We often hear politicians (or campaigners) using the term ‘ethical foreign policy’, sometimes as a reaction to something that has caused feeling of gross injustice or hypocrisy. However we very rarely hear any analysis or description of what such a policy would look like or how it would operate.
The world is very complex, and growing more interconnected at all levels. Decisions about one thing can very often have unwelcome and unexpected repercussions in another area. Because it is so complex, and I have really struggled as I’ve considered this subject, leaders often adopt a pragmatic approach, suggesting that ethical considerations nearly always have to take a back seat as the national interest takes priority and the unspoken matter of their electoral popularity. Consequently it is sometimes difficult to separate the national interest from the interests of those in power in the subsequent debates.
An early example of introducing ethics into foreign policy is the Lieber Code, drafted by Francis Lieber when he found himself caught in the middle of the American Civil War. The code was a guide on how warring nations should treat neutral citizens that were in the wrong place at the wrong time in conflicts that didn’t concern them. The code condemned cruelty, gratuitous violence and unnecessary destruction of property of these neutral parties.
After World War 2, and the terrible persecution and terrors inflicted upon minorities across Europe, new crimes were introduced into the world order, namely ‘Crimes against humanity’ and ‘Genocide’. The story of how these words (and the ideas and legal thinking behind them) is brilliantly told in ‘East West Street’ by Phillipe Sands, a book which brings alive the process by which human beings translate experience into serious attempts to change and improve things for the future and also demonstrates the enormous difficulties in turning ethical considerations into a matter of criminal law, particularly international law.
To me there are several questions that have to be addressed before considering whether ethical foreign policy can ever be an achievable aim.
2.1 Whose ethics?
Ethical truths are sometimes described as ‘universal’. However even a superficial survey of attitudes suggest that this isn’t true in practice. For example, some would say it is wrong to kill another human being. Even if we ignore the blatant contradictions (killing in war, judicial executions etc) there are so many ways that our actions contribute directly to the death of other people, for example smoking, environmental pollution, dangerous driving). The dominating religious and cultural framework of a particular nation state clearly influence the decisions and behaviours of their governments, including their willingness to sign up to international obligations and then subsequently whether or not they stick to their promises.
2.2 Can any ethical approach rely on the threat of war as the
Without getting into the whole philosophical objections to war (does the victory of the mightiest warrior have any bearing on the rightness of the cause), we have to face up to the reality that the ‘laws’ of war are by definition not ethical. Goebbels said ‘In war, the law is silent’. The job of a soldier is utilitarian, they must obey orders and achieve the mission given to them. The end justifies the means. International law has attempted, through mechanisms such as the Geneva Convention, to limit and control the behaviour of warring nations, but with limited success. History is after all always written (and judged) by the victors.
The philosophy of a ‘Just War’ is just one example of trying to allow realism to live side by side with ethical values. Is it satisfactory? Has it really had any power to moderate behaviours?
Does military intervention ever work for the wider good. If a nations past actions have contributed to a conflict situation, surely that nation has responsibility, even culpability? It should surely help to find a solution, but certainly not impose a solution. e.g. Kosovo bombing of 1999 increased the flow of refugees, destabilising neighbouring states, but eventually UN peace keepers allowed in.2.3 Could it ever work? Much of a nations dealing with others requires a level of secrecy, diplomacy and sometimes overt muscle flexing. Could an ‘all cards on the table’ ever result in anything other than being completely taken advantage of. This raises another question.
2.4 Should inter governmental interactions have different
governing ethics to personal interactions?
Treating others as we’d wish to be treated, the Golden Rule, is a central value that’s been central to human philosophical thinking since the beginnings of recorded history. Most people attempt or aspire to that approach when dealing with interpersonal relationships – no-one likes being lied to for example, or threatened, or demonised. Yet we see these behaviours frequently in the exercise of international relationships between states.
One my beliefs, one which I hope is true, is that adoption of the golden rule doesn’t require any fundamental belief about ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but is a pragmatic approach. If I treat others well, then I am more likely to be treated well. Is this a valid approach in international affairs?
Of course intention is a central consideration of ethics, why are we seeking something – is it for narrow national interest or for wider global interest. The whole debate about global warming has brought this consideration to the fore. Surely it is ethical for our nation to do it’s best to reduce carbon emissions even if others don’t? Do the means justify the ends? Are we right to use both the carrot and stick to pursue an ethical agenda such as the overwhelming expert agreed crisis such as global warming?
2.5 National Interest
Narrow, myopic national interest would be seen as selfishness in the personal realtionship sphere. However I would suggest there is a big moral difference between a broad long definition of national interest that would include citizens of other nations and ‘global good’. Of course, rather like my hopes for the Golden Rule, it may be that if we adopt a more open and generous attitude to other nations, they may do the same with us. What is the biblical saying, ‘Wise as serpents and harmless
as doves’? Eyes and arms both open? Palmerston once said that ‘Britain has no permanent alies, only permanent interests’. Well perhaps, but there are an awful lot of interests that are common to all countries. Global warming, despeciation, the rise of fundamentalism, over population, environmental polution etc. We can either allow these calamities to divide us and therefore send us to ruin, or unite us in a common effort to save our civilisation. Warring over the ruins will be on no-one’s interest.
Cosmopolitanism, the belief that all people are entitled to equal worth and consideration is surely contradicted by narrow nationalism?
Liberalism the philosophy that is based on the consent of the governed and equality before the law is also sometimes an enabler of populism. Surely no nation can survive long without sound leadership, intelligence and knowledge which is controlled and constrained by ethical values?
2.6 The problem of ambivalence
Suppose you are a good swimmer reading at the beach and you notice a child drowning in the surf. Would you put down your book and rescue her? Most would say yes. Would it matter whether she called, “Help!” or cried out in a foreign language? Most would say the foreign language would make no difference. If she were somewhat further out and you were not a strong swimmer, how much risk would you take? Answers would range from the prudent to the heroic. If there were two children, one of which was yours, and you could rescue only one, would it matter whether it was yours? Most would say yes.
Do electors really care much about citizens of another country? Do their elected leaders?
On the other hand, does deliberate distancing ever helpful (their problem, they need to solve it)?
Even when nations sign up to international treaties, this is no protection against nations breaking their treaty obligations in the future.
Ethical policy not enough, we would need ethical behaviours and ethical moderation. How can moderation be achieved without international jurisdiction when some countries simply opt out?
Also the resort to threats of violence is often an unspoken underpinning to the enforcement, which is perhaps unethical of itself.
I have no profound thoughts to answer these problems. Perhaps the thoughts of experienced leaders
William E Gladstone said:
“Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home”
Henry Kissinger said:
“to strike a balance between the two aspects of world order - power and legitimacy - is the essence
of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement
into a test of strength. Moral prescriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend
toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering
the coherence of the international order itself” and:
“No foreign policy - no matter how ingenious - has any chance of success if it is born in the minds
of a few and carried in the hearts of none” and:
“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor
This balancing act certainly requires prudence a great deal of intelligence, sensitivity, leadership skills and experience.
When one cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue in an ethic of responsibility, while hubristic visions can do serious damage. Prudence usually requires emotional intelligence and the ability to manage one’s emotions and turn them to constructive purposes rather than to be dominated by them.
Thomas Jefferson said:
“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none”.
John F Kennedy said:
“The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or
indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world”,
“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us”.
George Washington said:
“My ardent desire is, and my aim has been, to comply strictly with all our engagements, foreign
and domestic, but to keep the United States free from political connections with every other
country; to see that they may be independent of all and under the influence of none”.
Jimmy Carter said:
“Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense
And finally, something to keep all our feet on the ground:
“No modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals”.
Irving Kristol – American neo-conservative journalist