Ethics in international relations

Ethics in international relations

What role do moral principles play in the conduct of foreign relations? First, morality helps define the goals and purposes of states and other actors. Moral norms do not provide policy directives, but they can offer a general vision and broad direction and provide the moral norms by which to illuminate and define a country’s vital interests. As theologian John C. Bennett once noted, moral values contribute to public policy debates on foreign policy goals by providing “ultimate perspectives, broad criteria, motives, inspirations, sensitivities, warnings, moral limits.”26 In effect, moral norms can establish the boundaries for policy deliberation and execution. Moral norms also provide a basis for judgment. Without standards, evaluation is impossible. Moral norms thus provide an ethical foundation for assessing the foreign policies of states as well as for judging the rules and structures of international society. For example, the widely accepted norms of international human rights provided the basis for the widespread condemnation of Serb “ethnic cleansing” carried out against Muslims during the 1992–1995 Bosnian war. Moreover, the growing recognition of ecological interdependence has resulted in an increasing international acceptance of principles and practices that seek to protect the earth’s environment. Thus, when Saddam Hussein deliberately sought to destroy Kuwait’s environment during the Persian Gulf War (by dumping oil into the sea and setting hundreds of oil wells on fire), his destructive actions were condemned worldwide.

moral norms provide the inspiration and motivation for policy development and implementation. Morality, in effect provides the “fuel” for the government “engine.” For example, the U.S. government’s decision to intervene in Somalia in December 1992 to permit humanitarian relief was inspired in great measure by the humane concerns of leaders to alleviate starvation and keep hundreds of thousands of people from dying. And the NATO decision to intervene in Kosovo in 1999, a case examined below, was similarly inspired by humanitarian norms. In his important study of foreign aid, David Lumsdaine shows that the principal motivation for Western countries’ substantial postwar foreign economic assistance to poor nations was morality. Although many factors and motivations influenced the giving of economic aid, the major inspiration and motivation was donor countries’ “sense of justice and compassion.”27 Lumsdaine argues that international political morality, or what he terms “moral vision,” shapes international relations. Contrary to realist claims that global politics is simply a realm of necessity, he claims that international relations involve freedom of action based on moral choice. As a result, international politics is an environment in which “conceptions of fairness and compassion, human dignity and human sympathy, justice and mercy” can be applied to the reform of global society.

The ethics of self determination

In confronting group demands for political self-determination, one of the difficult ethical challenges is to determine which peoples have the right to claim political autonomy in the international community. For example, do the Kosovars have the right to secede from Serbia and establish their own political community? What about the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey? If the Palestinians are entitled to statehood, can the Chechens demand this right as well? Fundamentally, the collective right of selfdetermination, depends largely upon political power—on the ability to make and sustain a claim to self-rule in the face of political actors who oppose such a development. Since no ethical framework exists by which a people’s right to self-rule can be defined, the claim of self-determination depends less on morality than on the ability to defend the claim. As a result, the collective right of self-determination has been considered legitimate historically if a people can demonstrate the collective will and military capacity to claim and sustain political independence by exerting sole and ultimate control over a specified territory. In short, the claim of political self-determination ultimately depends on the capacity to control political life within a territory (internal sovereignty) and the public recognition of this fact by other states (external sovereignty).

Typically, when a people demand political autonomy and press this claim with violence, the result is often war. Rarely have states peacefully accepted the demands for self-rule by minority groups. And when groups have sought to secede from an existing state, the ruling regime has generally opposed such action with force. For example, when Confederate states sought to secede from the United States, Abraham Lincoln resorted to war to maintain the union. And when Chechens sought to secede from Russia in the early 1990s, the Russian government used brutal force to keep Chechnya within the Russian state. Even President Clinton expressed sympathy toward the Russian government as it faced increasing terrorist threats from Chechens, comparing Yeltsin’s policies toward the Chechen war to those of President Lincoln during the Civil War.43 Thus, when Albanian Muslims began demanding the right of political self-determination in the mid-1990s, Serbian authorities responded with violence. Like other governments that have faced similar demands for political autonomy from ethnic groups, the Serbs were so committed to keeping control of Kosovo that they were prepared to use political oppression, human rights violations, and war itself to counter the violence from the KLA. As Zimmerman notes, Milosevic saw the KLA as a “mortal threat. He could live with Rugova’s non-cooperation but not with the KLA’s armed confrontation.


The ethics of war

In March 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent U.S. emissary Richard Holbrooke to Belgrade to warn President Milosevic that if he did not accept the Rambouillet accord NATO would initiate war. Since China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, were staunchly opposed to using force against Serbia, the Western Alliance had resolved to threaten military action outside of the normal United Nations peacekeeping framework. For China and Russia, foreign intervention was inappropriate because the conflict in Kosovo was fundamentally a domestic political issue. While foreign states might assist in resolving the conflict, the fundamental challenge was for the Serbs and Kosovars to resolve the dispute. Western states, however, regarded the widespread abuse of human rights in Kosovo as a threat to the peace and security of the Balkans. For them, the time had come to defend the primacy of human rights in the face of political oppression and ethnic cleansing by Serb military and paramilitary forces.

There can be little doubt that NATO’s goal of halting gross human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing, was morally legitimate. For President Clinton, ending the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo was “a moral imperative,”46 while for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “Kosovo was not going to be this administration’s Munich”47–that is, the United States was not going to accept appeasement as the British government had done in 1939 toward Germany. Czech president Vaclav Havel claimed that the Kosovo war was probably the first one ever waged for moral values rather than the pursuit of national interests. “If one can say of any war that it is ethical, or that it is being waged for ethical reasons,” he wrote, “then it is true of this war.”48 For Havel, as for other Western leaders, the decision to use force against Milosevic was morally correct because “no decent person can stand by and watch the systematic, state-directed murder of other people.”

But if NATO’s goals in Kosovo were morally legitimate, the means—an intense air war against Serbia and Kosovo—raised serious ethical concerns. Since foreign policy must be concerned not only with goals but also with the means and anticipated results, the challenge in devising an effective yet moral foreign policy must necessarily reconcile means and ends. The fact that widespread ethnic cleansing was morally repugnant did not obviate the need to devise a morally prudent strategy that achieved the desired goals. But for many foreign policy observers, including former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the decision to rely solely on bombing to halt Serb oppression and ethnic cleansing was not the most appropriate means.

Moral theories of global society

Rawls’s Theory of International Justice

Rawls’s most important work is A Theory of Justice, which sets forth a moral framework for pursuing social and political justice in domestic societies. The theory, however, neglects international relations altogether. To address this omission, Rawls wrote The Law of Peoples.15 In this book, Rawls seeks to uncover the principles that are most likely to advance a just international order based on “the political world as we see it,” using what he terms a perspective of “realistic utopia.” His theory builds on the following premises: First, peoples, not states, are the key actors. Unlike the traditional IR game, which focuses on the rights, duties, and interests of states, Rawls focuses on the institutions and moral character of societies. He does so in order to identify those political communities that are most effective in securing human rights. Second, a just international order is possible only among well-ordered societies. Such societies comprise two types of regimes:

liberal peoples: constitutional, democratic regimes that protect human rights domestically and fulfill international responsibilities;

decent hierarchical peoples: nondemocratic regimes that respect human rights and are non-aggressive in global society. Third, the world has societies that are not well ordered and are therefore incapable of contributing to international peace and justice.

Singer’s Theory of World Justice

Peter Singer, a leading cosmopolitan philosopher, argues in One World that globalization is resulting in a more interdependent 30 global society—a world with one atmosphere, one economy, one law, and one community. Since globalization is making state boundaries more porous and undermining the sovereign authority of governments, the time is ripe to call for a new political morality that emphasizes universal obligations over narrow nationalistic preferences. In view of the rise of the “global village,” Singer says that the world needs a “new ethic” that can serve the interests of all persons. As a leading utilitarian philosopher, he wants to advance the greatest good for the greatest number of persons in the world. Thus, he emphasizes global bonds over the particular bonds that have been artificially created by the establishment of nation-states. “Our newly interdependent global society, with its remarkable possibilities for linking people around the planet,” Singer writes, “gives us the material basis for a new ethics.”

The foundation of this new political morality is that all people matter; state sovereignty is an outmoded concept that unnecessarily confines people’s interests and obligations. In his view, “there is no sound reason the citizens of a state should be concerned solely with the interests of their fellow citizens.” Building on the foundational premise that human beings are the “basic unit of concern for our ethical thinking,” Singer calls for an ethic of impartiality where political and national identity cease to be morally important. Whereas Rawls pursues justice through the existing global order of states, Singer seeks to promote an alternative global system where sovereignty is no longer ethically significant. He writes, “Rawls’s model is that of an international order, not a global order. This assumption needs reconsidering.”

Ethical decision making

How do government officials make good decisions that contribute to peace and justice in the world? How do they incorporate moral principles in decision making? More generally, how is ethical decision making undertaken?

It is commonly assumed that governmental decision making involves, at a minimum, the following steps:

(1) developing knowledge of and competence about an issue or problem,

(2) devising alternative strategies to address the particular concern,

(3) selecting the strategy that most likely will advance the desired goals, and

(4) implementing the chosen policy. Rational decision making does not necessarily lead to moral outcomes, since reason alone does not assure the pursuit of justice, of the common good. As a result, moral values must be integrated into the policy-making process if it is to be ethical. Additionally, leaders must have the courage to carry out the moral action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for participating in a plot to kill Hitler, once observed, “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” Since politics is the art of the possible, not the quest for the ideal, a rational, detached approach to decision making is necessary to advance moral goods. But competence alone is not sufficient. In the end moral knowledge must be translated into action.

Some global issues are relatively simple to understand, such as the need to protect endangered species, the responsibility of nonintervention, and the need to regulate weapons of mass destruction. Most global issues and foreign policy problems, however, are complex, multidimensional concerns. As a result, developing an accurate and complete account of an issue or problem is a daunting challenge. For example, developing knowledge about the nature and causes of the ongoing Syrian rebellion in 2012 is difficult because it presumes significant knowledge of the country, including its political system, history, religion, international relations, and social and cultural life. Similarly, developing a sophisticated understanding of the nature, causes, and effects of greenhouse gases requires a high level of technical and scientific knowledge.

Once an international problem has been accurately defined, leaders can proceed to identify different approaches and alternative strategies to address the issue. The aim of policy making is to devise actions that help resolve problems or promote desired results. Devising alternative strategies is desirable because they offer different ways, involving different costs and benefits, to advance desired goals. Although policy outcomes are never assured, rational assessment of policy alternatives can help identify actions that are most likely to succeed with the fewest unintended or harmful by-products. Such assessment can also help identify the risks and costs involved in each of the policies.

The third stage—selecting the action that is most likely to advance desired outcomes. It is also challenging since knowledge alone does not assure sound decision making. This is because information about issues and problems, as well as about the alternative policies being considered, is always incomplete. Additionally, decision making does not flow inexorably from factual knowledge. To be sure, information is indispensable to a sound understanding of problems and a competent analysis of policies, but data, technical skills, and logical analysis alone are insufficient to ensure wise decision making. If reason alone were sufficient, then leaders’ intellectual abilities would ensure foreign policy success. But as one journalist has noted, it was “the best and the brightest” leaders who made the most serious foreign policy mistakes and misjudgments in the Vietnam War.38 In the final stage—policy implementation and assessment—leaders must ensure that government officials and bureaucrats execute the policy decisions. And once an action is undertaken, leaders should assess a policy by ascertaining whether the desired goals were achieved. It is important to stress that what counts in politics is not theory but action, not intentions but results. As Peter Berger’s quotation at the beginning of this chapter suggests, in public life what really matters are the results of political decisions. Motives are of course important, but leaders are ultimately judged by outcomes—by the consequences of decisions taken by governmental officials.

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