Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter Reflects on Government and Tech and Discusses Why Young People Should Pursue a Career in Public Service


Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter talks to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joe Felter about his career in service at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Photo: Alice Wenner

Two former Department of Defense (DoD) officials shared the stage at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), where they discussed the decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria, women in the military, and the importance of public service.

Ash Carter — who served as secretary of defense from 2015 to 2017 — told Joe Felter — former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia — that he emphasized the importance of tradition and had high standards for good conduct from his employees when he was at the head of the DoD, which had 1.3 million active-duty employees in 2016, and is the largest employer in the world.

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“Even if you come into an organization and take over and your judgement is that it’s really quite broken, it’s still worth finding the things that it is good at and making the people proud of the things that they are already good at,” Carter said.

Felter asked Carter about a topic on the minds of some in Silicon Valley — the possible development of autonomous weapons — and whether the liability for harm should lie with the developer of technology, or those who make the decision to execute the use of the weapon.

“It’s going to be a shared responsibility,” Carter said. “The key thing is not to get lost in AI is human responsibility — AI is an aid to human decision-making, but at the end of the day, somebody is responsible.”

When asked about the relationship between tech companies and the government, Carter said he had encountered some tech leaders who didn’t think government mattered during the earlier days of his government service, but added that he has noticed a different attitude from young people today.

“My students know that something’s wrong in the relationship between tech and society… it brings a lot of great stuff, but it has brought some real darkness too, and we need to get on top of that,” Carter said. “And that’s how they want to spend their lives.”

When Felter asked Carter what he would say to a graduating Stanford student to encourage him or her to pursue a career in public service, Carter didn’t have to think twice before responding.

“I’d say, ‘Look, the building smells like your high school, the pay is terrible, and work conditions can be awful. But the mission is the best. And you’ll wake up every morning and be a part of something that is meaningful.’”

[Find more upcoming events with experts on international affairs on the FSI website]