Stephen M. Walt

Searching for an honest man (or woman): Which foreign policy makers have real integrity? (UPDATED)

I have a pretty simple question to pose today. Can you think of any major political figures — and especially within the domain of foreign policy — whom you admire for their integrity? I’m talking about people who have a well-earned reputation for truth-telling, and for sticking up for what they believe in even if ...

TREVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
TREVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

I have a pretty simple question to pose today. Can you think of any major political figures — and especially within the domain of foreign policy — whom you admire for their integrity? I’m talking about people who have a well-earned reputation for truth-telling, and for sticking up for what they believe in even if it might be professionally disadvantageous. You know: someone who is at least as interested in doing good as in advancing their own climb up the professional ladder, and who doesn’t bend with every prevailing shift in the political winds.

I can think of a few political figures with such saint-like qualities — Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc. — but that’s a very high bar. I’m also aware that politics is the art of compromise and that political leaders sometimes have to make hard moral judgments in a messy world. So I’m not trying to hold everyone to some other-worldly moral standard. Nor am I suggesting for a moment that my chosen profession is filled with paragons; I’ve been an academic for far too long to believe that anymore.

Nonetheless, I’m still struck by how rarely you see people in the foreign policy establishment resign on principle or take positions that they know will attract controversy and jeopardize their future prospects. Instead of a world of plain-speaking truth-tellers, we have a culture of spin, of anonymous leakers and finger-in-the-wind politicos who make policy by first asking how it’s likely to play in the polls, with influential interest groups, or with their superiors. That’s how you get policy paralysis on Gitmo, a "surge to nowhere" in Afghanistan, and a "peace process" in the Middle East that no one in power will admit is a charade.

And to give this issue a contemporary spin, isn’t that the real reason to be less than enthusiastic about Susan Rice’s candidacy for Secretary of State? Not because she spoke a bit too rashly over Benghazi, but because she’s been more interested in her own ascent than in the principles she seeks to uphold. (The same is even more true of many of her critics, of course). How else to explain her accommodating attitude towards African dictators, or the enthusiasm with which she helped smear Richard Goldstone after his famous UN report on Operation Cast Lead was released? No doubt she was following instructions, of course, but I’ll bet it never even occurred to her that what she was being asked to do was simply wrong and that maybe she ought to resign instead.

But it’s not really fair to single her out: she is just a creature of a larger political culture. During the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Policy Planning chief Richard Haass reportedly had serious doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq, but you didn’t see either of them resign in protest and go public with their objections. Instead, it was a few low-level officials like John Brown or Brady Kiesling or British foreign secretary Robin Cook who had the backbone to denounce a war that was both foolish and illegal and resign. Let’s not forget that Saint Hillary and John Kerry backed the war too, and Hillary was also an enthusiastic supporter of the foolish Afghan surge back in 2009. Instead, it was courageous young military officers like Paul Yingling and Matthew Hoh who put telling the truth as they saw it ahead of professional advancement and with the predictable professional consequences.

So to repeat the question: can you think of any foreign affairs experts — to include policymakers, pundits, scholars, wonks et al — whose basic integrity, honesty, and moral courage you admire? This doesn’t have to be people we agree with, by the way, just someone who might be suitable for inclusion in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage. Nominations now open, and all countries and political movements are eligible.

UPDATE:  For a related post that raises additional questions about Rice’s waffling on Iraq, see Peter Beinart here.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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