Moral Leadership in Statecraft
John Lenczowski, Ph.D.
Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Dr. Lenczowski's Commencement remarks on June 6, 2009, and appeared in the Autumn 2009 American Statesman.
One of the key elements of our curriculum - and it is something on which we place a disproportionate amount of importance - is that of moral leadership. Our students study the GrecoRoman, Judeo-Christian moral tradition, and the ethics that derive from the philosophy of that tradition, and how those ethics should be applied to the use of power. Power, like liberty, can be abused, and we want our students to exercise power with responsibility, with prudence, and toward good ends.
A huge part of our emphasis on moral leadership concerns not only theoretical matters of ethics, but it concerns what kinds of people our students turn out to be. Many of you have heard me preach before about the lesson of the ancient Roman historian Livy, who said that the surest way to defeat a foreign enemy is to spread amongst his population the ideas of selfishness and hedonism, because a people who are seized with selfish pleasure-seeking, in fact, are ultimately incapable of defending themselves.
Such people give their nation a weak national immune system - a concept that I have developed which describes the strength of a nation's convictions, its commitment to certain principles and values, and therefore, the ability to recognize both internal and external threats to those values and principles which it prizes above all. A strong national immune system consists of the ability to protect the nation and its most important values and principles in all of the different ways that it can be done - morally, politically, economically, diplomatically, and militarily.
Since our nation's ability to resist the kind of moral decline that weakens our national immune system depends heavily on the character of its leadership, we pay attention to what kind of leaders our students will ultimately become.
These graduates are destined for leadership positions. They are highly competitive students, who have chosen this school, and they could have attended - indeed, many were accepted at - to elite schools elsewhere, but they came here because of the special and unique curriculum that we have. It makes a huge difference as to what kind of people they are, and what kind of people they will try to turn out to be, through the habits that they develop and cultivate throughout the course of their lives.
And this isn't just a matter of intelligence and education; this is a matter of their moral character. Character is exhibited in how you behave when nobody is looking. It involves the cultivation of conscience, it involves the cultivation of will, it involves development of good habits, and it begins with the consciousness of the virtues that make up good character.
The professions that we teach at the Institute involve the most sensitive functions of government. They involve questions of war and peace, of life and death. Mistakes made in these professions are the costliest mistakes in terms of blood and treasure that can be made by anybody in the public life of the nation. Of course, a good many of those errors are usually intellectual errors, which is why we are dedicated to raising the educational standards in these various fields.
But many of the mistakes are the result of moral weakness or failure. The highest level of the conduct of our professions is called statesmanship. And statesmanship involves making and implementing national policy in a way that is characterized by civic and personal virtue.
And what are those virtues? General Douglas MacArthur made a wonderful list of them in his valedictory speech at West Point when he talked about duty, honor, country. He also talked about other virtues, like morally-ordered pride, humility and modesty, heroic self-sacrifice, patriotic self-abnegation, loyalty and reliability, and many others.
I would like to call special attention to some of these virtues that we stress here at IWP, because all of these virtues are not just for our men and women in uniform. They are also for those in civilian capacities in our country who end up making and implementing those decisions that would put our brothers and sisters into harm's way.
One of these virtues that we care about a lot is honesty and integrity, both personal and intellectual. We stress commitment to the truth and the ability to discernthe truth. But this means having the courage not only to see the truth, but ultimately to tell the truth to power. The courage to see the truth is a very big deal, particularly in our intelligence community and in the ability of our foreign and defense agencies to see foreign realties correctly.
Sometimes you don't see reality correctly because of the propaganda and deception that is being perpetrated on us by other powers. And sometimes, it's because of willful blindness, wishful thinking, or what George Orwell liked to call the will to disbelieve the horrible. And there emerges oftentimes a kind of a mass willful blindness when all about you refuse to see, and you are called to see the truth.
We also stress justice, based on a recognition of the fact that there are objective moral standards rooted in the natural law - the law written on the human heart. We care about the dignity of the human person, as a foundation of justice. Peace is impossible without justice.
Another virtue we care about is prudence, and prudence at one level is the ability to exercise wisdom, reason, caution, and discretion in the conduct of policy. But in a larger sense, prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations. So what prudence requires first is knowledge of those principles, and particularly moral principles, because it is that virtue that enables a person to discern good ends, achieve good ends, and ultimately to be a good person oneself.
And so in one way or another, all of these virtues that I've talked about point to one larger virtue, which lies at the heart of the ethos of this school, and that has to do with selflessness - the willingness to serve a cause higher than oneself. And this is what these students have been taught, sometimes through homilies by tiresome professors like me, but also through the example of our extraordinary faculty who have given of themselves to this country, who have served and made huge sacrifices, as well as by the example of many of their fellow students, some of whom you'll be introduced to soon, who have served this country in extraordinary capacities, including putting themselves in harm's way.
With the education that you graduates have received, both intellectually, and, we hope, in the cultivation of your consciences, we expect great things from you. You have been given a very special education. And if it's not you who will rise to the occasion, who will? Who will? It is you who have to do so. America and The Institute of World Politics are blessed to have you, and we wish you good luck and Godspeed.