Realists argue that foreign policy is necessarily amoral. Liberals contend that there is no distinction between the moral standards that apply in domestic policy and those in international politics. Both views are flawed. Morality does count in foreign policy, but it is usually the morality of the lesser evilby Owen Harries / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The connection between foreign policy and morality is surprisingly poorly examined. It is not wanting in words or assertions. On the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion we will read and hear millions of them on the moral authority of the UN, intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, democratic governments deceiving their citizens—and many other questions with a moral content.
But there has been little attempt to spell out general and coherent positions on these questions, to relate particular circumstances to general principles, or to acknowledge and confront the difficulty of discussing moral issues in the peculiar conditions and circumstances of international politics. What follows is a tentative attempt to do some of those things.
There are two widely held and sharply contrasting views on the subject. The first, in its extreme version, is that morality in foreign policy is like snakes in Iceland: there ain’t any. A more moderate version allows for some minor role for morality. But essentially, foreign policy and international politics are seen as necessarily amoral activities. In academic circles, this view is associated with the “realist” school.
The second widely held belief is that there is only one morality, and that it applies in all circumstances. There is no distinction between the standards that states should be held to and those that apply to individuals, or between those that apply in domestic politics and those that apply in international politics. This view is often held by small “l” liberals, which is why they tend to lead frustrated lives and spend much of their political energy expressing anger and disappointment at the failure of governments, especially their own, to live up to accepted moral standards in their international behaviour—to be, among other things, compassionate, generous, forgiving, humane, honest, tolerant and consistent in their treatment of others. As we have seen recently, this is a view of things that can also be found among conservative and religious groups who believe that the values they hold should prevail universally, and that their government’s foreign policy should be dedicated to ensuring that they do.
These two views are not straw men. Each has a long intellectual pedigree, representing in simplified form a central tradition of thought about the behaviour of states in their relationships with each other.
Those who maintain that international politics is an amoral activity can quote Thucydides from 2,500 years ago, to the effect…