Decisions, Perspectives, and Ethics

| July 2016
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Over the summer, as we refresh the curriculum at the Naval War College, it has given me an opportunity to ponder the ethical implications of the different perspectives that we use to teach national security decision-making. Drawing from the models initially proposed by Graham Allison, we offer five lenses to understand how governments decide policy: the rational/unitary state actor model, the organizational process perspective, the bureaucratic politics perspective, the palace politics perspective, and the cognitive perspective. Each of them has a corresponding ethical component.

The rational actor model, in brief, assumes that a state effectively functions as a single, unitary organism, the sum of its parts, motivated by the search for optimizing the national interest. Closely linked with traditional foreign policy realism, in which the paramount objective of any state in an anarchic international system is, first and foremost, survival, this perspective posits that a state will weigh all possible courses of action and choose the “best” option. From an ethical standpoint, this model adopts a utilitarian approach to ethical questions: what is just is what ensures the state’s survival and its ability to maintain its existence. It concerns itself less with the ethics of the tools or means used to achieve these outcomes, adopting an almost amoral attitude towards the desirability of options such as war. Following the stance taken by Hans Morgenthau, the ethics of the individual cannot apply to the actions of governments, who are judged by a different set of standards.

The organizational process perspective rejects the vision of the state as a unitary actor, instead seeing any government as a collection of organizations. Each organization will pursue its vision of what it sees as optimal policy outcomes based on its own reasons for existence. Here, the utilitarian ethos is extended further where the interest of organizational survival and well-being is substituted for that of the nation as a whole (a variant of the old saying that what was good for General Motors was good for America). The related bureaucratic politics perspective, in some ways, dispenses with any sort of ethical justification for policy, seeing policy as the result of satisficing compromises reached between bureaucratic actors. A policy is not the search for the “best” option, even the “best” utilitarian one; instead, it is a negotiation to produce an outcome that all the players can agree upon.

It is the so-called “cognitive” perspective where concerns about ethics and values may best be reflected. This perspective calls attention to how policymakers’ own beliefs and worldviews impact their choices and decisions. A proposal to use nuclear weapons, for instance, to wipe out terrorist camps and bases might appear to be a desirable utilitarian outcome, yet be rejected as an option by a decision-maker unwilling to countenance the immense loss of life caused by a weapon of mass destruction, or refuse to sign an alliance with a totalitarian dictator to oppose a mutual shared threat. Indeed, much of the discussion about ethics in international affairs often revolves around the extent to which a leader’s personal set of ethical and moral beliefs can be brought to bear as a source of influence for how they conduct policy.

The “palace politics” perspective examines the influence of a leader’s circle of advisors and staff—their ability to control the agenda and act as gatekeepers. What is interesting, from an ethical standpoint, is that the things that can often make a staffer or advisor very influential in shaping policy by holding and maintaining control of, say, a President’s ear and then his or her pen, are often tactics and behaviors that would be seen as unethical or at least existing in a gray area: for instance, deliberately blocking access, misrepresenting the positions of opponents, and so on.

Yet this discussion also touches on the debate between the morality of intentions and the morality of results. A person wishing to promote a more ethical foreign policy approach who is unable to understand or master organizational behavior and is constantly outmaneuvered in both bureaucratic and palace politics may have a clean conscience but no achievements—and thus end up as a failure (in policy terms). Conversely, a policymaker with no personal commitment, say to human rights or defending human dignity may come to the conclusion that the preservation of the national interest requires moving another country away from the authoritarian path towards a more open and responsive political system.

The discussion of ethics in international affairs thus cannot be divorced from the politics and process of national security decision-making. Considering the different perspectives that can be used to explain how and why we end up with the policies we have can help to illuminate what role ethical considerations are playing in policy-making.

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