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War and Liberal Arts

Dominic Tierney touts the liberal arts in today’s turbulent world

As a Brit, it’s somewhat nerve-wracking to move to a country like the United States, which celebrates winning in all things, and then publish a book titled The Right Way to Lose a War. At the heart of the book is a call for a liberal arts foreign policy—which embraces self-criticism and empathy and is informed by a wide range of disciplines including political science, history, psychology, economics, and cultural studies. 

It’s become fashionable to see the liberal arts as a luxury in a global competitive economy, to be sacrificed in favor of more practical forms of education. But the growing impact of international issues on American lives—from the Greek debt crisis to the Iraq War—shows how the liberal arts have never been more valuable. To thrive in a globalized world, students need an interdisciplinary education that encourages critical thinking and cultural awareness, and recognizes the connections between many different disciplines.

Wander around the bucolic gardens of Swarthmore, and you may feel far removed from foreign crises. But the College is undergoing a profound process of internationalization. More students are studying and working abroad, and creating projects like War News Radio and the Genocide Intervention Network. The College endowment, like all investment portfolios, rises and falls based on international events. 

Demand for courses in international relations is booming. I’m no longer surprised to discuss countries like Libya, Ukraine, or Afghanistan in class and find that students have traveled there. I’m fortunate indeed to be able to collaborate with such knowledgeable and curious students in my research (as the long list of students acknowledged in my publications attests). When I present draft chapters and articles in my classes, oftentimes, I receive more useful feedback than at professional conferences.

Not only are the liberal arts critical for students; the liberal arts are also vital in American foreign policy. Consider what happens when U.S. officials neglect the liberal arts in decisionmaking. In Iraq, we made two critical errors. The first was to invade the country at all—driven by a mistaken view of the Iraqi threat and ignorance about the wider ripple effects of war. The second mistake was to invade with no plan to win the peace and too few troops to stabilize the country. There was a dangerous absence of critical thinking and debate, combined with illusions about the culture and history of Iraq and the region. 

Slowly—too slowly—Washington embraced a broader and more informed military policy. The “surge” strategy that helped pull Iraq back from the cliff edge in 2007 emphasized cultural awareness and winning Iraqi hearts and minds. General David Petraeus said that soldiers are not just warriors; they must also be social workers, engineers, and teachers. One U.S. colonel I interviewed gave histories of Iraq to his troops and instructed them to act respectfully toward the local people. He told me that we must understand the complexities of tribal and ethnic competition and war’s “human dimension.” You might call it the liberal arts way of war.

It’s here that Swarthmore students can play a profound role, by transferring their liberal arts training to international nonprofits, business, diplomacy, and the military, and ultimately helping the United States pursue a more effective foreign policy.

In a complex and globalized world, the liberal arts are not a luxury—they’re a necessity.  

—Dominic Tierney is an associate professor of political science.