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Accountability is an idea central to the functioning of our society, our world economy, our security system, and much else about our lives. Of course it applies to problems of ethics and morality, which are so much at issue in the United States today. But accountability also has an operational aspect: individuals and institutions, whether public or private and regardless of ideology, make better choices when they are held accountable for their actions.
This idea has been around a long while. The Gospel According to Luke tells the story of Lazarus and the wealthy man, which demonstrates that everyone eventually faces a reckoning for their actions — if not in this life, then in the next. And accountability has had great resonance in America since its founding. As a boy, George Washington, the story says, took his hatchet and cut down a cherry tree. When questioned about it by his father, George made himself accountable for his act. This is just a story, we are told; it never really happened. It was supposedly concocted to give color and make an inspiring moral point in a popular biography of Washington. But the story keeps on being told. I saw a political cartoon based on it just a short while ago. So it must convey something of significance to ordinary people. In the first instance, of course, it's a story about telling the truth. But deeper than that is what it says about accountability. When you do something, you ought to be accountable for it.
This seems to me to explain the persistence of the story and why, although it is a children's tale, it says so much about America. Our country is founded upon each individual's freedom to think, speak, and choose. That won't work unless each person is accountable for his or her acts of free choice. And the political system of individuals in America is representative democracy. We vote, and when those we vote for win the election, we want them to know that they will be held accountable to the voters for what they do with the mandate they have been given.
The story of our country hinges in a way on issues of accountability. "No taxation without representation" was a demand for accountability from one's government that helped give birth to the United States. The Civil War was fought because the slave states could not be allowed to escape accountability for their practices by departing from the Union and continuing to operate under their own rules. And America's painful decisions to take part in World War I and World War II — which we could have avoided, protected as we were by two great oceans — demonstrated our willingness to be an accountable member of the small community of free nations ready to resist tyranny.
* * *
In my formative experiences as a grammar school student, I had the good fortune of falling under the tutelage of some good, tough teachers who had high standards. I remember one occasion when I was daydreaming, and suddenly an eraser — thrown by the teacher, who was a good marksman — hit me on the side of the head. His message was "pay attention," and he held me accountable to do so. His name was Dux Beaumont. He taught math. Also accountability.
Later in life, I played football, basketball, tennis, and then golf. And among their lessons, perhaps the most penetrating has to do with accountability. In team sports, you have a job to do in your position, and the success of the team depends on everybody doing a good job. You want to be a contributor. You want to be a part of the team. Under those circumstances, you hold yourself accountable, as does everyone else on the team. Those who don't carry their share of the load aren't appreciated. That's how you get sent to the second team. But, to my mind, individual sports like tennis, and especially golf, are games of ultimate responsibility. You are the one who tees up the ball. You hit it. It comes to rest somewhere. Eventually you get it on the green. Maybe your caddy or your partner helps you, but in the end it's up to you to decide on the speed and break in the green and to hit the putt. The ball comes to rest, and either it is in the cup or it isn't. There is nothing ambiguous about the result.
When I went back for my senior year at Princeton, I was in about as good physical condition as I had ever been in my life. I was determined to make the first team in football. As the fall practice unfolded, I was really doing well. This was going to be my year, I thought. Then in one of the scrimmages I was clipped — blocked from behind — across my knees, and my left knee was badly wrenched. I managed to get off the field, but when doctors examined the knee, they determined that was the end of my football career. What a disappointment.
Then an interesting development took place. I was invited to be the coach of the freshmen's backfield. In those days freshmen didn't play on the varsity team. As it happened, the incoming freshmen included a lot of talented players. I had learned quite a lot during my three years at Princeton, so I had the task of trying to help these new, talented players as much as I could. This was my first experience in what is commonly called teaching. But it was an especially instructive one for me because, as I reflect about it, I was hardly in a position to be a normal kind of teacher. What emerged was an exciting environment of learning rather than teaching. I found that the job of trying to get something across to people was a real learning experience for me. And so it shaped a lot of my thinking about not only how to handle myself as the teacher in the classroom but also how to manage. It has always seemed to me if you can create around you an environment where everyone feels they are learning, including yourself, you are going to create a very hot environment. People are going to be excited about what they are doing. You have to insist that they go home at night. That is the one of the ways you can manage people effectively. They sense a sharing of responsibility and accountability, although, as the leader, you must accept the ultimate accountability because the decisions are finally yours.
* * *
The essay that follows develops this idea of accountability in leadership and reality's relentless judgments. Through my years in government, I had long been concerned with the problem of terrorism, stretching back to the 1983 bombings of the US embassy in Lebanon and then six months later our Marine Corps barracks there. I remember the day I awoke around two o'clock in the morning to the news that 241 Marines had been killed in a suicide truck bomb there — it was the worst day of my life. Decades later, the attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a new chapter in that threat for the United States. Shortly after those attacks, I was invited by my friend Margaret Thatcher to make a speech on the US-British relationship, so of course our nascent response to terrorism was at the front of people's minds.
At that time, I chose to frame the problem in terms of accountability. As close allies, the two countries should respond sharply to attacks so that states who made deals with or tolerated terrorists, as well as the terrorists themselves, knew they would be held accountable for their actions. Global changes, like the spread of information, have made the fundamental job of governing a diverse citizenry more difficult. But the state remains an important part of the system of international accountability. At the same time, Osama Bin Laden and other potential terrorists had to understand that they could not escape retribution simply because they were not sovereign states. And the War on Terror that followed set out to do just that.
With the experience of history in the years since, it's clear that the results of that campaign have been mixed — particularly in regard to the aftermath of the Iraq War, the intelligence for which was wrong and the consequences of which we were not sufficiently prepared for. You could say that the United States and her allies today have faced their own form of accountability for those choices, just as they have throughout history, and as they will continue to into the future.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz and President Ronald Reagan at the White House.
COURTESY HOOVER INSTITUTION LIBRARY & ARCHIVES.
A MORE ACCOUNTABLE WORLD?
Address delivered for the 2001 James Bryce Lecture on the American Commonwealth at the Institute of United States Studies, London, November 5, 2001. Edited for length.
You honor me greatly, Lady Thatcher, by your presence here tonight and by introducing me in your own country. You and Ronald Reagan produced a revolution by the power of your ideas and by your ability to put those ideas into operation. You ended the Cold War, you led the way to the elevation of freedom as an organizing principle in political and economic life, you changed the world and so very much for the better.
In doing so, you also became the symbol of the greatest national partnership in history: Britain and America. Our steadfast relationship once again, at this very moment, is fighting on a far-off frontier for freedom and security — for ourselves and for all decent people.
James Bryce, whom we honor through this lectureship, explained the strength of the Anglo-American bond: how our common heritage, developed in different styles, laid the foundation for democracy, progress, and the rule of law around the world.
Bryce's remarkable work, The American Commonwealth, gave Americans a gift we could not have given ourselves. As President William Howard Taft said, "He knew us better than we know ourselves."
As a Californian, I should also note that James Bryce was the first British ambassador to the United States to visit the West Coast. A man whose intellectual energy produced a ceaseless flow of written observations on his travels fell utterly silent during his stay in San Francisco. We have nothing whatsoever on record from him then. The new mansions on Nob Hill built by the rail and gold rush millionaires, the Golden Gate (even before the bridge), the squalid and violent Tenderloin, the flood of immigrant Chinese workers must have presented such an amazing sight that even the great Bryce could find no words for it.
* * *
Recently, I have been working on the question of accountability, the importance of holding people and institutions, public and private, accountable for their actions.
Without accountability, without a sense of consequence, a mentality takes over that says, "I can get away with it." That is true whether you are talking about individual behavior or corporate or national reactions to bailouts, acts of genocide, and much more. Right now the issue is terrorism. So this evening, I want to look at terrorism through the lens of accountability.
The monstrous acts of al-Qaeda have now made the principle of state accountability the law of nations. After the bombings of our embassies in 1998, the Security Council stressed "that every Member State has the duty to refrain from organizing, instigating, assisting or participating in terrorist acts in another State or acquiescing in organized activities within its territory directed towards the commission of such acts" (Res. 1189). On December 29, 2000, the council strongly condemned "the continuing use of the areas of Afghanistan under the control of the Afghan faction known as Taliban ... for the sheltering and training of terrorists and planning of terrorist acts" (Res. 1333). Then, after September 11, 2001, the council accepted the position pressed by the United States and Great Britain recognizing the inherent right of self-defense, stressing "that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harboring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these acts will be held accountable" and reaffirming that every state is duty bound to refrain from assisting terrorists or acquiescing in their activities (Res. 1368 and 1373).
The legal basis for the principle of state accountability is now clear, and the right of self-defense is acknowledged as an appropriate basis for its enforcement. Our actions now must make that principle a reality.
* * *
Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, after a terrorist attempt on her life in Brighton's Grand Hotel on October 12, 1984, spoke about terrorism with characteristic strength and candor: "The bomb attack on the Grand Hotel early this morning was first and foremost an inhuman, undiscriminating attempt to massacre innocent, unsuspecting men and women. ... The bomb attack ... was an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically elected Government. That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared; and the fact that we are gathered here now — shocked, but composed and determined — is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail."
Speaking two weeks later in reaction to Brighton and other acts of terror, I developed her themes: "We cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond. Fighting terrorism will not be a clean or pleasant contest, but we have no choice. ... We must reach a consensus in this country that our responses should go beyond passive defense to consider means of active prevention, preemption, and retaliation. Our goal must be to prevent and deter future terrorist acts." The Heads of the Group of Seven major industrial democracies meeting in Tokyo on May 5, 1986, stated that we "strongly reaffirm our condemnation of international terrorism in all its forms, of its accomplices and of those, including governments, who sponsor or support it. Terrorism has no justification."
This unprecedented international manifesto came about through the toughness and determination of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but the other leaders were fully on board.
These statements from the past show that terrorism is a weapon with a long history, used by states and groups hostile to free societies and operating in ways designed to make it hard to know who has committed an atrocity. They also contain the key ideas necessary for success in the fight against the terrorists and their state sponsors....
* * *
I have listened carefully to the many powerful statements, formal and conversational, made by President Bush since September 11. Here is how I understand his strategy.
The conceptual heart of the president's approach is contained in four big ideas. First is this: we are at war, and we are at war with terrorism. That's a big change from the way our government has looked at this in the past, as a matter for law enforcement: catch each criminal terrorist and bring him before a court. That is not war. A war is fought against an enemy bent on the defeat of your country. The object of war is to use all necessary means to eliminate the enemy's capacity to achieve his goal. So a big, important difference in concept is at work when you go to war.
The second big idea is that our enemies are not just the terrorists but also any state that supports or harbors them. Terrorists don't exist in a vacuum. They can't do the things that they aspire to do unless they have a place where they can train, where they can plan, where they can assemble equipment and their deadly weapons, where they can gather their intelligence and arrange their finances. They have to have a place, they have to be sheltered and helped by a state. So the president has been saying to everybody, "Watch out. We are not only after the terrorists, but also the countries that hide them, or protect them, or encourage them." The president seeks to make any state that harbors terrorists accountable and therefore so uncomfortable that they will want to get rid of them, so in the end the terrorists will have no place to hide.
The third big idea is to get rid of moral confusion — any confusion between the terrorists and the political goals the terrorists claim to seek. Their goals may or may not be legitimate, but legitimate causes can never justify terrorism. Terrorists' means discredit their ends. Terrorism is an attack on the idea and the practice of democracy. Terrorism for any cause is the enemy of freedom. So let us have no moral confusion in this war on terrorism. As long as terrorism exists, civilization is in jeopardy. Terrorism must be suppressed and ultimately eliminated.
President Bush's fourth big idea parallels what Ronald Reagan, as a presidential candidate, said in an address on August 18, 1980, written out in his own hand:
We must take a stand against terrorism in the world and combat it with firmness, for it is a most cowardly and savage violation of peace. ... There is something else. We must remember our heritage, who we are and what we are, and how this nation, this island of freedom, came into being. And we must make it unmistakably plain to all the world that we have no intention of compromising our principles, our beliefs, or our freedom. That we have the will and the determination to do as a young president said in his inaugural address twenty years ago, 'Bear any burden, pay any price.' Our reward will be world peace; there is no other way to have it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thinking about the Future"
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Accountability 9
A More Accountable World? (2001) 16
Chapter 2 Trust 23
The United States and Israel: Partners for Peace and Freedom (1985) 28
What I Learned about Israel (2017) 38
Chapter 3 A Changing World 47
America Can Ride the 21st Century's Waves of Change (2018) 52
Automation: A New Dimension to Old Problems (1955) 55
Chapter 4 The Drug Issue 75
Gary Becker and the War on Drugs (2011) 78
The Failed War on Drugs (2018) 86
Chapter 5 Force and Strength 89
The Ethics of Power (1984) 93
Discerning Strength from Force (2017) 100
Power and Diplomacy (1984) 110
Chapter 6 Practicing Theories of Governance 117
The New Federalism (1970) 126
Prescription for Economic Policy: Steady as You Go (1971) 135
Chapter 7 America in the World 145
Resources Are Needed for Effective Foreign Policy (1987) 148
Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY 1989 (1988) 159
Chapter 8 A Balanced Approach to Climate Change 169
A Reagan Approach to Climate Change (2015) 174
A Conservative Answer to Climate Change (2017) 177
Chapter 9 Nuclear Security, Past and Future 181
US-Soviet Relations in the Context of US Foreign Policy (1983) 185
A World Free of Nuclear Weapons (2007) 207
Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation (2011) 212
Lenten Nukes, by the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing (2018) 217
About the Author 225