In James Bond’s Skyfall, a predecessor film to this year’s blockbuster No Time To Die (2021), fictional members of Parliament (MP) interrogate Judi Dench’s M at a moment of foreign policy crisis. One MP castigates M as “almost single-handedly responsible” for numerous deaths and the loss of state secrets. Another MP challenges her derisively with the question, “So you believe your stewardship of MI6 during the recent crisis has been up to scratch?”

M never flinches. It wouldn’t be professional.

Stewardship is a biblical concept about careful management of that which has been entrusted. Public officials are stewards of national security. The MP in Skyfall seems to think that M’s primary responsibility is for the tragic loss of some British agents. M thinks differently. M’s responsibility is to protect hundreds of millions of civilians and the infrastructure of government.

In my book, Just War Thinking, I followed Christian thinkers from Augustine to Jean Bethke Elshtain in arguing for a political ethic of responsibility. Chief among such responsibilities is the protection of one’s citizens. Valuing human life and international security is an ethical good. A doctrine of responsibility is thus at the intersection of prudence and morality. It is the ethical obligation of government to take every reasonable step to protect the life, livelihood, and way of life of its populace. That requires states to be alert to threats, actual and potential, and consider appropriate action.

This is national security stewardship.

Classic Christian just war reasoning outlines the moral basis for national security stewardship: legitimate political authorities are charged to act on just causes with right intentions. Those political authorities also take into consideration secondary, prudential criteria such as the likelihood of success when all reasonable diplomatic efforts have failed (last resort). When we talk about the duty of “political authorities,” we really mean people. Individual people are the government. People do the work. It is flesh-and-blood people, like James Bond’s fictional boss, M, who make daily decisions on behalf of the security and well-being of the rest of us. Someone is responsible. Someone does stewardship.

James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, first explored the moral decision-making of national security stewardship in his 1960 short story “For Your Eyes Only.” Bond movie fans have never witnessed this literary scene (complete with narrator’s comments), in which the crusty old Navy admiral, M, and Bond discuss the morality of authority, just cause, and right intention. At issue, lurking in the background, is whether or not M should send Bond to execute justice, across international borders and in violation of treaties, against a murderous drug cartel that has slaughtered British citizens.

M: “James, has it ever occurred to you that every man in the fleet knows what to do except the commanding admiral?”

Bond frowned: “It hadn’t occurred to me, sir. But I see what you mean. The rest only have to carry out orders. The admiral has to decide on the orders… Supreme Command is the loneliest post there is.”

M: “Someone’s got to be tough. Someone’s got to decide in the end. If you send a havering signal… you deserve to be put on the beach… Some people are religious—pass the decision on to God… I used to try that sometimes in the Service… but He [God] always passed the buck back again—told me to get on and make up my own mind… Trouble is very few people keep tough after about forty. They’ve been knocked about by life—had troubles, tragedies, illnesses. These things soften you up… How’s your coefficient of toughness, James? You haven’t got to the dangerous age yet.”

Narrator: Bond didn’t like personal questions. He didn’t know what to answer, nor what the truth was. He had not got a wife or children… He had absolutely no idea how he would face these things that needed so much more toughness than he had ever had to show.

Bond said hesitantly: “I suppose I can stand most things if I have to and if I think it is right, sir. I mean”—he did not like using such words—“if the cause is sort of just, sir.” He went on, feeling ashamed of himself for throwing the ball back to M. “Of course, it’s not easy to know what is just and what isn’t. I suppose I assume that when I’m given an unpleasant job in the Service the cause is a just one.”

M: “Dammit… that’s just what I mean! You rely on me. You won’t take any damned responsibility yourself… I’m the one who has to do that. I’m the one who has to decide if a thing is right or not.” The anger died out of his eyes. The grim mouth bent sourly. He said gloomily. “Oh well, I suppose it’s what I’m paid for. Somebody’s got to drive the bloody train.” M put his pipe back in his mouth and drew on it deeply to relieve his feelings…

[M describes the brutal murder of British citizens in Jamaica, at the hands of Castro-backed drug dealers.]

“And now,” M slowly swiveled his chair back square with the desk, “I have got to decide what to do next.”

NARRATOR: Now Bond realized why M was troubled, why he wanted someone else to make the decision. Because these had been friends of M. Because a personal element was involved, M had worked on the case by himself. And now it had come to the point when justice ought to be done and these people brought to book. But M was thinking: is this justice, or is it revenge? No judge would take a murder case in which he had personally known the murdered person. M wanted someone else, Bond, to deliver judgment. There were no doubts in Bond’s mind. He didn’t know the Havelocks [victims] or care who they were. Hammerstein [the criminal] had operated the law of the jungle on two defenseless old people. Since no other law was available, the law of the jungle should be visited upon Hammerstein. In no other way could justice be done. If it was revenge, it was the revenge of the community.

Bond said, “I wouldn’t hesitate for a minute, sir. If foreign gangsters find they can get away with this kind of thing, they’ll decide the English are as soft as some other people think we are. This is a case for rough justice—an eye for an eye.”[1]

Of course, it is not Bond who makes the final decision. M pulls a file out of his drawer, stamps it with red ink “For Your Eyes Only,” and hands it to Bond. Just as a military commander sends men into battle, just as presidents and prime ministers weigh alternatives, and just as law enforcement officials decide when and how to act, so, too, spymasters make decisions about when and how to act. This is national security stewardship.

In No Time To Die, M laments, “The world is arming faster than we can respond.” The twenty-first-century security dilemma is that we live in an uncertain environment even if war is not being actively waged. Consequently, in an era of multiple, often undeclared threats to national security, government officials must take responsibility for preparing for, and at times prosecuting, a war against those threats to their security. In short, it is irresponsible, an abdication of responsibility—poor stewardship—for leaders not to protect humanity by thoughtfully battling the types of state and non-state actors that James Bond and his boss, M, fight on a daily basis.

[1] This transcript is from Ian Fleming’s short story, “For Your Eyes Only” in For Your Eyes Only (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960), pp. 7-8.