What the Sages Say

Lecture 2

February 10, 2001

What Do We Mean By Standards?
Perfectionism and Non-perfectionism
National Interests


There are two sayings of the sages—both of unknown origin—that paint the background for my remarks today:

  • "We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us."

  • "In the field of political philosophy, novelty is not a virtue."

In engaging in an ethical analysis of international affairs, we are more likely in well-worn territory than in uncharted waters. At the heart of our project are the basic questions of political theory: how to balance order with justice; how to balance moral commitments with political reality; and how to relate the insights of history and philosophy to contemporary problems. There is plenty of wisdom available to us that is cumulative, building on the human experience of the past centuries.

In this second lecture, I will limit my focus to the contemporary "founding fathers" of this field to seek their guidance on several of the conceptual issues we raised in the first lecture. I approach these sages in the spirit of conversation—that is, I do not treat their work as received wisdom, but rather as wisdom to contend with, to question, and respond to.

Let me be the first to say that the conversation about ethics and international politics stretches back to the great political philosophers Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and others. I assume that most of you, in your political theory courses, will have discussed the well-rehearsed narratives of realism and liberal internationalism. Realism, of course, features the anarchical structure of the international system, the imperatives of balancing power and interests, and the inherent animus domanandi (will to power) that dominates human nature, and therefore, politics. The liberal paradigm offers a coherent counternarrative, suggesting that there is no animus domanandi that is not subject to the ameliorating effects of institutional restraints and structures of peace, including the rule of law.

I want to pick up the argument with a slight realist bias, yet with the notion that no one is a paradigmatic realist or liberal internationalist. I think we all hold the images of both in our heads simultaneously; that is, we recognize the controlling role of power, interest, and anarchy; yet we also recognize the real and palpable weight of principles and standards such as human rights.

I divide my lecture today into four parts, with a case study embedded in each. Let me stress that each case I mention here is suggestive, not exhaustive. I am using them here to raise philosophical points rather than to establish historical facts. The overarching goal is to enable you to see how ethics can and does matter in international affairs whether you (and the actors involved) realize it or not.

What Do We Mean By Standards?

Many of us understand international affairs to be defined by the notion that there are no internationally accepted ethical standards, and that standards such as they do exist are relatively weak and ineffective. Most importantly, these standards are not binding. Consider this first quotation from George F. Kennan in his famous, and I would add famously contradictory, article "Morality and Foreign Policy."

"… let us note that there are no internationally accepted standards of morality to which the U.S. government could appeal if it wished to act in the name of moral principles. It is true that there are certain words and phrases sufficiently high sounding the world over so that most governments, when asked to declare themselves for or against, will cheerfully subscribe to them, considering that such is their vagueness that the mere act of subscribing to them carries no danger of having one's freedom of action significantly impaired. To this category of pronouncements belong such documents as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Atlantic Charter…."

Kennan's point, of course, is that this declaratory tradition has two weaknesses: it is too abstract to be of real value to the policy maker; and it is not binding. These "standards" have no sanction, and therefore no real weight.

Hans J. Morgenthau made a similar point in his treatise Politics Among Nations, where he tells us about the important differences between ethics, mores and law.

Three types of norms operate in all higher societies: ethics, mores, and law. Their distinctive characteristics have been much debated in the literature of philosophy and jurisprudence. For the purpose of this study it is sufficient to point out that every rule of conduct has two elements: the command and the sanction.

Command Sanction


Thou Shall Not Kill



Thou Shall Not Kill



Thou Shall Not Kill


Morgenthau makes a distinction between ethics (which he perceives to be an individual concept), mores (a group concept), and law (a formal national and international concept). The problem for Morgenthau is how to travel from individual conscience to national and international standards and behavior.

My question for Morgenthau and Kennan would be this: is the declaratory tradition as weak as you say it is? Let us look at the basic principles of this tradition as Dorothy V. Jones outlines them in her book Code of Peace:

"At the core of the declaratory tradition in modern international law is a set of nine fundamental principles that constitute a summary of state reflection upon proper action in the international sphere. (Two additional, less widely accepted principles - - creation of an equitable international economic order and protection of the environment - - will be discussed separately.)

The basic principles are:

  1. The sovereign equality of states.
  2. The territorial integrity and political independence of states.
  3. Equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
  4. Nonintervention in the internal affairs of states.
  5. Peaceful settlement of disputes between states.
  6. No threat or use of force.
  7. Fulfillment in good faith of international obligations.
  8. Cooperation with other states.
  9. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

As Jones informs us, these principles are exhorted by the states themselves. They are not the dreams of some ivory tower philosopher. These principles are articulated by the states, and they come out of the hard won lessons of war and peace.

Even the arch realist Henry Kissinger seems to agree, at some level, with the concept that power alone is not enough. Power must be anchored to some idea of legitimacy - and legitimacy rests on certain shared values, however abstract.

"Power is too difficult to assess, and the willingness to vindicate it too various, to permit treating it as a reliable guide to international order. Equilibrium works best if it is buttressed by an agreement on common values. The balance of power inhibits the capacity to overthrow the international order; agreement on shared values inhibits the desire to overthrow the world order. Power without legitimacy tempts tests of strength; legitimacy without power tempts empty posturing."

Now what kind of test can we offer for legitimacy? Here might be a good place for a case study. Does our theory relate to practice? Let us consider the case of covert operations against enemies during the time of war. Does the fact that a nation is at war mean that "all is fair" in that war; that all means are considered in bounds? Are there really any standards to employ? What do we rule in, what do we rule out, and why? Should we poison food? Target informants? Should we play by "Hanoi's rules," as Professor Shultz has asked in his research? If we do not choose to play by "Hanoi's rules," do we have an internally generated set of standards that we say are good for us, and then abide by those rules? Kennan has argued that the only standards that really mean anything are the standards we set for ourselves. According to Kennan, we know what is right for us, and ultimately, legitimacy springs from this knowledge. We cannot know what is right for others, and therefore, we cannot and should not try to prescribe standards for others.


Discussions about standards on issues such as the use of force and covert action often lead us toward the path of relativism. Two clichés reign here: "Where you stand depends upon where you sit." And, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Do we want to accept this kind of analysis and conclusion? Is this all we can say about ethics?

Let us look more carefully at the question of relativism. The philosopher James Rachels gives us a brief case to make a point about this:

"Darius, a king of ancient Persia, was intrigued by the variety of cultures he encountered in his travels. He had found, for example, that the Callatians (a tribe of Indians) customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks, of course, did not do that - the Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and fitting way to dispose of the dead. Darius thought that a sophisticated understanding of the world must include an appreciation of such differences between cultures. One day, to teach this lesson, he summoned some Greeks who happened to be present at his court and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked, as Darius knew they would be, and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callatians, and while the Greeks listened asked them what they would take to burn their dead fathers' bodies. The Callatians were horrified and told Darius not even to mention such a dreadful thing."

The point is that while certain practices are different (eating versus burying), the ultimate ethical value or aspiration in this case remains the same - respect for the dead. We can extend this analogy to other different contexts. Consider, in another example, the status of women in traditional societies. Practices might be different, but perhaps, just perhaps, the intent behind these practices is the same - that is, to validate the equal worth and dignity of every woman. Is it possible that worth and dignity is expressed in ways that are repugnant to us?

This issue can turn into a very hard case when you get into examples such as female genital mutilation, honor killings, or widow burning. Here you are no longer talking about women's place in society and the expression of communal values in areas such as proper dress or "acceptable" career choices. Here we begin to cross a line - the line we have come to know as human rights.

Isaiah Berlin helps us to understand how we might be sensitive to some aspects of communal value without becoming total relativists. He calls his approach "objective pluralism":

"Members of one culture can, by force of imaginative insight, understand (what Vico called entrare) the values, the ideals, the forms of life of another culture or society, even those remote in time or space. They may find those values unacceptable, but if they open their minds sufficiently they can grasp how one might be a full human being, with whom one might communicate, and at the same time live in the light of values widely different from one's own, but which nevertheless one can see to be values, ends of life, by which men could be fulfilled."

Berlin's approach rests on empathy rather than relativity. He seeks what is common in the human experience.

Perfectionism and Non-perfectionism

All of my comments so far should lead you to the conclusion that I am operating in the non-perfectionist mode. As such, I am not building theories of morality based on ideal situations and ideal types. What I am doing is building an argument for ethics from the ground up, in a problem-solving mode, searching for principles and standards that can help guide decision-making and action.

Reinhold Niebuhr explains this method of tragic realism in his book Children of Light, Children of Darkness:

"The children of light may thus be defined as those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good.

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest.

The confidence of modern secular idealism in the possibility of easy resolution of the tension between individual and community, or between classes, races and nations is derived from a too optimistic view of human nature."

As you can see, Niebuhr fears the children of light just as much - if not more - than the children of darkness. The naïve idealist who thinks he knows truth - without accounting for competing claims of the self-interests of others - is a danger. We need the insight of both children to forge truly moral social policies.

Berlin gives us a similar accounting of the importance of recognizing competing moral claims at competing levels:

"[Berlin gives us] the rational study of man, not just as a physical animal, viewed essentially from the outside in naturalistic terms… but as a free, autonomous, unpredictably creative, self-interpreting and self-transforming species, whose proper element is history, and whose nature is revealed, not timelessly and once and for all, but in his most basic, all-informing, evolving - and sometimes violently transformed and clashing - concepts and categories."

The idea this planted in my mind was the realization, which came as something of a shock, that not all supreme values pursued by mankind now and in the past were necessarily compatible with one another. If undermined my earlier assumption based on philosophia perennis, that there could be no conflict between true ends, true answers to the problems of life.

The assumption that ethics trumps power is just as dangerous as the opposite assumption that power always trumps ethics.

However, there are often competing moral claims, all of which can appear legitimate. In these cases, the differences may stem from different concepts of agency. Just who is responsible, and how might we assign praise and blame, admiration and revulsion for a specific problem? There are at least three distinct levels of agency - individual, national, and international - and the process of moral evaluation is distinct for each.

Take the issue of deforestation in Brazil, for example. At the individual level, cutting down trees in the Amazon is often about personal livelihood; without being able to do so, many individuals will not be able to provide for themselves or their family and may in fact starve. At the national level, Amazon deforestation is about balancing human development versus long-term sustainability and national environmental goals; it is also a problem that exists mainly within national borders. And at the international level, protecting the Amazon is simply one part of the global issue of preserving a worldwide ecosystem—rainforests—valued for their biodiversity and ability to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Isaiah Berlin gave up his chair in normative theory because, as the story goes, he felt that he had no normative theory to purvey. Perhaps this was because he understood these very complexities. Berlin resorted to a humanistic approach, observing, describing, and commenting on these issues. He did not pretend to offer a theory that would stand the test of the multiplicity of cases he was interested in. Perhaps the best we can do, he concluded, is to be clear about our choices, our trade-offs, and our justifications.

National Interests

While we have acknowledged that there are other agents and actors beyond the nation-state (to which we will return later on), I want to conclude our conversation with the sages by looking at their comments on "national interest." Since this is one of the most fully developed concepts in the vocabulary of international affairs, we must inevitably come to terms with it's meaning in relation to our inquiry focusing on ethics.

The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. offers helpful advice by calling our attention to the inevitable and never-ending competition between morality, interest, and power:

"Moral values do have a fundamental role in the conduct of foreign affairs. But, save in extreme cases, that role is surely not to provide abstract principles for foreign policy decisions. It is rather to illuminate and control conceptions of national interest. The righteousness of those who apply personal moral criteria to the relativities and complexities of international politics can degenerate all too easily into absolutism and fanaticism. The assumption that other nations have traditions, interests, values, rights, and obligations of their own is the beginning of a true morality of states."

Note that Schlesinger makes an important distinction between personal morality and national interests. Note also that he sees morality as a component - part of an equation that also includes interests (including those of others), and power.

On the issue of personal ethics versus public ethics Reinhold Niebuhr and Arnold Wolfers offers us these assessments in their books Moral Man and Immoral Society and Discord and Collaboration.

"What rogues we would be if we did for ourselves what we do for our country."
Count Camillo Cavour (ca. 1860)

"Group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterize individual relations. [This distinction] necessitates political policies which a purely individual ethics must always find embarrassing."
- Reinhold Niebuhr (1932)

"Much of what strikes people as the immoral practices of governments may prove morally justified by the peculiar and unhappy circumstances that the statesman has to face and, as a rule, cannot hope to change…We must address ourselves then to the non perfectionist who demands of man not that he follow a code of absolutist rules… but that he make the best moral choice that circumstances permit."
- Arnold Wolfers (1949)

National interests are, rightfully, the guideposts for the conduct of foreign policy. But the question remains, how do governments construct those interests? What criteria do they use? What hierarchy of values?

"There is good reason why the controversy about the relationship between the necessity of state and ethical standards should be rife in our culture. The clash is between two sets of ethical standards, one Christian and humanistic, the other nationalistic. Nationalist ethics place what are called vital national interests, and not national survival only, at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of values - - territorial integrity, colonial possessions, lebensraum, treaty rights, or economic interests - - are assumed therefore to justify the sacrifice of almost every other value whether it be life, generosity, humane treatment of others, truthfulness, or obedience to the law. The interests of other nations count for little, if anything on a nationalistic scale of values."
- Arnold Wolfers (1949)

"No state has ever entered a treaty for any other reason than self-interest. A statesman who had any other motive would deserve to be hung."
- quoted in Reinhold Niebuhr (1932)

Morality is self-interest, properly understood.
- paraphrase from Robert D. Kaplan (2000)

"Trust is the wrong word. It has no place in foreign policy. Love, hate - they are both wrong. That is what Peace Now (a dovish group) and Gush Emmunium (a hawkish group) did a great disservice to this country. Peace Now and Gush Emmunim were both started by the same class of naïve, highly educated Ashkenazis who were traumatized by Israel's experience in the 1973 war, and both groups emerged with conception that were untenable. Peace Now trusted the Arabs; the Gush hated them and wanted to keep the West Bank. But it is not a matter of trust but of self-interest, ours and the Arabs!"
--Israeli commentator (2000)

Here we see that single conceptions of truth and ethics are counterproductive. We also see that self-interest is not, in itself, a bad thing. The question is, can "interests" be constructed in a "moral" way - in a way that is true to one's own group as well as to others? The presidential election of 2000 provided an excellent case study for this test of national interest. Candidate George W. Bush insisted upon a narrow conception of national interest - a conception that focused (presumably) on geopolitics (e.g. defense of borders, access to vital resources). The implication of his position was that national interest meant limiting U.S. exposure to peacekeeping operations, environmental initiatives, and virtually any ambitious multilateral efforts aimed at global issues. Candidate Gore, on the other hand, offered a much more ambitious notion of national interest, prescribing "forward engagement" as the appropriate posture for the U.S. Forward engagement suggests that the United States is best served by providing active leadership on a number of global issues ranging from public health to environmental protection to the alleviation of poverty. Gore argues that it is the U.S. national interest to provide a leadership role on these global interests, and that it would not serve U.S. interests to leave these issues unattended.

The Bush/Gore divide on what is and what is not in the national interest is not a purely academic debate. This is a debate that involves ethics and values and choice; at the end of the day, it will help to shape America's commitments and actions overseas. In our next lecture, we will zero in on one aspect of this contentious debate about the content of U.S. national interests; we will look specifically at the dilemmas posed by recent humanitarian and peace operations.