Ethics and International Relations in Today's Classrooms without Borders

Why Ethics in the Study of International Relations?

This essay focuses on ethical issues that students of international relations are likely to confront. Choices made by governing bodies in previous centuries influence our world today in decisive ways. In the new millennium, we face a host of challenges that include political violence, particularly by transnational terrorist networks, aggressive tactics to secure resources, and failed interventions in the midst of genocide and human underdevelopment. As a result of advances in technology that serve both beneficent and malevolent goals, these challenges will redefine the ethical dimensions of international relations and continue to raise ethical questions intrinsic to the field. Ethics is a constant in our studies and a needed focus of our inquiries. Educators—and citizens—are expected to learn about the myriad ways ethics informs our concerns and decisions. Times of global crisis, like the 2008-2009 financial downturn, bring the relevance of ethical questions to our attention in urgent and controversial ways.

The discussion that follows is anchored in historical perspective. Formidable issues present themselves when we analyze competing interpretations of history without giving attention to ethics, because the political sphere is never devoid of moral questions. Those educated to participate in the highest levels of political dialogue should be as attentive to the complexities of these questions as they are to the intricacies of political problems. Ethics provide students with a systematic framework to assess the moral dimension of human behavior and reflect on the role moral evaluation should play in politics. Ethics also shape our character—the kind of person we become through our choices. What we do (or neglect to do) unequivocally reveals who we are individually and collectively.

"Politics will, to the end of history," writes Reinhold Niebuhr, "be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises."1 Working out such compromises requires a well-educated person, one who possesses the qualities that lay the foundation for a well-formed conscience. "The consciences of persons," write Maguire and Fargnoli, "are marked by greater or lesser empirical sensitivity. If we have the habit of inquisitiveness in the face of moral decisions, our conscience will be marked by a readiness to ask and pursue questions. If we have experience with diverse moral issues, we will be better able to perceive distinctions when there are differences."2

There is a growing literature that places ethics at the center of our understanding of international relations. The resources for educators and students on the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs website provide an easily accessible starting point to facilitate active learning. The Council offers a plethora of online resources, taking advantage of the communications revolution to engage learning communities in the United States and throughout the world. These resources may be complemented by an essential text, Duties Beyond Borders: On the Limits and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics (Hoffmann 1981, 1-43), which illuminates the issues at stake for beginners as well as those already well versed in the field. This volume raises the questions that have stirred debate across generations: "First, is there a possibility of moral choice for statesmen in international relations? And secondly, if one assumes that there is, what are the limits of moral choice?"3

The Moral Person and Political Realism

By its very nature international relations must anticipate serious and, at times, dangerous confrontations between nations or groups. Ethnic and ideological differences can erupt into major conflicts. The intimidating complexity of competing narratives distinguishing national and non-state actors alike disturbs the relative tranquility of formal dialogue on ideological differences. Cycles of ethnic conflict and civil war shape confrontations in ways formal dialogue may never anticipate or deter. There are times when these narratives prevent the resolution of differences and instead lead directly to armed conflict.

In his classic analysis, Man, the State and War, Kenneth Waltz searches for the root of conflict in human nature, in the nature of government and in the structure of a system that political realists argue is destined to be dominated by egoistic states.4 Throughout the centuries political realism portrayed human beings as fundamentally weak, the victims of their own machinations in the drive for power, the protagonists of a tragedy in which the present relives a narrative of the not too distant past. The demise of the former Soviet empire was once celebrated as the end of history, the ultimate triumph of free market capitalism, which classical liberals and modern conservatives assert is the foundation of America's democracy.5 The 1990s provided a fertile terrain for that narrative to unfold as globalization accelerated and ethnic conflict intensified. The global integration of peoples via markets, services, and technologies proceeded apace with the disintegration of empires and federal states.6

In hindsight, the last decade of the 20th century was progressively shaped by competing narratives and resurgent myths, which asked Americans and the world at the start of the new millennium to reassess the domestic character and the global destiny of the "city on a hill." The 21st century had barely started when tradition crashed, figuratively and literally, into the towers of modernity. America's narrative was defined by the Bush presidency for a people who perceived themselves as under siege at home and abroad. Over time the threat of militant jihadism stifled our common sense and undermined the legacy the framers of our Constitution bequeathed to us by radically shifting our legal and moral values.

Matters of equity and justice, of human dignity in the face of adversity and terror, are to be adjudicated morally and not merely politically.7 In the political realm, moral discernment must not be marginalized. One of the most pressing pedagogical concerns we face when teaching ethics is to avoid the artificial divide between the private and political spheres of morality. Though distinctions between the two are real and necessary, morality stretches equally into both realms. In the political realm, however, we can act in ways not morally permitted in the private realm. The state can imprison a convicted criminal and deny that person certain rights; individuals acting on their own behalf cannot. "The political order," as ethicist Daniel C. Maguire writes, "has exigencies and complexities that have no part in private life. Thus, moral behavior there will be correspondingly more difficult to judge."8 Yet because the political sphere is more complicated, as Maguire warns, "the moral dimension tends to be dropped" and as a consequence "politics gets done without conscience."9 The late Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga praised conscience as a calling "above high office, fame, lucre and security."10 Without it, we can easily pursue devious paths of behavior.

Politics without conscience threaten all societies and bypass the minimal requirements of justice. Anyone engaged in making decisions that affect human lives assumes moral responsibility. There are no moral free zones absolving the political strategist from accountability, whether that strategist is a head of state or the head of a terrorist organization. The practice that the end justifies the means, frequently a working hypothesis in politics and the corporate world, must not go unchecked. Ethics as a systematic evaluation of "what befits or does not befit persons as persons"11 provide a counterbalance to this view. Ethics are a source of conscience, while at the same time, as Nicolas Berdyaev rightly remarks, they should also be "a critique of pure conscience." 12 Conscience is not infallible and thus needs the work of ethics to substantiate its claim. No person or decision or action is beyond ethical assessment.

The Ethical Imperative in Everyday Life

What is presently defined as the worst crisis since the Great Depression had its origins in the years before and beyond 9/11 for which each party, Democrat and Republican, shares responsibility, and must now take ownership, in terms of decisions made in America and consequences experienced in the world. This present moment is a time for a new education in Washington politics and in the teaching of government and international relations. Ours is the opportunity to revisit politics as policy for the people and statecraft, which Niebuhr once defined as, "locating the point of concurrence between the parochial and the general interest, between the national and the international common good."13

The ethical imperative alerts us to the necessity of taking a comprehensive or holistic view of the circumstances that confront students in international relations. No moral decision can be judged outside of its context. As the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas argued: "Human actions are good [morally right] or bad [morally wrong] according to the circumstances."14 Aquinas, however, is not advocating a normless situation ethics where any justification is used to achieve the ends in mind, a seductive temptation that many in power face. The student must always reflect upon the whole set of circumstances15 when attempting to make a value judgment in the context of intercultural dialogue and divergent narratives. An empathetic appreciation of cultural diversity broadens a student's perception of the realities behind cultural differences and stimulates an interest in recognizing values that others cherish. This appreciation broadens the parameters of one's moral consciousness and, therefore, of one's conscience.

The challenges of a new century, particularly the crisis of failed and failing states, call for a realism that acknowledges the moral responsibility of the state for its citizens.16 In the age of the industrialized modern state in crisis, legitimacy resides in governments' commitments to, and competencies in, providing basic services—notably security and social justice—to their populations. An inability to do so is the root cause of the state, as represented in the person of its leader, to forfeit legitimacy. A relatively recent and disturbing phenomenon is that the sovereign state is less and less the final arbiter on its own territory. Increasingly rivals to the legitimate authority of the state establish themselves in a no-man's land that escapes government control. Rival actors to the state thrive on an extensive drug-trafficking trade, which sustains their challenge as parallel governments in these countries. In this context, the delegitimized sovereign state is under attack inside and out. Upholding the ethical obligations of sovereign states in the face of attacks from within their borders is a universal concern in our world today.17 The most pressing problems of our day can only be addressed in state-to-state dialogue in which respect for the norms of the United Nations Charter is in the forefront.

The resurgence of ethnic conflict and civil war inside states calls our attention to the fact that human nature is frail. No deliberate human activity is devoid of moral accountability, be it in any realm that has the potential to transform society's condition: politics, education, finance, or law. The minimum of justice—rendering others their rightful due as persons—is not subordinate to the state's quest for order in a time of war. Often justice and civil liberties are the first casualties.

History teaches us that one state's demise at the hands of its elite or by rival trans-national networks can be a matter of universal concern, as in the case of Afghanistan. This is all the more pressing a reality in our interdependent world. Security threats such as trans-border migration and refugee flows or millions trapped in the inhuman conditions of refugee camps delineate a new geopolitics. Emerging threats posed by global crime networks equipped with the latest information technology are beyond the reach of a single state and its ability to monopolize the legitimate use of force. Sovereignty, like reason, has its limits.18

The responsibility of the state to protect is, in this new global system, essentially ethical in its focus on the inherent dignity of the person. The moral imperative of the state to protect its people is unlike the classical security paradigm, in which the internal dynamics of states do not matter. In the latter scenario, the state is an object to be manipulated by the political entrepreneur, and the populace is the victim of the leadership's ambitions. From an instrumentalist perspective, the hierarchy of the pyramid with the power elite at the apex19 subjects the masses at the base to all that state policy will allow, including genocide. Education and the media are tools of the leadership to be manipulated in the service of the state. Here the ethics of the private life often thrive, divorced from the license of a pervasive and corrupted public space, which debases the multitude to serve the interests of the few.

Teaching International Relations as Moral Responsibility

No one in the field of international affairs can rightly be considered a professional without possessing the skills demanded of the discipline and a commitment to justice and moral values.20 All deliberate human action—whether performed by an individual or a group, whether originating from a think tank or a private discussion behind closed doors—is the bearer of moral meaning. Rationalizing the effects of political expediency or exercising power in a hegemonic pursuit without regard to the value of human life betrays a practice paralyzed within a moral vacuum. Moral accountability is inextricably linked to political decision-making as it is to all decisions relating to the treatment of human beings. The instructional role of ethics is crucial to the education of all students in international relations. Raising moral consciousness within an educational context affords these students an opportunity to face ethical questions unique to their disciplines. Students must also realize that they are morally accountable for their own actions, especially for those actions that directly affect the welfare of other human beings.

In the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 affirms the fundamental right to education, and its role to "promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and…further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace." In Article 19 we may interpret to establish the principle which, in Mazzucelli's view, may be defined as "freedom from exclusion," in that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."21

No deliberate human activity is devoid of moral responsibility—in politics, education, finance or law. The classroom of the 21st century has an unprecedented opportunity to evolve as the forum to explore the commonness of our humanity and how it is best embraced. Our ethical concern as educators is to embrace the tensions that drive conflict in the world today—and to understand its dynamics, not just as a matter of political expedience, but as the cornerstone of our commitment to promote justice as participants in and not merely observers of the world in which we live. As such, our local experience may be infused with empathy for the plight of others, whether across the United States, on the Indian subcontinent, or in Rwanda, who inhabit different geographical spaces and times in the same world.

In the traditional hierarchy of the pyramid, which defined power relations in previous centuries, the apex represents expediency. As students of international relations, we may consider Mills' 20th-century analysis of the power elite in the form of those groups that run the state and dominate society—the corporation, the military, and the government. Expediency is the worst form of pragmatism at the apex. Its injustice can stratify most groups in society, particularly the masses at the base. In our new century, we can include in the power elite non-state actors. The Taliban, for example, undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan state. Our 21st-century imperative in education (public and private) is to invert this pyramid.

Ethical concerns in the classroom should be constructed in such a way as to embrace the confluence of inclusive dialogues. New initiatives like the Ethics Studio at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs offer the potential use of digitally networked technology (DNT) in the service of citizens across the globe to access in their homes, offices and schools.22 Mobile phone use by millions in the developing world suggests unprecedented possibilities for inclusion in the construction of diverse alternative narratives, which give voice to local stories distinct from the broader globalization dynamic (see for example, "Nobody is writing the Kenyan story"23 ). Carnegie's vision was of the public library as a national institution open to all across America. In this new millennium, Carnegie's original vision may be complemented by the availability to millions globally of resources in audio, print and video formats. These resources may readily facilitate worldwide discussions about ethics and international relations. The global classroom is pivotal in an active learning context to achieve results that transcend its academic environment. Innovative curriculum development is evolving in a model that President John Sexton has defined at New York University (NYU) as the "global network university." Its aim is to "maintain human community" as NYU classes, held simultaneously in Abu Dhabi and New York, and networked with other locations in Prague and Buenos Aires, "break the time-space continuum".24 Educators as facilitators must be attentive to what transpires in our world. Students as learners must participate in what confronts them in their learning. A classroom without borders expands the horizon of the mind and liberates the prejudices of moral confinement.

Today's students come to the classroom inundated with information from a myriad of electronic sources. Their assumptions and biases must be explored. The classroom without borders provides a public meeting place where students challenge each other and take responsibility for what they learn. This classroom is a passageway, a bridge, across which education continues throughout our lives. The role of students and teachers alike is to engage with an appreciation of moral values in an objective educated treatment of our subject matter as we explore what is common to all of us. Education is increasingly infused with media content, which can distract students by leading them into too many conflicting directions at once, discouraging their commitment to any one path. Teaching ethics and international relations in the classroom without borders is a commitment to our growth as human beings in a world in desperate need of humanity during a time of moral crisis.

1 Reinhold Niebuhr (1960), Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, p. 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
2 Maguire and Fargnoli (1991), On Moral Grounds, p. 147. New York : Crossroad.
3 Hoffmann, Stanley (1981), Duties Beyond Borders, p.10. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
4 Kenneth Waltz (1959), Man, the State and War. New York: Columbia. For a current discussion of the human propensity to engage in wars, see David Livingstone Smith (2007), The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War. New York: St. Martin's.
5 Francis Fukuyama (2006), The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
6 James Goldgeier and Derek Chollet (2008), America between the Wars: 11/9 to 9/11. New York: Public Affairs.
7 Charles R. Bietz (1979) Political Theory and International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
8 Daniel C. Maguire (1978), The Moral Choice, p. 19. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
9 Ibid., p. 19.
10 Lasantha Wickramatunga (2009), "A Letter from the Grave," The New York Times, January 19, p. A24.
11 For a discussion of the meaning of morality and the foundational moral experience, see Maguire and Fargnoli, op.cit., pp. 7-17.
12 Nicolas Berdyaev (1960), The Destiny of Man, p. 16. New York: Harper.
13 Reinhold Niebuhr (1974), World Crisis and American Responsibility. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
14 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I II q. 18, a. 3. "Ergo actiones humanae secundum circumstantias sunt bonae vel malae."
15 See Maguire and Fargnoli , On Moral Grounds, op.cit., pp. 42-44.
16 Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart (2008), Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. Oxford: Oxford.
17 Dalai Lama (1999), Ethics for the New Millennium. New York: Riverhead Books.
18 Jean-Marie Guéhenno (1995), The End of the Nation-State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
19 C. Wright Mills (2000), The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University Press.
20 In On Moral Grounds, Maguire and Fargnoli explain that ethics is at the heart of all professions: "Ethics is not an adornment for the professions. The very word 'profession' comes from the Latin fateor, which means to proclaim. The professional proclaims that he or she has two things to offer to the public: special skills and a committed sense of morality" (3).
21 Colette Mazzucelli (2001), "Education and the 'Freedom from Exclusion'," United Nations Chronicle.
22 Colette Mazzucelli (2010), "The 'DNT-R2P Connection:' Humanitarianism in the 21st Century?" Conversations on Diplomacy and Power Politics, June 25.
23 "Nobody is writing the Kenyan story" (2010), …in pursuit of dreams notes from a dreamcatcher in Nairobi, July 1. (No longer available online.)
24 John Sexton (2008), "Technology and the University," Big Think.