Special Reports



An Ethical Foreign Policy: Is it Desirable or Achievable?

the real world

Has anyone anywhere, now or in history, ever had an 'ethical foreign policy'?
Many would emphatically say 'no'. In the real world, they say, nation-states, are solely concerned with narrow national self-interest, forever maneuvering, jostling and warring with each other in order to gain ascendancy. States are never happy with the power they have and in order to ensure their own security, seek to dominate others. Sometimes states proudly proclaim this. At other times they will not. Expediency may sometime demand that they cloak their motives in the rhetoric of morality. But the lessons of history and of the contemporary world are clear: hegemony is the name of the game. (For an example of this view, see www.globetrotter.berkeley.edu

If foreign policy is all about realpolitik, talk of an ethical policy among states can be no more than sentimental self-delusion - or propaganda!

the ethical world
But are all states just selfish egotists? Is an ethical foreign policy possible or is it just pie in the sky? The late Robin Cook, British Foreign Secretary in the new Labour government of 1997 inspired many when he spoke of the importance of an "ethical content" to foreign policy, reported in

He said:
"The Labour Government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business".
[It may be remembered that Robin Cook alone in the cabinet, resigned from the UK government in protest against the Iraq war].

A decade on from that statement, with the excesses of the 'war on terrorism' plain to see, many Democrats in the U.S.A. are looking to a post-Bush ethical foreign policy: "We believe in treating others ethically, as we'd like to be treated, including upholding the Geneva Conventions, keeping promises for providing humanitarian aid and assisting developing countries to become independent economic partners".

In fact, the debate about the relevance or otherwise of ethical conduct in foreign policy is of long standing, and ebbs and flows with events. For example, the idealistic optimism after World War1 yielded to realism as peace gave way to World War 2. See E.H. Carr. The Twenty Years Crisis. www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/carr.htm Realism held sway during the cold war but a cautious idealism began to creep back after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If we characterise those who hold that national interest should be the sole basis of foreign policy as 'realists', and those who support an ethical foreign policy as 'idealists', does that mean that there is an unbridgeable divide between these opposing camps?

idealists v realists
The realist/idealist terminology is felt by some to be harmful because the differences between them are subtler and more complex. See, for example, Robert Wright's 'An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With' (www.nytimes.com) and the debate between David Chandler and Alan Mendoza www.battleofideas.org.uk where the differences are more apparent than real.

Some realists would acknowledge that there isn't always a conflict between pursuing national interest and 'doing the right thing'. On the contrary, the two may sometimes coincide. For example, Wright cites an international agreement where each nation agrees to reduce carbon emissions to prevent global warming. If such an agreement prevents a climate catastrophe, it will serve the interest of the individual nation and that of the wider community. However, realists might acknowledge that the selfish pursuit of one's interests to extreme lengths may not, in the longer term, be in one's interest at all. A nation that stores up international ill-will by always ignoring others' interests, may suffer damaging payback in the long run.

on the personal level
Perhaps a more fundamental problem about realism - at least in its more extreme form - is whether we can ever opt out of ethical behaviour in our own interaction, individual or collective, with other human beings. The concept of an 'ethics-free' zone in any area of life seems dubious, to say the least.

In some respects 'idealists' might also find common ground with realists. Few would claim that the state's pursuit of its national interest is always wrong in all circumstances and that total sacrifice of national interests to the wider good of humanity is always right. The view that a government's obligations to its own citizens take priority might not in itself be regarded as unethical. However, both realists and idealists would probably take the view that a government's extreme pursuit of national interest is as wrong as ignoring it altogether. See, for example, Bill Richardson's recent article in Foreign Affairs calling for 'an ethical, principled realism'. www.foreignaffairs.org

Interesting though the debate may be among politicians, diplomats, academics, journalists and others, the all-important issue for democratic government is how much support for an ethical foreign policy exists among the public at large.

the public view
Whatever approach governments adopt in the conduct of foreign policy will to some extent be influenced by public opinion. In the early years of the twenty first century, does the idea of an ethical foreign policy hold any appeal for ordinary citizens? Taking the USA and UK as examples, a digest of polls produced by World Public Opinion in the U.S.A. suggests that to most Americans it does. See www.americans-world.org

In outline, the data shows that a very strong majority supports US engagement in the world but rejects the way the US plays a hegemonic role. There is strong support for multilateral co-operation and for international institutions. There is a large majority for a foreign policy which at times should serve altruistic purposes, that global, not just national interest should be served, and that the global interest ultimately serves the national interest. However, there is a widespread feeling there that the US is doing more than its fair share in its efforts to address international problems. Americans see themselves as viewed negatively by people overseas, which they probably correctly attribute to current US foreign policy, rather than to American values. A majority favours the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy goal but not as a central theme and not accompanied by the threat or use of military force.

In Britain an ICM opinion poll in 2006 (see www.myforeignpolicytoo.org/what.htm) showed an overwhelming majority to be in favour of an ethical foreign policy and that Parliament as a whole - not just the Prime Minister and senior ministers - should decide Britain's main foreign policy objectives. Agreement through the UN should be sought to deal with states that endangered British and western interests and this should comply with international law. A large majority opposed arms and military exports to countries that violated their citizens' own human rights, despite being reminded of the benefits to the UK economy and jobs.

It seems beyond question that public opinion, at the least in the USA and Britain, does not regard the foreign policy of their countries as bounded only by matters of national hegemony and self-interest. In a globalised world it seems to be widely recognised that all states belong to a wider international society and that ethical considerations must play a part. But does the word 'ethical' have a precise meaning in this context? And which particular ethical code do we mean?

So, what is 'ethical'?
When individuals or states act ethically, we take it to mean that they act in accordance with some form of moral principle. The problem is to agree where these moral principles come from and what those principles should be. And even if we could agree on that, opinions would differ on how to apply them in particular situations.

If questioned on the origin of moral principles, the religiously inclined would look to divine command as the source of ethical conduct. Some would assert that we discover moral principles through the use of reason alone. The philosopher Immanuel Kant's famous 'categorical imperative,' that you 'act only on the maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law', he argues, is derived from reason. Others, such as David Hume, placed less faith in reason and claimed that our moral sense arises from and is informed by our emotions and passions.

A widely held view in ethical matters is that moral judgments are (awful word), 'universalisable' - that is, if you claim something to be good or bad, or right or wrong, it applies to all relevantly similar acts. What is right in one situation will also be right in another similar situation. Ethical relativists, however, disagree. They point out that the world is populated with a huge variety of different social groups with different moral rules, practices and conventions. This cultural diversity makes universality impossible, as there are no common concepts and perspectives by which ethical behaviour can be judged. See for example www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/ethicalrelativism.html According to this view, the concept of human rights, for example, which was developed by Western cultures during a particular stage in their history, should not be imposed on countries elsewhere. (Jeremy Bentham's famous comment that the idea of natural rights is "nonsense on stilts" shows it has also had its detractors in the West).

In evaluating ethical conduct, opinions also differ as to whether acts are right or wrong in themselves, or whether behaviour should be judged purely by its consequences. Kant's duty-based categorical imperative of 'do unto others' emphasises the former. On the other hand, utilitarians, for example, are said to be 'consequentialist' because they claim an act should be judged only by its consequences. An act can only be judged morally right if it promotes 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. At their extremes, both schools of thought seem unsatisfactory. A person who acts according to a moral duty, knowing that great harm will result, is as open to moral censure as the person for whom only the end matters and not the means.

It seems therefore that those who advocate an ethical foreign policy, are open to the question: 'which ethical theory and rules do you have in mind?' The question is not unimportant because different theories pull in different directions. Thus, if country A proposes to send troops to country B to liberate it from a dictator, a consequentialist might hold the action to be morally justified because of its beneficial outcome for the majority of B's citizens. But if it is argued that it is morally wrong in principle to intervene in another country's internal affairs, the beneficial consequences that might flow from that intervention would be irrelevant and would not make it morally right.

the stark realities
In the contemporary world, states incur a number of duties by virtue of their membership of the international community. For example, obligations not to interfere forcibly in the affairs of another country, to obey international law, to adhere to international agreements, to co-operate where possible with other nations, to intervene on humanitarian grounds. All these obligations require states to take a wider view than the narrow interests of their citizens. Nevertheless, a state is rarely confronted with a stark choice between its own interests and observance of an ethical norm. In the day-to-day world of international diplomacy, governments have to steer a pragmatic path through competing domestic and international pressures.

Some international obligations conflict with each other. For example, the obligation not to intervene in the internal affairs of another state may be at odds with a duty of humanitarian intervention, as in Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda and of course Iraq. The arguments for and against such interventions are cogently put in Samuel Brittan's lecture on ethical foreign policy. (www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/spee6_p.html)

Any ethical judgment about a particular nation state should surely be based on a consideration of how states operate in these different areas of policy as a whole, i.e. how they reconcile the pursuit of national self interest with their wider obligations to the rest of humanity. There have been many examples of so-called 'gangster states', like Burma, Zaire and Haiti, whose regimes use their power and wealth to oppress and exploit their own citizens with little concern for the world beyond. Nonetheless international law and institutions survive, however imperfectly, because many states perceive that their own interests need not be incompatible with those of the wider humanity. The advances of modern technology, such as jet travel and improved telecommunications, blur the difference between the domestic and the foreign. States are becoming more interdependent and events in one country can have immediate and dramatic effects on other countries thousands of miles away, whether it be international terrorism or a global disease epidemic. This must inevitably affect the perspectives and practice of foreign policy. As Bill Richardson says:

"In the twenty-first century, globalization in all its forms is eroding the significance of national boundaries. Many of the greatest challenges that we face -- from jihadism to nuclear proliferation to global warming -- are not faced only by us. Urgent problems that once were national are now global, and dangers that once came only from states now come also from societies -- not from hostile governments but from hostile individuals or impersonal social trends, such as the consumption of fossil fuels. American foreign policy must be able to cope effectively with these realities". www.foreignaffairs.org

In such a globalised environment, states will insist that they protect their citizens' own interests and claim moral justification for so doing. But as the interests of all states become ever more entangled and interlinked, a broader ethical vision is perhaps more pressing than ever.

This article is posted on our blog www.geopolemics.com and you are invited to comment.

Peter Crisell
17th March 2008