All My Little Words

Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on July 13, 2011

I know I’ve already posted an essay from the term just passed but there was another and, having received a much better grade than anticipated, I considered that it might be of interest to some. I’m only posting the conclusion because I can’t believe anyone has the stomach for the full 4,000 words but if you’re really that much of a keen bean bored, drop me a line and I’ll forward it on.

Can Foreign Policy Ever Be Moral?

Derrida wrote that “justice exceeds law and calculation”[1] which is to say that morality, and judgements about morality, are beyond scientific evaluation and must be made with the uncertainty of human reason. If we ask, is it possible for the state itself to be moral then we must find that it is probably not. Is it possible for a state’s foreign policy to be consistently moral? I equally think it is probably very difficult. However, is it conceivable that a state could conduct itself in a moral fashion or in accordance with a moral consensus or common moral principles, even those common only to a state’s only citizenry? I think it is. I do not agree that for a state’s foreign policy to be considered moral it must conform to externally established moral standards but instead must try to live up those it sets for itself. Whether the state has the right to a moral foreign policy, as Kennan calls into question, we must distinguish between a state conducting itself morally in the society of states and conducting interventions that violate the right to sovereignty of another state. The former takes exceptional circumstances into account the latter does not.

One of the problems with morality in foreign policy is that we need it to be consistent and this we see as necessitating codification. To write morality into law purports to contradict an intrinsic characteristic of the common understanding of what constitutes morality, which is to say the freedom to choose. However, Just War aspires towards a codified moral sphere that the state can inhabit and a regular if not exactly regulated code of conduct that states can practically adopt.

While true morality may be beyond the capacity of the state, as we understand the state to be a function  of statesmen, it can nonetheless serve to further morality as a determinant of behaviour, both by example and by didactics. To say, as George Kennan did, that it is not the business of the state to concern itself with morality is not only outmoded, it also demonstrates a very narrow view of the state’s purpose and what constitutes “interests”. Kennan, speaking as a veteran actor of the Cold War at a time when it was far from over and the threats were still very real, can be forgiven for subscribing to this perspective. The Cold War and the perpetual threat of nuclear annihilation did make greater demands of states and require an approach to statesmanship that was perhaps much colder in character, if not cruel.

While for the individual and even societies morality may be considered to be a non-negotiable, an imperative force in the determination of behaviour to the state, morality and its exercise might reasonably be regarded as a luxury. Thucydides’ Melian dialogue, in particular the line that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must”[2] may have been intended to serve as a lesson in the inevitable amorality of states it can also be read in a more encouraging light. As the human is an evolved creature, so is the state. If we believe that the state under strain will be motivated  by reptilian instinct, the state liberated from that strain and existing in a state of relative comfort will have at least the political capacity to exercise its limbic system, to act out of regard for a sense of right. Whether or not it will avail itself of this capacity is not enough to render it either moral or amoral but the freedom of choice is enough to provide for that possibility and to which states should aspire.


[1]    Derrida quoted in Willy Maley ‘Beyond the Law?: The Justice of Deconstruction’, Law and Critique

[2]    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, CHAPTER XVII. Sixteenth Year of the War – The Melian Conference – Fate of Melos as found at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/melian.htm

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