek the more ethical practice of government:

Whoever exercises government by means of virtue may be compared to the

north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn toward it.

The Master said, “Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments,

and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of

shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they

will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.”

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., where he previously served as George C. Marshall Professor and J. Carlton Ward Distinguished Professor and Director of Research. This article is adapted from an address delivered January 29, 2001, to the Inter-American Defense College at Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group