The Honor of a Nation

soldiers in line to get in a plane

A Case for Stoicism in Foreign Policy

by Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy, Adam Piercey, and Donald J. Robertson

George Washington was influenced by Stoicism. He was so fond of the Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman, Cato the Younger, that he actually arranged for a play about him to be performed for his soldiers before the battle of Valley Forge. Perhaps the most famous line in that play was:

Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths,
Than wound my honor. 

Jospeh Addison, Cato, a Tragedy

A founding father, the first General, and the first President of the United States, Washington understood the importance of honor.
The Stoics derived four virtues from the teachings of Socrates as the fundamental principles of their philosophy. These were wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. They believed that people who exhibited all of these principles were honorable.

These four main aspects of virtue or excellence (arete in Greek) each held a specific value for the different activities that a Stoic would carry out in their day-to-day lives.

  • Wisdom was not just knowledge but also the opposition of folly or thoughtlessness, and included the pursuit of reason.
  • Justice meant lawfulness and integrity but also included acts of public service and opposition to injustice or wrongdoing.
  • Courage (or fortitude) was meant to represent brave-heartedness and endurance, but also the opposition of cowardice.
  • Moderation stood for the opposition of excess, and the pursuit of orderliness.

A Stoic would hope to embody all of these traits in their day-to-day activities as they strove to pursue a life of good, and right. As Stoicism became more widespread, the actions of its followers grew in influence, including in the political sphere. As each person’s actions cause effects in those around them, they begin to see the impact of those actions on a greater scale.

The reputation of a nation is made up of the collective actions of its leaders and its people. Does it uphold the principles set out above, how does it treat its allies and partners, does it keep its word? If it does not uphold these principles, it will never be a great nation; if it does not treat its allies and partners with respect, it will soon be without any; and if it does not keep its word it, will have no standing as a leader in the international community.

Promises Made

The attacks in New York and Virginia on September 11, 2001, by the terrorist group Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, mobilized international support for the United States. The Star-Spangled Banner played in capitals around the world and NATO united behind the U.S. where it matters the most, going to war.

This led to the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban who had allowed Al Qaeda to operate there. The invasion included the Northern Alliance, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, and Germany. These other countries were not attacked. This threat if left unchecked could become a serious problem for them, but they went to war because they had made a promise to do so. They kept their word and they did so for twenty years.

The “graveyards of empires” is a quote many have heard about Afghanistan.

They then started to build the Afghan military, intelligence service, and police force. Afghans had seen superpowers come and go throughout history, from Alexander the Great to the British, the Soviet Union, and now the United States. The “graveyards of empires” is a quote many have heard about Afghanistan. Afghans have heard it as well. It was difficult to get them to trust us, but they did.

Would the U.S. and its allies be there for the long haul? America had promised that if we were to leave the country, and Afghans met the standards we laid out, they would have the opportunity to come to the United States. These standards included risking their lives fighting along with U.S. forces, against those who would oppress their people, and for the human rights of all. Would the U.S. honor its promise, though? Thousands took that chance.

Courage and Justice is Honor

Acts of courage alone are not inherently honorable, they must instead take into account two things: the reason for the action, and the intended effect of the outcome. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm if you are doing your duty. And whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep. And whether ill-spoken of or praised. And whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of life, this act by which we die. It is sufficient then in this act also to do well what we have in hand. 

Meditations, 6.2

To do what is right is what matters, and whether or not you are praised or pummeled is irrelevant.

In any organization with strict ethical and honor codes, a prevailing culture of the men and women serving in that organization will be focused upon protecting and providing refuge or assistance to those in need. As Tamler Sommers, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, put it in a recent interview with Ryan Holiday:

Honour cultures tend to attach great value to acts of courage that benefit the group. 

Tamler Sommers

The culture of these organizations to oppose wrongdoing and injustice shows virtue, and it is the duty of that organization’s members to carry out those actions.

Aiding and protecting those in need is certainly an important part of honor cultures, but there is also a secondary practice within those cultures as well; to honor and uphold the agreements formed by those organizations. Sometimes, agreements can be positive and provide added value, or be beneficial to both sides. Other times, agreements can be challenging, one-sided, or even costly. However, the presence of an agreement, pact, or partnership means that those participating parties must act to uphold the terms of that agreement. To do something with integrity, especially in the pursuit of public service and to uphold those agreements made before, is honorable, and must be pursued as best as possible. To break from an agreement would mean to bring dishonor on an organization, and that dishonor can have rippling effects into the future.

The Standard set by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius led the Roman Empire for 19 years, until his death in 180 CE. Throughout that time, Marcus would face serious challenges in the empire including plague, uprisings, and war but he would do so with honor and integrity. Upon taking the throne, Marcus inherited an empire whose borders surrounded much of Europe, bringing with them the dangers of warring tribes and enemies on several fronts. During his reign, Marcus’ experiences spoke much to the honor and reputation that an organization can gain or lose through its actions.

At many points in the wars between Rome and the tribes of northern Europe, Marcus found himself dealing with tribal leaders with whom Rome had existing agreements. Marcus did not tolerate allies who broke treaties and failed to keep their word. For example, when several Germanic tribes proposed an armistice with Rome, during the First Marcomannic War, Marcus did not trust them, viewing the armistice as a ruse - something that would only have remained in place while it was convenient for the enemy. Marcus was proven right to be skeptical as the tribes kept aiding one another in raids against Roman provinces. When the time came to dole out the rewards from the wars or seek new agreements, you can bet that Marcus had trepidation towards those with poor reputations.

At other points, Marcus would be faced with the difficult position of having to decide whether to push for a peace treaty or pursue Rome’s enemies and continue fighting at the cost of more troops and resources. When fighting a Sarmatian tribe called the Iazyges, Marcus faced this dilemma and needed to decide whether to grant peaceful terms or continue to fight. Ultimately, Marcus chose to continue fighting and by the war’s end, these enemies returned an incredible number of Roman captives back to Rome. If Marcus had just agreed to peace and walked away, over a hundred thousand captured Roman subjects would have been abandoned, left as slaves of the enemy. We can infer from this outcome that Marcus chose to fight on in hopes that he could rescue those Romans, and not leave them behind even though peace would have been much easier.

As emperor of Rome, Marcus also had to face sedition from one of his prized commanders, as a betrayal occurred when Avidius Cassius was declared emperor by his troops in Egypt and sought to take the Roman throne for himself. At that moment Marcus had a choice: crush the rebellion, or choose a more peaceful alternative. Instead of launching into outright war with Cassius, Marcus chose instead to offer a pardon to Cassius and his troops if they would lay down their arms. Cassius’ own officers turned against him and sent Cassius’ head to Marcus as an offer of penance. Marcus would honor his word and not punish the rebels for their actions. As emperor, it would only have taken Marcus one order to commit the entire army of rebels to death but he chose instead to act with restraint and clemency. Many times in history this restraint has been noted by historians and contemporaries as a true sign of Marcus’ character.

Veterans Step up and Step in

The U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan without leaving a residual force was against the advice of the military chain of command. Many veterans disagreed with that decision, but many did agree. Where there was almost unanimous agreement among veterans was the need to keep the promise made by their government to those Afghans who fought alongside U.S. troops. The chaotic withdrawal, the seeming lack of a plan, and the very real possibility that many would be left behind motivated many veterans to take action. They volunteered to do what they could and help those whom the U.S., not honoring its promise, was leaving behind.

These volunteer veterans formed groups with like-minded civilians and they soon were moving Afghan partners around Taliban checkpoints into the airport. Even when the final U.S. presence left, these groups did not stop, they moved to try to get people out by other means. They felt compelled to honor a promise made by their country. To them it wasn’t a political calculation, it was an oath.

The honor of a nation has to actually come from the nation, though, and its representatives. History will record it and our allies will remember it, as will our adversaries.

About the Authors

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, on the board of directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a co-founder of End Child Soldiering, and the co-founder of the Lobo Institute. He writes and speaks often on Stoicism, especially its applicability to the military. For other publications please visit here.

Adam Piercey is an Engineering Technologist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is currently working in the industrial, medical, and space industries, and has previously worked in green energy, and biometric security. Adam has been implementing Stoic practice into his career for over 8 years, has authored articles on Stoic practice, and is also the host of the Modern Stoicism Podcast, the official podcast of Modern Stoicism.

Donald J. Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural therapist and writer, living in Athens, Greece, and Ontario, Canada. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.