“My life was not short enough for me to not do the things I wanted not to do,” is the lament playwright Tom Stoppard puts in the mouth of the hero, British poet A. E. Housman, in The Invention of Love. That bleakness resonates for me. The storybooks of my childhood were infused with the idea that people should be honorable. But that honor was always deeply tinged in self-denial. Its cloud of meaning, which includes pride, dignity, legitimacy, satisfaction, and happiness, is inseparable from the self-loathing that wracks me when I yield to impulse and violate rules of behavior I impose on myself. Desire to protect my fragile honor, not fear of punishment, drives me to conduct myself as a good citizen and not grab at every pussy within reach.
Honor is thus a very fine thing, if a humane philosophy is the basis of our self-restraint. Without it, squeamishness, vanity, or the prevailing fashion gets exalted into a code of ethics. The ancient Greeks and Israelites were more concerned with rules of ritual purity than with rules of good conduct. It was okay to rape your slave, for example, but not during her menstrual period. Proof of personal honor in many traditional societies even today is the brutal control exercised over the reproductive behavior of members of the household.
Darker still, often, are the class implications of many of our rules of honor. For 19th-century Christian gentlemen, an alleged lack of self-restraint among the “dark races” and the “lower orders” justified ruthless economic exploitation and the imposition of a strict, punitive religion. Fear of an angry god (crafted in the image of angry human masters) would control subordinates who supposedly lacked the internal code to control themselves.
I never joined the Boy Scouts, which promotes personal honor as a tool for regulating adolescent competition and cooperation. Or joining the military might have beaten the romanticism out of my notion of honor. Instead I joined the State Department, where Foreign Services Officers seemed free to be throwbacks to a Jane Austen world of ladies and gentlemen.
In fact, a diplomat’s moral code is agonizingly middle class: truth-telling, punctuality, earning one’s pay, paying one’s fair share, not causing unnecessary distress, taking responsibility and—a key issue in building effective relationships with prickly foreigners—not putting oneself first when another has the better claim. Most Americans would agree that such rules are a good basis for a healthy society.
I loved my job, but I resigned from the State Department in February 2003, three weeks before the Iraq War began. It was obvious to me that the war would be a disaster, deeply harmful to U.S. national interests, destabilizing for a whole region, and a nightmare for the Iraqis we claimed we wanted to help. Our justifications for invading Iraq were the product of ignorance and prejudice, not secret intelligence information, or even logic. This war met none of the criteria hammered out by philosophers and the Catholic Church to define “Just War.” It would instead become a crime, another blow to the precarious edifice of international law that American and European diplomats had been struggling to build since the horrors of World War I led to the greater horrors of World War II.
My job as chief of the Political Section of U.S. Embassy Athens required me to tell Greek colleagues, including people I liked and admired, the opposite of what I knew to be true, and to report back to Washington that Europe would not be an obstacle to the war we wanted. The quality of the work I did seemed to me, and was, completely irrelevant. Few in Washington had any interest in the consequences for our friends and allies of the Bush Administration’s blunders. Greek anger and fear, though real and intense, were a price a superpower could easily afford to pay. In the Washington policy competition, America’s global reputation and its alliances were not considered assets worth preserving. My sense of professional honor crumbled, and with it my honor, my mood, and my immune system. Lying to support an unjust cause made me sick.
The decision to resign was transformative. If happiness is knowing the right thing and doing it, as I dimly recalled from reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as an undergraduate, then I had rediscovered happiness. Without personal honor shaping one’s sense of the rightness of things, true happiness is hard to imagine.
An Uncomfortable Truth
Even (or especially) blatant sociopaths would agree that ordinary human beings should be encouraged to live by an internal rulebook that shapes their behavior to promote the long-term collective welfare of their community and their species. You may, however, hesitate to have me propose that states and governments should be encouraged to do the same. Can a country have honor? Should it have honor? For example, should Americans be prepared to die on foreign fields for a pledge to NATO made in softer times? The answer, I assert, is more often yes than no, for purely pragmatic reasons.
The aim of statecraft is a fundamentally moral one: the security, health, and overall well-being of the people who make up a state. But the actual work of keeping most people safe and most people prosperous requires complex and painful tradeoffs. No government could function if we insisted, like George W. Bush, on “moral clarity.”
Shades of gray are a necessary evil. We shrink from the following sentence, however—an unattractive truth about human nature and leadership: The American people turned on Jimmy Carter, a deeply honorable man, because we decided we wanted instead a leader prepared to behave dishonorably on our behalf. Not only in extremis, where to preserve the Republic a president might legitimately (per General Curtis Le May) “write ’em a rubber check and bomb ’em back to the Stone Age.”
Even where the stakes are much lower, we look for leaders ready to cheat to win. Americans were not outraged that a quarterback quietly deflated Super Bowl footballs, or that Lance Armstrong doped himself undetectably over the years. Mostly we luxuriated in their record number of titles. We love victory, even that of a millionaire athlete we have never met, more than we respect honor. We press our leaders to prove their fitness by committing crimes, such as when Dresden was firebombed in World War II, not as a strategic necessity but to demonstrate Churchill’s strength of character and will to win. We do not resent it even when that cheating has ghastly results. Where is the outrage that Richard Nixon, during the hard-fought 1968 presidential race, secretly sabotaged a promising Vietnam peace deal to deprive the Democrats of a foreign policy victory? That treachery cost tens of thousands of American lives and millions of Vietnamese lives before Nixon signed an equally unfavorable peace—after he had been safely reelected.
I do not mean to sound completely negative about leadership. Barack Obama was an expert in minimizing atrociousness. The distant thunder of drone strikes and the death squad sent against Bin Laden were an affordable and probably necessary sacrifice to our crueler nature. Obama felt, decently, America’s responsibility for protecting Afghans and Iraqis from the consequences of total state collapse following our failed interventions in their countries. That moral sensibility, and not only partisan political reluctance to take responsibility for declaring defeat, kept our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Safety in Rules
When I quit the U.S. Foreign Service in protest, a key point of my resignation letter was how our insistence on invading Iraq was harming American security:
We are straining beyond its limits an international system we built with such toil and treasure, a web of laws, treaties, organizations, and shared values that sets limits on our foes far more effectively than it ever constrained America’s ability to defend its interests.
My crucial point was that Americans are much safer living in a world with rules. From the Geneva Conventions to the global ban on use of chemical and biological weapons, America has made its soldiers and citizens more secure at the affordable cost of not using torture or our huge stockpile of nerve gas. America created the United Nations after World War II to provide the legal basis for intervention against rising threats like Nazi Germany. Obviously, the UN has become more bureaucratic and unimpressive as it has aged. No better, cheaper tool exists, however, when America needs to mobilize its allies against a collective threat to the world’s security.
The active work of demolishing the old world order stopped, once the Bush Administration grasped its inability to replace it. Barack Obama embraced the work of rebuilding. Though he lacked the Senate majority to ratify many treaties, he propped up international law as best he could. He took pointed pride, in his last official diplomatic conversation (with German Chancellor Angela Merkel), in “a sturdy transatlantic bond, a rules-based international order, and the defense of values that have done so much to advance human progress in our countries and around the world.”
Humans are loyal creatures, most of us—and, forced to choose between America and another country, even the country of their birth, American citizens will serve America loyally. When candidate Trump adopted the motto “America First,” the ugly prehistory of the phrase was a broad wink to a nativist, anti-Semitic minority, while for the vast majority of centrists he was simply implying that his political opponents did not put America first. But a darker implication of the phrase matches a darker aspect of his own character.
In electing Donald J. Trump, the American people chose to lead them a man for whom a sense of honor based on voluntary adherence to a code of behavior is incomprehensible. Our president’s behavior as well as his rhetoric makes clear that he does not feel bound by any limitation on his freedom of action. Society’s rules of behavior do not apply to him and he certainly has never internalized them. His career has been a chain of violated contracts and falsehoods morally justified precisely because they are narrowly self-serving.
When making America Great, or putting America First, our president sees those attributes in the same way he sees his own greatness and uniqueness. Great countries, like great men, are not bound by the limits of ordinary countries and ordinary men. America First is an America that does not keep its promises if there is an advantage in breaking them, and need not pay its debts because no rival is powerful enough to enforce repayment. America First is a country entitled to take Iraq’s oil, and to extort from Mexico the billions needed to build a wall Mexico never asked for.
The Executive Order banning Muslims from seven countries was a dishonorable act for several reasons. First, no one in the Trump Administration could explain what purpose it served, except to validate the false charge that previous administrations did not care about the safety of the American public. The U.S. Government has long imposed an intrusive, expensive, and inconvenient visa process to establish whether a foreigner’s entry would help or harm the United States. Those caught up in the ban were a random subgroup of Muslims who had followed our rules and paid our price. Then, arbitrarily, we said, Sorry, suckers. And we kept their money.
Much has been made of sinister associations with Russian intelligence services and murky Russian businessmen, but President Putin and the Russian state apparatus welcomed Donald Trump’s election for rather ordinary—albeit despicable—reasons. The simplest reason was hatred of Hillary Clinton, whose policies on Ukraine and sanctions had harmed Russian interests. Second, “America First” is a slogan that validates Putin’s belief in “Russia First,” and more broadly the idea, common to ultranationalists everywhere, that there is no such thing as universal justice or human rights, only national justice and national rights. A third reason is Russia’s perception that Donald Trump shares Putin’s dislike of Obama’s “rules-based international order.” Russia would like that order toppled in order to legitimize its dominance over the struggling states of the former USSR. In a no-rules international arena, Russia, an authoritarian state able to act decisively without fear of Congress and the courts, sees a clear advantage for itself over its Western competitors.
The Cost of Shame
When America is admired and trusted as a bastion of a civilized international order, foreign politicians are willing to help us because their voters will not punish them for it. U.S. misbehavior in Iraq destroyed a firm U.S. ally, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. His political demise sent a powerful message to other world leaders: cooperate with America at your peril.
There is another cost we should remember. During one bad moment for America’s global image, I asked 12 undergraduates to write an anonymous paragraph on how their time in Greece had affected their feelings about being an American. Unprompted, half of them confessed to feeling “ashamed.” Americans have every right to take pride in their country—pride reinforced by the world’s admiration for American achievement. Losing pride in our country implies losing pride in ourselves, with consequences for our health and happiness that should be obvious.
I still live in Greece, where the word for “honor” (timē, ) is also the word for “price.” (Greeks have a nicer but less ancient word, filotimo, as well.) For Aristotle and later Greeks, timē was extrinsic not internal. It depended “rather on those who do the honoring than in the person honored” (Nic.Eth. 1.5). This definition of honor is one our 45th president might embrace. Trump is so desperate for the external trappings of honor, the gold curtains in the Oval Office, precisely because he has no internal mechanism for honor. Instead he is addicted to the adulation he can extract from one segment of the American public.
The Fight for Honor
Perhaps the concept of personal honor—once a crucial point of common ground between genuine liberals and genuine conservatives in Congress, and society as a whole—is on its deathbed, collateral or intentional damage from the “populist” movement that empowered the current Congress. A discouraging percentage of those invoking “honor” these days are white supremacists whose honor hinges on a deeply antisocial public and private code of morality.
If honor is for slave owners and romantics only, then we are in serious trouble, because the death of honor implies the death of civic responsibility. Lulled by two generations of relative peace and prosperity, we forgot what the ancient Greek philosophers insisted, that our moral stature as human beings cannot be separated from our commitment to being active members of our polity.
Without a stern standard of personal obligation to require it, what sane noncriminal would run for public office? With the American people in fundamental disagreement on how they should be served, it is safer and more profitable for politicians to prostitute themselves to a small, paying elite clientele rather than attempt to satisfy their constituency as a whole.
The poet W. H. Auden was, like me, an admirer of The Lord of the Rings. In an essay he published in the New York Times (January 22, 1956), he drew from J. R. R. Tolkien a fine insight, or at least a moving article of faith:
Evil…has every advantage but one—it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil—hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring—but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself.
A code of personal honor may seem to the 21st century White House the stuff of fairytales. Remember, though, that the president of the United States wields power at least as deadly to ourselves and our grandchildren as Sauron’s ring. Honor demands that he prove he can imagine not< using it.
We live not in the twilight of Gondor, with the Dark Lord Sauron marshaling his hordes to attack us, but in a well-peopled superpower, with untapped natural resources, deep reservoirs of underused talent, and no enemies but those we cross oceans and deserts to seek out. Our vast capacity to behave with courage and decency must empower us. We should insist on America first—an honorable community of honorable citizens of an honorable country. We must be governed by hope rather than by fear, because our honor, and with it our health and our happiness and possibly our survival as a people, depends on it.