By Neely Steinberg '99

From left: One-time presidential
candidate Wesley Clark, military and
foreign policy expert Andrew Bacevich
and Nobel Prize-winning economist
Joseph Stiglitz '64 on campus.

Both the war in Iraq and the crisis of global poverty have raised important questions about the responsibilities of Americans at home and abroad—questions that have long been at the center of U.S. political debate. Is it the country’s onus to democratize other nations, even if it costs American lives and billions of tax dollars? What role do prosperous countries have in guaranteeing the economic livelihood of those mired in poverty?

In the spring, as part of the Amherst College Colloquium Series, two seemingly disparate campus discussions touched on these themes of individual and collective responsibility. On April 5, Wesley K. Clark, 2004 presidential candidate and retired four-star U.S. Army general; Andrew J. Bacevich, Boston University professor of international relations and former U.S. Army colonel; and Joseph E. Stiglitz ’64, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics and professor of economics at Columbia University, participated in a forum on whether to reinstate the national draft. On April 3, an audience packed the Cole Assembly Room to hear Stiglitz and former World Bank research economist William Easterly consider how to reduce global poverty.

In Johnson Chapel, Clark talked about the responsibility of military service. “I’d love to serve in a country where every American feels it’s his or her obligation to give time and take risks and serve their country. Not with lip service, but with really submitting themselves, their future, their fortune, their lives and safety to a concern larger than themselves. What’s wrong with that?” he demanded, his voice reaching a crescendo.

Still, Clark insisted, a volunteer force of professional soldiers operates far more effectively than compulsory service—a notion with which Bacevich, who lost his son in Iraq, agreed. “The senior leadership [in the military] is committed to professional soldiers,” Bacevich explained, “and cycling draftees won’t work with their model.”

Ruling out conscription, Clark said he favors creating a national databank of skilled Americans who are willing to volunteer to serve, outside of the military, for a short amount of time.

“I’m looking for mid-career professionals, people in good health, people who want to give up six to nine months of their jobs to work in a demanding foreign environment and take the skills that have made money for them and their communities in America and share those skills with others around the world,” Clark said. “If you want to serve in the armed forces, we want you. If you don’t, sign up for a national databank, and we’ll take you when you’re a multimillionaire top accounting partner. We’ll give you a sleeping bag, a mosquito net and send you to the darkest part of the continent, where young and old people alike are struggling with the problems you deal with everyday. We’ll take advantage of your skills to serve this country and humanity—that’s the kind of service I’d like to see.”

Stiglitz didn’t disagree about the improbability of a national draft, but he did argue that forcing citizens to fight for their country would lead to “much more intensive opposition to this war.” Perhaps conscription could be the deus ex machina that many opponents of war in Iraq have been seeking.

At the Easterly-Stiglitz colloquium, the speakers raised the concept of responsibility early on, and it soon became an integral part of the discussion. Easterly directed his attention to what he described as the tragic failures of foreign aid, arguing that the majority of money is never actually delivered to the intended recipients. “It’s our collective responsibility to fix the current foreign-aid delivery system,” he said. “At the end of the day, no one is individually accountable for any one result, so while the system is well intentioned, if no one is held accountable, no one really cares or tries as hard.”

Stiglitz (foreground) and former World
Bank Research economist William

To Easterly, the way forward is to imitate the free markets of democracies. He proposed instituting a model he calls “C.I.A.,” which stands for customer feedback, incentive and accountability. For his part, Stiglitz argued that foreign aid agencies, as well as participatory governments, need to examine their mistakes more closely. “The question,” he said, “isn’t whether some aid was wasted; it’s how can we learn from past failures to make it more likely that the money will be well used.”

Stiglitz was cautiously optimistic about recent efforts to better monitor foreign aid and to make the practices of aid agencies more transparent. “There have been big reforms in transparency, both within countries and internationally,” he said. “It’s still not where it should be, though.” He mentioned that Oxfam and other outside groups have become more active in monitoring how money is distributed to the poor: “I don’t want to say it’s perfect,” Stiglitz said, “but they’ve been demanding, with some degree of success, more transparency.”

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04