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When Did the U.S. Forfeit its Moral Leadership in the World?

Courage and Leadership is Lacking in Dealing with Foreign Crises

Typically I avoid blogging about political issues. However, I frequently blog about societal issues that have an ethics element. One of the most important ethical values is courage in the sense of standing up for our principles. The issue is critical to U.S. foreign policy and national security matters. The result of our “leaders” failing to exhibit courage is we no longer are leading from the front of key issues and, as some critics have pointed out, we lead from behind.

The online publication points out that “courage” has its root in the French word, coeur meaning “heart.” It remains a common metaphor for inner strength, frequently used broadly for “what is in one’s mind or thoughts.” Courageous leaders find resolve to determine action in a crisis and take a position in a debate. Otherwise there is no moving forward and confusion will demoralize the people in the organization. To Winston Churchill, “courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities…because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

In biblical perspective, it is apparent that courage is an indispensable leadership virtue. Leading in crises or momentous times can be disheartening and discouraging. These are occasions when it seems the cause is lost and the future bleak. Many are quick to give opinions, but few are willing to assume responsibility for leading change. People walk out when their own interests cannot be fulfilled, but true leaders find the courage to stay and make changes so that others can be blessed.

A failure of leadership with respect to international conflicts, such as in Syria, Iraq, and the expansion desires of Russia, all have one thing in common. Russia has filled the void of a lack of U.S. leadership. We appear to foreign leaders as lacking the will to act in a meaningful way. Radicals Islamists have used this shift away from American moral leadership in the world to feed their own desires to establish an Islamic caliphate in many regions including the Middle East and Africa.

To be sure many in the public are still holding on to the notion that this is an overreaction and if we just play nice all will be well in the end. Well I prefer not to see the end if appeasement and indifference become the basis of our national security policy and ignore threats to our very existence.

I am concerned about President Obama’s tepid response to these crises. Listening to his response to Russian expansionism a couple of weeks ago I was struck by the appearance of a President who did not tackle the issue with the same enthusiasm as when he campaigns or does a fundraiser. Truthfully, the President is not fully to blame as the American people are tired of our involvement in protracted military conflicts with so many brave Americans have been killed or maimed. The President is reacting to the perceived notion that military involvement is not the answer. However, what is lacking is finding the right words to address these conflicts in a way that exhibits a strong stance and moral leadership.

If we look at past dealings with the Russians, we have been successful in demonstrating moral clarity and gaining respect of our friends and foes alike not through military involvement but through the demonstration of courage and leadership through words.

One of two examples of American moral leadership in the past 50 years was the Cuban Missile Crisis. For thirteen days in October 1962 the world waited—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war—and hoped for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. After many long and difficult meetings, President Kennedy decided to place a naval blockade around Cuba. The aim of this "quarantine," as he called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. He demanded the removal of the missiles already there and the destruction of the sites. Ultimately, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev responded to the naval blockade and U.S. demands to remove the missiles. Kennedy demonstrated courage and leadership and his tough position with the Russians avoided war. The use of words, not war, changed the face of the conflict.

The other example is President Regan’s captivating speech at the Brandenburg Gate separating East from West Germany on June 12, 1987. Strong words and moral clarity led to the tearing down of the Wall, not military action. Not one missle was shot. Not one American soldier was killed. Regan's words led to the collapse of the Berlin wall. Here is an excerpt from his speech:

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. . . . Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. . . . As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Where have all the American leaders gone? When did we lose our moral leadership? When did we retreat behind our moral values rather than use them to develop strong positions that made believers out of the Soviet Union and others who act in immoral ways? When did we lose our moral compass?

President Harry S. Truman said about leadership: “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” How true this was over 60 years ago when U.S. moral leadership led the way for other nations. We need to recapture it before it is too late.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 5, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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