By Alan Cunningham
Ethical conundrums in foreign policy is a common occurrence, with the public often criticizing past foreign policy endeavors and examining current developments within foreign affairs from a personal point of view. The biggest issue with ethics in the field of international relations (IR) and foreign affairs is the discussion of whether institutions (individual state governments and international policymaking organizations) can be judged from personal, ethical morals. Some say these institutions cannot be subjected to these more individual and human morals as institutions dealing with IR must operate on a larger and more narrowly defined worldview on ethics. This all boils down to the question of, are ethical norms applicable to the area of foreign policy?
To answer this question, however, one must first examine the main areas of ethics.
The Three Ethical Frameworks
There are three main forms of ethics in the fields of psychology and communications, these being Virtue Ethics, Consequentialist Ethics, and Deontological Ethics.
To start, Virtue Ethics is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as emphasizing, “the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules or that emphasizes the consequences of actions”. This can further be quantified as aspiring to a set of virtues, avoiding a set of vices, integrity being a primary value, and finding the right balance within and between values.
Consequentialist Ethics is defined by the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin as, “judg[ing] whether or not something is right by what its consequences are”. The School further expands upon this with an example, stating, “Most people would agree lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would help save the person’s life, consequentialism says it’s the right thing to do”. The main goal for this type of ethical path is that the actions performed brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
The final ethical theory is Deontological Ethics, which is defined by Encyclopædia Britannica as, “[an ethical theory] that places special emphasis on the relationship between duty and the morality of human actions” this being further defined with, “an action is considered morally good because of some characteristic of the action itself, not because the product of the action is good”. With this ethical theory, it can be further quantified as arriving at ethical principles through reason, having a duty to others, reasons being coherent and constant, and respecting the autonomy (the act of self-government) of others.
Can Foreign Policy Be Subject to Ethics?
Some, like David A. Welch, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, would argue that foreign policy cannot be subject or adhere to ethical norms, stating, “in order to encourage ethical foreign-policy practice, we ought to encourage conventionalism, and institution-building, and keeping the long view in mind … The direction of progress I have suggested is one that strengthens transnational civil society and weakens the state … A world in which ethical foreign-policy practice is truly possible, therefore, is a world in which foreign policy does not matter very much, because the state has lost much of the prerogative that makes an independent foreign policy both possible and consequential”. One of the most enigmatic and popular foreign policy theorists in world affairs, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was quoted in a 1976 press conference as saying “we must distinguish morality from moralizing”; according to the Gilder Lehman Institute of American History, for Kissinger “moral value came in securing national interests, not abstract principles of justice and rights”.
John A. Vasquez, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, commented on this purveying thought that ethics has no place in foreign affairs or IR, writing, “Just about everyone thinks that morality should play some role in foreign policy, just about everyone that is expect for professional diplomats, and of course, political scientists …”. To many professional foreign policy, international relations, and political science practitioners and researchers, ethics and morality should not be considered in the development of a foreign policy or framework.
Personally, I disagree with the idea that ethical foreign policy is not attainable and that it would make states weaker. Having a set of ethical morals that are built upon human morals and innate human interests beyond selfishness, power, and security is proper in the world of diplomacy, military action, and other areas of foreign affairs. Looking at policy through the lens of so-called “abstract principles of justice and rights” is not a burden to a proposed plan or project, but rather an advantage; crafting in the acknowledgment or carrying out an initiative with human rights and social justice in mind when engaging in a military action or the development of a region in a foreign land could likely minimize the amount of civilian deaths, destruction of property, and help in revitalizing a region that is based upon those ideals.
From an American perspective, it should be the goal of every policymaker to take these matters into account and apply them to develop a foreign policy that is consistent with the ideals of the United States and also will work to benefit the majority of persons in which the U.S. is becoming involved in.
However, for individual policymakers in using ethics to build or flesh out their own foreign policy, it is my own belief that Consequentialism provides the best option for such an endeavor.
Consequentialism in International Relations
Consequentialism allows for ethical considerations to be made within foreign policy while also having a proper worldview, one that every country expounds when preparing for an invasion, providing aid to a fellow country in a crisis, or making a significant change in foreign policy conduct with a nation. Not only would this ethical theory help in creating a framework for how nations must operate, but it would avoid some of the pitfalls of groupthink, disregards for intelligence assessments, and allow for more solid and concrete planning methods.
Take, for example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq; had planners within the Department of Defense, State Department, and the White House utilized a consequentialist line of thinking, then examinations of the aftermath and what would or could happen in Iraq would have been made clear. It would have been known that a concrete reconstruction plan was not created or theorized and could have become solidified before the invasion took place. In fact, by using this line of thought, an argument could be made that war would have been avoided as it would have reflected the idea that this operation would not have the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people and would impact the U.S. poorly.
Having an ethical foreign policy that allows for the examination of a reconstructive plan, assess if the action will truly help both the invading country’s standing and the invaded country’s populace, and assist in better planning endeavors for foreign affairs is a fantastic thing. Considering these events and actions through a moral lens instead of disregarding them or criticize trying to hold an international or institutional body to personal notions of morality is a far greater and more inclusive endeavor.
How Can We Apply Ethics to International Relations and Foreign Affairs?
Naturally, the answer to this question is more easily said than done. However, some theorists have found and suggested interesting solutions in making ethics applicable to foreign policy.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1994 to 1995 and the Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, suggested a multidimensional approach in applying an ethical foreign policy.
He writes in the Texas National Security Review, “that good moral reasoning should be three dimensional: weighing and balancing the intentions, the means, and the consequences of a president’s decisions. Determining a moral foreign policy is not a matter of intentions versus consequences but must include both as well as the means that were used … How, then, can Americans decide whether their presidents did indeed make “the best moral choices” under the circumstances? They can start by making sure to judge them in terms of three-dimensional ethics, deriving criteria for each dimension from the wisdom of all three mental maps of realism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism (in that order). When looking at the foreign policy goals that presidents have sought, one should not expect them to have pursued justice at the international level similar to what they aspired to in their domestic policies”.
Nye proposes a scorecard of sorts, available below in a screenshot:
Nye advocates that civilians and researchers alike utilize this scorecard as a way of assessing a presidential administration’s activities in determining if one’s foreign policy action is sound, right, just, and finally moral. Nye himself admits this scorecard is not complete and does not solve every problem bound to arise within the field, but this nonetheless does provide a fantastic starting point for creating a foreign policy build upon ethics.
While Nye’s intent with this device is surely for civilians and researchers, not policymakers, I believe this system would serve well in helping policymakers within the Departments of State, Defense, the White House, and Congress be able to effectively determine the best course of action for an action plan and in developing a policy.