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Bellagio Conference: Ethics and International Affairs

On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, Jonathan Fanton welcomed scholars and policymakers to a conference on Ethics and International Affairs, convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This meeting in Bellagio, Italy, was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Good morning. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Academy’s conference on Ethics and International Affairs generously supported by the Rockefeller Foundation in its beautiful venue here at Bellagio.

I see some familiar colleagues among you, scholars who have been involved in Academy’s initiatives and meetings before and scholars who are currently contributing essays and ideas to our projects. But, I also see many new faces and we hope that this conference will help us forge new collaborations with people from all over the world that will help us all understand timely issues and challenges in a more cosmopolitan light.

The American Academy was founded in 1780 to honor excellence in a broad range of disciplines and professions and to develop rigorous scholarship to inform policy-making and ultimately advance the common good. The main mission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as stated in 1780, is “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The Academy has no agenda other than to contribute to dialogue among nations and to provide a venue where original thinking, collaboration and intellectual exchanges occur. We are independent, non-ideological, non-partisan, committed to thoughtful inquiry that respects evidence.

Our ability to draw upon experts from around the world and from every discipline and profession is our biggest asset in providing thoughtful, independent advice. Unlike most scholarly academies, our members include not only leading scholars but they are also accomplished leaders in business, law, public service, religion, the military, and NGOs.

Our work spans three dimensions. We convene commissions of our members from many fields, recently to study the role of humanities in education and another to articulate the need for greater government investment in basic research. We have just started two new commissions, one to study the state of foreign language instruction in the United States and anotherlooking at undergraduate education with attention to cost and fairness of access.

A second category of work invites our members to convene at the Academy to explore a topic of interest, sometimes a current issue, but also a problem or opportunity over the horizon that is only dimly perceived. We recently had a meeting on the state of legal services for the disadvantaged in the U.S. Another upcoming effort will explore the disconnect between global and area studies. Still another exploration will consider whether the world needs new approach for responsibly protecting cultural heritage.

A third category of activities comprises of ongoing projects on which groups of member collaborate over time. Global Security has been central to the Academy’s work over the last half century. In the 1960s, Donald Brennan, Thomas Schelling, and Henry Kissinger, among others, participated in the Academy’s study of the debate on arms control, which helped devise the concept of strategic stability and later became the linchpin of the U.S.-Soviet Union interaction.

And since then, the Academy has addressed topical issues such as missile defense systems, the conflict in the Middle East, humanitarian interventions, and the responsibility to protect. The complexity of these issues requires that we go beyond the disciplines of history, political science, and international relations to also draw on the wisdom and experience of our members and others who have had policy and front line experience in the United States and around the world.

The Academy has also long considered the importance of ethics. In 1958, in a Dædalus article on American ethics and public policy, Abraham Kaplan—an American philosopher, known best for being the first philosopher to systematically examine the behavioral sciences in his book The Conduct of Inquiry—wrote,

Political morality lies in the everyday shaping policy, not merely in the heroic stand at a time of crisis. The association of morality with heroism and martyrdom is not, I think, intrinsic to morals, but is a part of the contemporary crisis mentality. We talk so much of the crisis of our time that we come to think that some single stroke of state will put an end to our problems—one way or the other—once for all. For my part, I do not believe that the atom will destroy all life on earth, nor do I believe that the latest "peace plan" will forever remove its destructive potentialities. I do not believe in the Apocalyptic Moment in politics: every day is the Day of Judgment.

This conference in Bellagio represents a shift in the Academy’s approach to the challenges of international security. Let me give you some historical context. In 1982, the Academy established the Committee on International Security Studies (CISS), which has since then played a critical role in defining the intellectual agenda of the Academy in the realm of global development, war studies, and international relations. Over the years, the Committee has produced studies that have helped re-frame the conventional thinking about specific issues while also suggesting a possible policy course. For instance, one of the Committee’s first activities in 1983 was to convene the Nuclear Weapons Freeze and Arms Control Conference. This effort sought to bridge the gap between the arms control community and supporters of a WMD-free zone. And the following year—in direct response to the speech by President Reagan that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative—CISS opened a project to explore the implication of placing weapons in space. This study is still being discussed and referenced in U.S. space strategies today.

On the issue of fragile and failed states, in the 1990s, key studies led by Carl Kaysen and Professor Thomas Homer Dixon explored emerging international norms of humanitarian intervention and resource-scarcity driven conflicts.

And currently, a study led by Professor Scott Sagan of Stanford, entitled New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War, seeks to address consequential questions, such as: How will the soldier of the 21st century fight? What ethical framework will inform wars fought by drones and cyber-weapons? How will states apply the principle of proportionality and distinction in such wars? How do we assess the true cost of war and conflict on civilian populations over time?

In all the studies we have conducted, the Academy has sought to investigate and explore the emergence of possible international norms and principles on which to build a global governance approach to collective security challenges. We have done so in the nuclear realm, on civil wars and fragile states, and currently on emerging technologies.

This conference at Bellagio seeks to reinforce the Academy’s growing focus on normative stands and ethical questions. Without biases or pre-conceived notions of what ought to be, the Academy is increasingly interested in applying ethical lenses to current problems. We hope new connections forged here at Bellagio, and the thoughts and ideas shared during our discussions, will help shape the Academy’s current and ongoing projects. While we do not believe that a security approach is obsolete, we have come to realize that the securitization of peace has not been sufficient to address complex international issues. Of course, ethical conversations are complex, difficult, and might generate a sense of unease. But they will benefit from a diversity of opinion, ideas, approaches, and methods.

The group gathered here in Bellagio is an example of what we are seeking to create. You represent at least a dozen nationalities, are scholars, diplomats, and policy makers, and you have different points of view on some key issues. I believe the conference will be seen as an inflection point in the Academy’s 235 year history, as a strong statement that we are committed to seeing issues important to America in a global context.

The American Academy of the 21st century seeks to be a convening place for all cultures, nations, and peoples, and I hope you will bring us your ideas for issues to study and collaborate with us in the future. I would like to close with a quote from three Academy Fellows, Gabriel A. Almond, Marvin Chodorow, and Roy Harvey Pearce, who wrote, “If we have abandoned formulas of inevitable and automatic progress or of utopian perfection, we can still, through human will and intelligence, make slow and steady advances and cope with the dangers of which we are aware.” That is good advice and an inspiring challenge for our time together at Bellagio.

I thank you very much for your attention and I look forward to a productive discussion with all of you.

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