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The Role of Ethics in Foreign Policy

By Samantha Plesser

There is no denying that in today’s globalized world all nations are interconnected socially, economically, and politically.  As a result, the dilemma of considering ethics when implementing foreign policy often arises. Many theorists argue that ethics, or whether or not political actions taken would be considered “right or wrong,” should be considered when implementing foreign policy. I argue that this cannot be a consideration.

The consideration of ethics in foreign policy is not a new idea.  Perhaps the first notable example was 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 did not concern them. The code condemned cruelty, gratuitous violence, and unnecessary destruction of property of these neutral parties.

After the massive carnage and devastation of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson was the first modern leader to use ethics in universal foreign policy, creating the League of Nations based on moral principles and values. However, the League of Nations lacked enforcement authority, and World War II ensued shortly after its establishment.

After WWII and its rampant brutality, a new crime was introduced into the world order: “crimes against humanity.” This crime presumed a generic and universal set of norms thought applicable to all human beings and was used as the means to try certain Nazi leaders during the Nuremburg Trials of 1945-46.  Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Conventions were adopted by the recently created United Nations.  These were comprehensive codes that, for member nations, dictated international governance standards concerning specific rules on international human rights. This was notably the first time that any foreign policy mentioned human rights specifically.

However, it soon became clear that the nation-states were simply more interested in consolidating their own power than abiding by international legal conventions. First came the Cold War, pitting the Soviet Union against Western democracies. The interest that the Soviets and Western democracies had was to spread their form of governments throughout the world to gain dominance in the international community. Power struggles between nations, not ethics, and a complete disregard for civilian life or morals, were the primary instigators in the implementation of many subsequent Cold War policies.

To include ethics when executing foreign policy, nation-states run into issues. First, they ignore political leaders who create foreign policy working in the self-interest of the nations they represent. This is not always ethical within a global context, nor should it be. For example, in 1968, there was hope that all countries with nuclear weapons would engage in nuclear disarmament with the creation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. By the early 2000s, nearly all nations with nuclear capabilities, including the United States, had signed the treaty.  However, after 9/11, President Bush made the determination, incorrectly, that certain “rogue nations” may have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and decided that it was in U.S. national security interests to retain its nuclear weapons stockpile.

Second, the laws of war are by definition not ethical, and military combat is an essential part of foreign policy. When being examined by counsel during the Nuremberg Trials, Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s top Nazi officers famously said, “In war, the law is silent.” In this he is correct.  Soldiers are taught in war that their first job is utilitarian; they must accomplish the mission set forth for them. In war, a soldier’s mission is clear. He or she must fight, at whatever cost, to achieve the objective with maximum efficiency. Any action taken to achieve the objective is not only permissible but also obligatory. Of course, soldiers are not expected to go out of their way to harm civilians, but if civilians must be harmed to achieve orders, then not only is this expected, it is de facto necessary.  Simply put, “the ends justify the means.”

Finally, a government’s motives are often questionable when done in the name of “ethics.” Western nations often believe that their way of government, defined by an open electoral process, is the most ethical, and thus, in the name of justice, have attempted to spread democracy to nations that are not ready for this brand of rule. Scholar Claude Ake observes that Western democracies, when attempting to spread those values, fail to understand the basic needs of those nations.

Even before World War I, leaders of the world have attempted to insert their morals into global foreign policy but as soon as these decisions conflict with self-interest or a chance to gain power for their own nation, their decisions change. As Roger Wilker said when speaking about the United States, “We do foreign assistance for altruistic reasons, certainly for humanitarian ones, of course. But the main reason we do foreign assistance is we do it in the American national interest.”



Samantha Plesser is a current student at The Milano School of Nonprofit Management and Policy, former corporate attorney, and a graduate of Brown University.

[Photos courtesy of Wikipedia and Creative Commons]

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