Where The Pen Meets The Sword: The Role Of Poetry In The Study Of International Affairs

On February 20th the GSSR published a collection of poems on international security written by Professor William A. Douglas. This interview with Professor Douglas provides insights as to how and why this project came about. The collection of poetry can be found here.

By Ashley Rhoades, Reporter

Teaching in a field of the risk averse, Professor William A. Douglas stunned students when he dared to risk a verse. The practice of using poetry in his international ethics classes began in 1991, when a pair of rhyming monikers that appeared in an article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs inspired Douglas to pen a poem on the subject. In an interview with the Georgetown Security Studies Review, Douglas told the story of how poetry came to play a vital role in his courses. “Way back when I started teaching this course for the first time in the Georgetown Liberal Studies Program, we had a reading from the Journal of International Affairs from one of their regular contributors, and he was upset with the Realist school of foreign policy for their take on moral philosophy,” he said. “He thought that some people in this school had gone way too far, that they had gone off the deep end in saying that there are no moral issues in international relations: you just do whatever you get away with. He characterized this departure from Wilsonian Idealism as ‘Nihilistic Realism,’ and I was struck by how the two phrases rhymed. So I wrote my first little poem about Realism vs. Idealism.”

Upon reading this inaugural poem to students in his class at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Douglas was met with “stony silence.” Thinking that this response marked the end of his excursion into international ethics poetry, Douglas was taken aback when the following week his students asked for another poem. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he said, “when at the end of class the next week they asked, ‘Well, are we going to have a poem?’ I obliged, and the rest is history.”

And so it was that week after week, course after course, Douglas built up an extensive collection of poems that grapple with the application of ethics in everything from Just War Theory to targeted drone strikes. While these poems may seem out of place in a graduate course on international ethics and security, Douglas believes that they are valuable in that they allow students to conceptualize the issues at hand from a different perspective. Indeed, the process of writing these poems has influenced the way Douglas himself thinks about the topics he teaches. “Once I got started writing a poem on every topic on the syllabus, I wanted each poem to highlight the moral dilemmas involved in the given subject, and that made me focus more precisely than my lecture notes had done,” he explained. “You can wander around in lectures, but the medium of poetry prompted me to organize my thoughts about those dilemmas a bit more precisely by boiling them down into a short poem.”

At 80 years old, Douglas is brimming with fascinating life experiences that have shaped the way he thinks about international affairs and ethics and, in turn, the way he crafts his poems. He credits his experiences abroad with having a particularly strong influence on his poetry, saying, “My wife and I often said that the formative experience of our life was the three years we lived in Korea because it was such a different culture. We lived in Korea from 1960-1963 when it was one of the poorest countries in the world. There were no stores or stalls on the streets, the streets were not paved, a monsoon had made big ruts in the street that the water rushed down, and yet it was a great experience. Our outlook on international affairs and my outlook when teaching about them were very much influenced first by the experience in Korea, and then by the three years we spent in Peru. Peru was not as different from American culture and society as Korea had been. Korea was a really exceptional experience. In those days it was very traditional, but it’s totally changed now. These overseas experiences formed my whole way of thinking about international affairs, not from taking courses about it so much as living it.”

As the field of international security and ethics continues to expand, Douglas finds himself adding poems on new topics every so often to keep his collection updated and relevant. “Every year or at least every two years, I have to add some new topics to the syllabus because new stuff keeps happening. And then, of course, I have to write a new poem,” he said. However, Douglas has found that some topics lend themselves better to poetry than others. For instance, Douglas struggled to write a poem on the ever-changing dilemmas in the realm of cybersecurity. “The only new topic on which I have not yet been able to write a poem is cyber warfare. All I have is a little haiku because it just doesn’t sing as a subject,” he said. “Also, this is a brand new topic and a very perplexing one, not only to me, but also to those in the field who study and write about it. It’s a puzzle that we haven’t gotten our mind around yet.”

When selecting topics to add to the roster, Douglas incorporates issues that the students are interested in, and discussions from his past classes often direct his future writings. The reception his poems are met with today is a far cry from the silence his first poem received, with students since expressing their allegiance to and fondness of the poetry. In the evaluation Douglas distributes to his students halfway through his course, he asks students whether they think the poems should continue, or if they feel that poetry is out of place in a selective graduate program. “And they all say ‘Keep the poems!,’ so that settles that,” Douglas said. In fact, students have so embraced the poetry that they have even integrated it into their papers, sometimes citing excerpts from his poems. “If there’s something in a poem that’s applicable to the topic on which they’re writing their paper, every once in a while they quote me to myself… which I like, of course,” Douglas joked. “But the good aspect of the poetry,” he continued, “is that it helps you parse out and focus on the most important issues, and the fact that it’s in rhyme somehow brings out the emotional aspect instead of just being a flat statement of certain positions.”

To that end, all of Douglas’s poems rhyme, for he believes that rhyme and meter are quintessential to a poem’s impact. As such, Douglas was surprised to learn that he is actually in the minority of poets who still employ rhyme. Describing how he made this discovery, Douglas said, “A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an Annapolis Poet’s Club that meets every Friday night down at Barnes & Nobles coffee shop. One night I went down there and took a couple of my poems with me. The idea was that people would read the poems they’d been working on and get feedback from the rest of the group. So I read one of my poems, and it was followed by this dumbfounded silence. Finally, the president of the club said, ‘Well, Bill, poems these days don’t rhyme.’” Douglas’s retort? “Well, it worked for Longfellow.”

Clearly, there is both rhyme and reason to Douglas’s decision to read his poems aloud during each class rather than simply distributing them in print. “To be most effective, poems have to be recited,” he stated. “After all, they have meter, rhythm, and—in my case—rhyme. In Russia, for instance, poetry recitals are a big deal and still very much a part of their culture. Just reading the poem to yourself is not thought to really be getting it; you have to hear it being read aloud. That’s why I don’t think much of blank verse: it’s missing that whole emotional dimension that the rhyming and meter put into the topic.”

Given his quick wit and penchant for penned verse, it is unsurprising that this series of international ethics poems was not Douglas’s first foray into the literary arts. In fact, he has been writing rhymed verse since he was a teenager, though his subjects then did not delve into international ethics. “I’ve been writing a musical comedy for the last 63 years,” he shared. “I started writing songs with rhyming lyrics in my head when I was a senior in high school, and by the time I reached middle-age, I had enough songs that I started thinking about putting them together and writing a musical comedy; I just didn’t know what it would be about. And then about 45 years ago, my wife and I moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and I thought that some of my songs could fit into a musical comedy set there. So I began imagining how I could put the songs I’d written together so that there could be some continuity, and it occurred to me that one of the most interesting things about Annapolis is the rivalry between St. John’s College and the US Naval Academy. They are literally right across the street from each other, and have a serious rivalry.” How serious? “Well, every once in a while, I will see an interview in the local paper where someone will ask a female midshipman from the Naval Academy what she thinks about the men at St. John’s, and she’ll say, ‘They’re fine from the neck up!’” Douglas has completed his musical comedy about this rivalry between USNA and St. John’s, and it is on the roster of plays being considered for production next year by the King William’s players, the student theater group at St. John’s College.

In addition to the musical comedy and his anthology of international ethics poems, Douglas has also written a set of poems on international development for the SAIS Student Journal, as well as an array of personal poems for friends and family throughout the years. He draws inspiration from Robert Frost, Robert Service, and Ogden Nash for his personal poetry, which he illustrated in an amusing anecdote about a poetry contest he entered in Vermont. “I was cross country skiing with my son in Northern Vermont, and we stopped at a little town. The scene was like something out of a Robert Frost poem, complete with snow and a potbellied stove. I picked up a local paper and saw an advertisement for a statewide poetry contest to see who could write the best poem in the style of Robert Service. I thought to myself, ‘Now there’s a challenge.’ The deadline was two days away, so I got busy writing my poem. My poem was about getting lost while cross country skiing and encountering a moose, who ended up leading me back to the ski lodge. I was pretty pleased with the poem, but when I asked one of my students in the Georgetown program—who was from Vermont—whether he thought I could win, he said, ‘Of course not, Professor, someone from Vermont is going to win!’ And he was right. But it was still a great experience.”

Looking to the future, Douglas points to environmental issues as the next frontier for his course, and, by extension, his poetry. At the moment, he only has one week on the environment in his course, but he is considering adding a second week due to a widespread renewed interest in the climate change debate on geo-engineering. “I think the topic of geo-engineering is becoming so much under discussion and is so important that I may give two weeks to the environment— one week on what’s happening and a speculative second week in which we discuss whether we should test out some of the potential solutions to these environmental problems we keep talking about,” he said.

This shift to looking at natural disasters and forces as threats to international security would mesh well with Douglas’s goal of using his poetry to galvanize students into thinking about ethics and security in a new light. He suggests that many “unarmed problems,” like climate change, are even more pressing than the more “traditional” threats like nuclear proliferation, and that students and future leaders should therefore retool their approaches to ensuring security. For instance, Douglas points out that an epidemic anywhere is a threat to everyone because of globalization. “We’re spending 20 billion dollars every year maintaining our strategic triad of nuclear delivery systems, with the goal of deterring everyone else’s. But we’re not doing a cost- benefit analysis as to which things will provide the most security per dollar spent,” Douglas stated. “During the Ebola epidemic, things got so bad because the public health systems in the affected countries is so primitive that they couldn’t deal with it, so the virus got loose and arrived in the United States, and there was a big panic that it would spread here. Suppose we’d taken 10 million of our 20 billion dollars of nuclear spending and tried to beef up the public health system in those countries. That would have contributed more to overall security than one more missile,” he suggests. “One less fighter plane could have improved the public health system in Sierra Leone enough to stop an epidemic.”

So, as we in the Security Studies Program continue in our quest to protect a world plagued by uncertainty and insecurity, let us draw inspiration from one man’s pursuit of poetic justice, and remember—a rhyme a day just might keep disaster at bay.


Ashley Rhoades graduated from Stanford University in 2012 with a B.A. Honors in Political Science (with concentrations in International Relations and American Politics), and a minor in Art History. Ashley spent two terms of her undergraduate career studying at Oxford University, where she cultivated her interest and background in International Security issues. After working as a Litigation Paralegal in Washington, D.C. for a year and a half, Ashley returned to graduate school to pursue her M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. In addition to her academics, Ashley works as a Media Associate for Best Delegate, a New York Times-featured start-up that specializes in Model United Nations education, media, and consulting. She is an avid fan of the literary and creative arts, and greatly enjoys writing for the Georgetown Security Studies Review.

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