Ethics and International Affairs: A Primer



Ethics as Practice

The discipline of ethics begins with Socrates' question: How should one live? Ethics is about choice. What values guide us? What standards do we use? What principles are at stake? And how do we choose between them. An ethical approach to a problem will inquire about ends (goals) and means (the instruments we use to achieve these goals) and the relationship between the two.

The philosopher Simon Blackburn writes that ethics takes as its starting point that: "Human beings are ethical animals…we grade, evaluate, and compare and admire, claim and justify…Events endlessly adjust our sense of responsibility, our guilt and our shame, our sense of our own worth and that of others…"1 According to Blackburn, ethical inquiry is normative in the sense that it suggests "norms." Norms are what we consider to be "expected and required" behavior. We all experience functional norms. For example, in continental Europe and the United States, drivers stay on the right-hand side of the road; in the United Kingdom, drivers keep to the left. We also experience moral norms. A moral norm consists of an expectation such as nondiscrimination in the workplace or the requirement to respect the needs of the most vulnerable members of society (e.g. children, the elderly, and the infirm). Moral norms are aspirational and prescriptive rather than functional and descriptive—they often paint the "ought" rather than the "is." It is this type of norm—the moral norm—that is the focus of this chapter.

Looking at ethical inquiry this way, compliance with accepted norms and law is a useful beginning. But it is not enough. Compliance is merely a floor, a minimum upon which to build. Many actions in government, business, or private life comply with the law and commonly held norms but are not optimal from an ethical perspective. Examples are all around us. British members of parliament may not have broken laws when they used expense accounts to bill tax payers for lifestyle enhancements such as moat cleaning, the upkeep of expensive second homes, or the rental of adult movies. But surely this kind of behavior was wrong.

In more serious policy matters, during the global financial crisis of 2008 it may well be that most major banks and financial institutions were in full compliance with the law in the management of credit default swaps and derivative trading. Yet something went very wrong in the area of risk and responsibility. There are many decisions made that are in compliance with common norms and the law—but some of them are wrong. Ethical reasoning helps us to make these distinctions.

Despite the emphasis on something as vague as aspirational standards, ethical inquiry is not an idle philosophical pursuit—it is quite literally a practical enterprise. In his book, The Practice of Ethics, Hugh LaFollette writes: "just as we study medicine not only to learn about the body and its functions, but to make us better (to promote good health); so too we study ethics not just for philosophical enlightenment, but to improve our living conditions and to make our lives better." Ethics helps us to understand what we truly value and how to connect this with the practice of our daily lives, our individual choices, and the policies of the institutions of which we are a part. A good ethicist will link his or her work in some dialectical fashion to real-world experience. The goal is to find clarity and to choose wisely—to choose in ways that promote human well being and human flourishing.

It is important to keep in mind that ethics –especially as it relates to matters of public policy—is non-perfectionist in its character. Non-perfectionist does not equate with relativism. Rather, it suggests that conflict is natural and perfection is not possible: values inevitably overlap and conflict. As Isaiah Berlin reminds us, the pursuit of any single virtue will ultimately face the obstacles of competing virtues.2 Freedom often conflicts with order, justice with mercy, truth with loyalty. There is no conflict-free path to a good life, just as there is no single model of the good life to be pursued by all people everywhere.

To get a full picture of the place of ethics in international affairs—it possibilities and limitations—three dimensions of activity deserve equal consideration: actors, systems, and social arrangements.

Ethics in Three Dimensions

The first dimension focuses on the decision maker—the actor or the agent who makes a choice. We can and should evaluate the acts of individuals, be they presidents, ministers, official representatives, CEOs, community leaders, advocates, employees, consumers or citizens. Each has a role as an autonomous actor.

In addition to single actors, a discussion of agency must also consider the identity, values, and acts of collective entities such as states, corporations, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations. One of the most important trends of our time is the growing power of non-state actors—especially multinational corporations. Wal-Mart, Microsoft, BP and other companies of this size and scope rival the capacities of many states in terms of their economic, political and social reach. It is therefore both necessary and proper to ask and answer questions relating to the moral choices of corporate entities. All are moral agents.

The second dimension of ethics has to do with the systems, social arrangements, and conditions that define our range of choices. In short, we need to examine the "rules of the game" by which we live and make decisions. We all live within sets of norms and expectations—some more fair and just than others. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this dimension is to show examples of when "rational" choices within a set of arrangements yield "bad" or less-than-desirable results. In other words, in some systems, when an actor does the "right thing" within the system, the net result is sub-optimal.

This problem exists on many levels of policy and institutional design. For example, consider the nuclear weapons doctrine of MAD—mutual assured destruction. The entire strategic framework is based on the idea of reciprocal threat. Within this system, to insure stability, the most rational thing to do is to make an immoral threat (and be prepared to carry it out).

There is something deeply troubling about MAD. Would it not be a worthy goal to try to create frameworks and policies where the "rational" thing to do would be more benign than to make a threat of mutual assured destruction? In brief then, this second dimension calls attention to the fact that we live within institutions, systems, and social arrangements of human design. The rules, norms, and conditions of these arrangements should be subject to ethical evaluation.

The third dimension of ethics is the assertion that we often have the opportunity to improve our situation—to do better. Consider a standard ethics scenario like this: My mother is sick. I cannot afford medicine. So I steal the medicine from a pharmacy whose managers will not even notice that it is gone. Is stealing the medicine in this circumstance the right thing or the wrong thing to do?

We can discuss this case in terms of my decision as a moral agent—whether I am a thief and villain, a rescuer and a hero, or both. Ethical questions are frequently raised as dilemmas such as this one. In many situations, there is a genuine need to choose between two competing and compelling claims, and ethical reasoning can help to sort these out. But we can also expand the inquiry to ask a broader question beyond the narrow question of whether to steal or not to steal. We can also ask: What kind of community denies medicine to sick people who cannot afford it? Is there something unfair or unethical about this system?

To further illustrate this third dimension, it is useful to note the distinction between charity and philanthropy. Charity is the duty to attend to immediate and acute human suffering. Charity translates to feeding the hungry, tending to the sick and destitute, providing relief to victims of natural and man made disasters, and giving shelter to the homeless. Philanthropy is something different—it is an endeavor that reaches above and beyond the imperatives of charity. Philanthropy explores new ways of living, new ideas and institutions to improve society.

While this distinction may sound abstract, a philanthropist like Andrew Carnegie was specific and practical in his interpretation. Carnegie believed that new institutions could improve public policy. Specifically, as an advocate for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts and disputes, Carnegie supported the mediation and arbitration movement that grew out of Geneva in the mid-19th century. The idea was simple yet profound. Just as legal mechanisms were created to arbitrate disputes in domestic society it should be possible to create similar mechanisms in international society for the same purpose. The concept of international law and organization was gaining momentum at the beginning of the 20th century—the movement merely needed new institutions to give it shape and force. In this spirit, Carnegie financed the building of the Peace Palace at The Hague, supported the establishment of the International Court of Justice, and lobbied for the establishment of the League of Nations. Carnegie devoted much of his philanthropy—and his personal energy—to promoting these new institutions and the ideas behind them.

As the Carnegie example illustrates, the third dimension of ethics expands the range of choices we have in front of us. It creates new possibilities. Sometimes genuine dilemmas are unavoidable—and there is no escape from tragic choices. But at other times we can and should use our creative talents to imagine alternate scenarios, to build new institutions and organizations, and to manufacture better options.

Realism Reconsidered

A hundred years ago Andrew Carnegie thought international relations was about to change forever. War would be abolished. Just as private war in the form of dueling had passed from the scene, so too would the slaughters of public war become a relic of a bygone age. Carnegie believed in moral progress. He had adopted a version of Social Darwinism popularized by Herbert Spencer: the world was evolving in a positive direction, attitudes and expectations were changing for the better. He had good reason to think this way. In his lifetime, slavery had been abolished and the industrial revolution was beginning to bring benefits to society in health, education, and personal opportunity. Living conditions were improving for the burgeoning middle classes and he was going to do his part to make a difference.

Despite the influence of idealists like Carnegie, the history of Western thought on interstate relations is dominated by the realist model.3 From the beginning of recorded history, the inevitable centrality of power as the key element of politics was understood. As the Athenian generals put it in Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian wars, "The strong do what they will, the weak do what they must." Machiavelli built on this idea, advising the Prince that state rulers must not be under any illusions—power and interests are the controlling variable of politics. According to Machiavelli, the good ruler must learn how to manipulate power to serve his own ends, and therefore, the best interests of the state. Thomas Hobbes later added to Machiavelli's observations with his version of the Leviathan in which he describes life in the state of nature as "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short."

Realists are well known for their profound skepticism over the possibilities for moral action. This skepticism stems from both their assessment of human nature and their observation of political life itself. According to realist theory, human nature has within it an animus dominandi—a will to power. In international society, this will to power combines with a lack of central authority and enforcement mechanisms to create a perpetual security dilemma. No one feels safe; the world is seen as a zero-sum game where one nation's benefit is always another nation's loss. As a consequence, power maximization—and therefore enhanced security—becomes all important. In this environment almost all actions are seen as necessities. Such a world leaves little room for choice.

As commonplace as it is, this simple version of realism does not explain everything. There is a competing account of international relations theory commonly referred to as the liberal internationalist model. This model has illustrious intellectual roots in the likes of Erasmus, Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant. For liberals, the human condition is subject to improvement. Man is not fated to engage in conflict—reason and the rational application of universal principles offer a potential path to a harmonious social order. In the liberal world there is no inevitable animus dominandi that is not subject to potential amelioration. The will to power exists, but it can be tamed. It can be guided by rationality and principles of moral duty.

Generally thought of as heirs to the Enlightenment (although their roots can be traced to earlier times), liberals strive for human progress. They believe in the possibilities of social institutions—institutions that are created by the imperatives of morality and sustained by rational principles. Liberals place great faith in the positive effects of education and other social institutions (such as legal systems) that promote individual fulfillment and social harmony.

The liberal version of 20th century history focuses on institutional developments. From the League of Nations to the United Nations, from the International Court of Justice to the International Criminal Court, progress has been made to expand the analogy of "rule of law" from the domestic sphere to the international sphere—just as Carnegie hoped for. As Robert Jackson writes in The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States a set of norms has been established, widely recognized by all states, shaping the parameters of acceptable behavior in international politics. Among these norms are sovereign equality of states, expectation to refrain from using force, non-intervention, self-determination, and respect for human rights. We see these norms in action in organizations and regimes ranging from The Law of the Sea to the World Trade Organization (WTO). We also see them in various components of the UN system, especially through its alphabet soup of agencies: UNDP (development) UNEP (environment); WHO (health) and so on. The norms generated in these institutions are often not binding and frequently in conflict, yet they do offer a guiding framework.

In the first decades of the 21st century international institutions and international law remain relatively weak. As the realists would put it, international society is still primitive. It suffers from a lack of coherence, cohesiveness, and consensus. It also lacks political will and independent military power. Liberal internationalism is, at best, an incomplete project.

But for all of the shortcomings of the liberal internationalist model in both concept and performance, a simple realist account is equally deficient. Realism alone cannot account for enormous and influential shifts in expected and required behavior. Norms have shifted, especially in areas of labor rights, human rights, and the treatment of the natural world. Many of these norms are not universally accepted; but it is safe to say that over the past hundred years, we have seen wider and deeper recognition and acceptance of norms such as prohibitions against child labor, expectations of the equal treatment of women, and the duty to preserve and protect the natural environment.

An ethical approach to international affairs begins with the realist's insights about power and human nature. Realism rightly points out that nations will act in their own interests, and that they are correct to do so. But the ethical approach goes beyond these insights to account for the very real weight of conscience, principle, responsibility, and restraint in decision-making.

A recent book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, suggests that conscience and principle may be having an effect on an issue as fundamental and intractable as armed conflict. Pinker argues that deaths due to war and conflict have decreased since the end of the Cold War. Empirical study shows that despite perception and conventional wisdom, the global death toll due to violent conflict is trending downward. He asserts that norms and institutions have de-legitimized the instruments of industrial war (not to mention nuclear war) and suggests that we may actually be living through an era of measurable moral progress. War may be evolving into a much more restrained practice than the total wars of the 20th century. War as we know it may begin to look more like policing (coercive force used selectively to maintain order) than the all-out massive slaughters we have become accustomed to. The first decades of the 21st century will put this hypothesis to the test.


Ethics does its work in the world by granting and withdrawing legitimacy. History shows that the mitigation and cessation of unjust practices ultimately comes from the assertion of core values. The end of slavery began with various revolutions and rebellions—yet the source of its ultimate demise was its loss of moral legitimacy. Communism, for the most part, ended in similar fashion. The Soviet Union collapsed when the values that held it together were no longer credible and sustainable. Its legitimacy evaporated. The same could be said of apartheid South Africa. There has been more regime change in recent years because of the power of principles rather than the power of the gun.

Surely, legitimacy played a critical role in the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East. Mubarak, Qaddafi and other Arab leaders faced a tipping point. When their rule and their regimes became perceived as illegitimate, this illegitimacy became the decisive force for change.

New struggles for legitimacy can be found everywhere. We see normative consensus forming rejecting the tactic of terrorism. We see movement on the need to address climate change. We see new initiatives to shore up the so-called nuclear taboo and to move toward radical reductions in the number of nuclear weapons. We see strong voices rejecting genocide and promoting humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. We see robust responses to issues of global health. We see serious attention given to the status of women. We see concern for global poverty and the plight of the least well off expressed in the aspirations of the UN's Millennium Development goals. All of these issues are gaining normative legitimacy. They are providing leverage for action. They are even changing the way that individuals, corporate entities and nations perceive their own interests. But progress will take time, and debate around these issues will be the battleground for some time to come.


The core of ethics and international affairs can be accessed through three normative concepts: pluralism; rights and responsibilities; and fairness. A standard method of inquiry would begin with description of a normative issue and proceed through an analysis of the moral arguments and the justifications it engenders. Returning to the theme of non-perfection, it is important to emphasize given that there are multiple views of what is good, then it follows that some disagreements on both ends and means are inevitable. Often the best we can do it to document places where parties agree to disagree.


Ideology presents a significant hurdle. Many political ideologies—"isms" and doctrines that are absolute and universal—result in what Hans Morgenthau called "the crusading spirit." Absolutes and moral abstractions in politics can be problematic for the ethicist. Ideologies like nationalism, Marxism, communism, religious fundamentalism and even Western liberalism in the wrong hands, have been great simplifiers, prone to excesses of political operators who use them to cloak their political interests in the guise of high-minded moral purpose.

Ideology and moral abstractions in politics tend to lead to what philosophers call a monism: a commitment to a single unified doctrine. Historians point out that monisms in politics have long been a road to ruin. The atrocities of the 20th century are largely attributed to the monisms of the fascists and the communists (Hitler, Stalin, Mao)—utopians all, each with a universal project that would entertain no resistance.

Moral aspirations never stand outside of the context of power and interests. Woodrow Wilson's post-World War I dream to "make the world safe for democracy" by instituting collective security through a League of Nations was indeed a laudable, moral goal, as was Carnegie's similar dream before the war. But Carnegie and Wilson missed an important point. The aspiration alone was not enough. Nations act on their perceived interests. Collective security depends on all nations within the system to see their interests the same way—to see the same threats, and to be willing the pay similar costs in blood and treasure. This wasn't the case then, and it's not yet the case now.

As a nation with deep Calvinist roots, the political discourse of the United States is filled with moral language and images, and its political culture demands a moral dimension. We hear of America as exemplar: as the "city on a hill." We hear of America as redeemer: the champion of human rights and democracy. American political leaders regularly refer to the United States a moral nation, whether it is Jimmy Carter's policies of human rights promotion, Ronald Reagan's targeting of the Soviet "evil empire," or George W. Bush's "Freedom Agenda."

Yet it is important to note that purity, whether it is in the service of human rights, the just war, or the promotion of democracy, just isn't possible. Those who look for it always come to grief by the hands of their own moral certainty. Utopian thinking always fails because it does not conform to the realities of lived experience. Think of the utopian novels: Animal Farm, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. All utopias end in dystopia. Why? They fail because they attempt to perfect the imperfectible.

Moral arguments are not won by ascribing moral motives to one side and evil deeds to another. Moral standing is achieved by understanding difficult choices between competing moral claims and recognizing that tradeoffs and uneasy compromises are often necessary. The Native American Cherokee parable summarizes this idea in a single image. We all have two wolves within us, one good and the other evil. There is a struggle between them. Which one will win? As the parable says, the one that wins will be the one that we feed. We can never eradicate the evil we see in the world, just as we can never eradicate the evil capacities that lay dormant within each and every person.

American pluralism is based on the idea that the nation is working "toward a more perfect union;" and as the cliché goes, it is about the journey, not the destination. The United States is a nation born in sin—slavery marked it from the beginning. Even the "good" wars demanded terrible costs: the use of the atomic weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is perhaps the most dramatic reminder. A moral approach takes on these difficult cases, confronts them, and challenges the simplified, sentimental, and utopian versions of the story. Moral actors are willing to reckon with consequences, be accountable, and be open to self-criticism and self-correction.4

The moralists and monists of the past century and recent years missed a sense of proportion and contingency in their responses to the evils and injustices they have seen. No single moral imperative can make a citizen's or a statesman's choices automatic. Pluralism is the term used to recognize the irreconcilable nature of many of the moral claims that motivate us. Pluralism is empathy for diversity while recognizing what is common in the human experience. Pluralism is a pragmatic approach as compared to the ideological approach we see from the purveyors of moral clarity, whether they be war-on-terror advocates on the political right or human rights advocates on the political left.

We feel the full weight of pluralism when we view a great work of art or read a classic text. Through these encounters, we can understand the experiences and the value systems of others. We enter into another world and experience part of it as others do. As Isaiah Berlin puts it, monism holds that "only one set of values is true, all others are false." Relativism holds that "my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right."5 Pluralism rejects both monism and relativism, charting a course of its own.

In response to Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, paints a compelling portrait of pluralism in action. The essence of his argument is captured in the title of his book, The Dignity of Difference. Sacks's portrait is especially noteworthy because it comes from a man of religious faith. While many people of religious faith are monists of one sort or another, Sacks is a determined pluralist. Using the Bible story of the Tower of Babel as his illustration, Sacks tells of the attempt to bring the entire world together to speak one language and follow a single operating system:

God saw that Babel was…the first totalitarianism, the first imperialism, the first attempt at fundamentalism. How am I defining fundamentalism here? I would say it is an attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world. And having seen the building of the Tower as attempted fundamentalism, God confused the languages of humanity at Babel and said, "From here on there will be many languages, many cultures, many civilizations, and I want you to live together in peace."

Thus God calls on one man, one nation, to be different in order to teach all humanity the dignity of difference. God lives in difference, and the proof is that his people are given that mission to be different.

This commentary emphasizes the paradox of pluralism. Humanity is shared as a common experience. Yet what unites us is the fact of our differences. And so, Sacks embraces diversity while reminding us of our essential sameness. When this idea is put to work in arranging social institutions, the premium is on managing differences. The goal is not to make everyone the same; it is rather to find ways to build on basic commonalities, live with differences and to escape the all controlling moral dogmas that frequently shape our lives.

Rights and Responsibilities

Rights are protections and entitlements in relation to corresponding duties and responsibilities. There have been many attempts at forging general agreement on the composition of human rights—the best known being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and additional international agreement such as the Refugee Convention. The challenge with arguing for rights and responsibilities as an essential concept for the study of ethics and international affairs is that while we can achieve agreement at levels of high abstraction, the agreement begins to fray as we get down to cases. This is because at some point in the analysis, arguments become political—they become about differing values and interests. This realization need not be debilitating. But it does speak to challenge of forging moral agreement in ways that are actionable in policy terms.

The concept of rights has within it a suggestion of universality—a universal moral sense based on sympathy and mutuality. In preparing for the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947-48, the philosopher Jacques Maritain famously wrote, "We agree on these rights on the condition that no one asks us why." Pragmatists have argued that in the end, foundational arguments, that is, where rights come from, may not really matter. Simple, factual observation of the need for human rights and the work that human rights arguments do to provide protections may be sufficient. After all, the facts of the genocides and gulags in such recent memory should be sufficient to make the case that protections are needed. The argument is simple. As Michael Ignatieff puts it: Why rights? Well, where would we be without them? The sad historical experiences of genocide and tyranny suggest that rights offer protection from the de-humanization that fuels gross injustices and deadly conflicts.6 When a person or group is seen as less than human—when they are not bearers of basic rights—exploitation often follows.

Despite unending controversies over the origin, standing, and composition of rights, one aspect seems widely accepted. That is, any rights claim implies a corresponding set of duties and responsibilities. The assignment of duties and responsibilities is especially relevant to the study of globalization. One way to clarify the issue of responsibility is to consider rights claims in terms of "perfect" and "imperfect" obligations. Perfect obligations are specific and direct. For example, we have the perfect obligation not to torture. Imperfect obligations are more general, less specific, and inexactly targeted. So in the case of torture, there is the requirement to consider the ways and means through which torture can be prevented.. The exercise of an imperfect duty such as preventing torture is far from altruism. It should be self-evident that it would be in one's own self-interest to live in a world where torture is not permitted.

Looking at global concerns today there are several obvious cases where both direct and indirect participation in the causing and alleviating of harms is inevitable. Whether it is the global economy, the global climate, or in areas such as humanitarian relief and the "responsibility to protect," there is no dodging the questions. We are all connected by virtue of economic integration, climate conditions, and the real-time flow of information. Who will lead in addressing collective action problems? Who will play supporting roles? Who will design and create new arrangements? What about the role of individual citizens acting outside of state institutions? These questions about fair contribution are open-ended, but inevitable, given concern over rights and responsibilities. If international politics were about power and power only, these questions of responsibility would not be debated so seriously. But they are. So indeed, ethics matter.


Fairness addresses normative standards for appropriate contribution, equal regard and just desert. Contemporary methods for thinking through these standards include John Rawls's "difference principle," Amartya Sen's "capabilities approach," Peter Singer's "one world," and Kwame Anthony Appiah's "cosmopolitanism" just to name a few.7

Ideas about fairness are highly subjective and heavily influenced by circumstances. In the study of international affairs, fairness is a tool to critique social arrangements. The concept of fairness signals concern for the least well off, points to imbalances of prerogative and privilege, and helps us to understand the bases for legitimacy within social and political entities.

Much of the literature on fairness is found in the sub-field of distributive justice. Distributive justice is concerned with mechanisms for the fair division of goods. Rawls famously offers his "veil of ignorance" as a thought experiment to help answer this question. Ronald Dworkin suggests a "social insurance model" in a similar vein.8 Michael Walzer captures the main challenge in his depiction of "complex equality." As Walzer puts it, "The regime of complex equality is the opposite of tyranny. It establishes a set of relationships such that domination is impossible. In formal terms, complex equality means that no citizens standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good." He then goes on to elaborate on the three essential principles of distributive justice: free exchange, desert, and need.9

On the global level, fairness implies at least a minimal amount of empathy and reciprocity. As a normative concern, fairness suggests that what is good for you is often linked to be what is good for others involved. This is the nature of complex problems and decisions. It is not hard to see this connection in light of pressing issues like climate change, public health concerns like AIDS or SARS, and global poverty issues where the fate of those hundreds of millions of people living on less than $2 per day is entwined with the fate of the more developed world.

Fairness may become an increasingly relevant element of public policy. Complex systems enabled by global integration require significant elements of reciprocity and "other regarding" behaviors to be sustainable. There will many opportunities—in fact, there will be many necessities—that will require cooperation and "non-zero" thinking. The non-zero approach, championed by Robert Wright, emphasizes win-win outcomes over winner-take-all strategies. In the increasingly globally interconnected world in which we live such an approach requires fair contribution to collective action challenges and recognition of the interests of others. Wright's work is itself a contribution to a potential normative shift in the direction of enhanced cooperation around issues of common concern.10

Normative Shift

The aim of ethics and international affairs is not to set the stage for world government. Schemes for world government have foundered on basic and by now well-understood structural challenges. Rather, an understanding of ethics and international affairs should help us evolve within the structures we have already built and suggest new arrangements where necessary, feasible and compatible with local support. In the street-fight that is often the reality of international affairs, there should be moral minimums (things to be avoided) as well as desired outcomes (global aspirations). The aim should be to create a sense of direction.

In his book, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the 20th Century, historian Jay Winter writes of "minor utopias," or "moments of possibility" when new ideas moved from the margin to the center of public life, each suggesting a better future on a global scale. Examples include 1919 when self-determination came into its own; 1948 when human rights became an international standard; 1968 when the idea of liberation launched student movements around the world; and 1992 when the concept of global citizenship gained notoriety in a variety of international forums. Each moment of possibility introduced a new principle to be reckoned with. Each changed the way the world was understood.

Are we looking at another moment of possibility now? Maybe so. This moment is being leveraged by leaders more clear-eyed and realistic than many of their predecessors. There are many examples of normative shift in emergence. We see it in areas such as security, climate and education. Projects are springing up that are ambitious but incremental. The purpose of each is to change expectations to reflect the demands of a global ethic.

In considering the security agenda, there is the example of former Senator Sam Nunn the leader of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the engine behind the Global Zero campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The campaign was started by Nunn along with George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger to confront the alarming fact that disarmament and non-proliferation has not proceeded as efficiently as these Cold War leaders had hoped. NTI develops new strategies and new partnerships to work toward the reduction of nuclear threats and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Whether they reach their ultimate goal of abolition or not, "Global Zero" has entered the consciousness of a new generation of strategists, policy makers, and concerned citizens.

The climate agenda has generated numerous examples of a global ethic in the making. One of the most promising is the C40 Climate Leadership Group co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. C40 is an organization that brings together the leaders of the world's largest cities to share best practices on local efforts that will help to address climate change globally The C40 works by "planning and measuring the impact of local initiatives that reduce emissions from energy, waste, water supply and transport, and policies that increase cities' resilience to climate change." The C40 creates a forum for leaders from Helsinki to Hong Kong, Beijing to Berlin. These chief executives share information and policy ideas in areas ranging from green building codes and weatherization programs to low emission transport systems and seawater heating initiatives.

The education agenda is similarly well-positioned to evolve, energized by the possibilities of instant world-wide communication. A prime example is Professor Michael Sandel who is leveraging this opportunity by taking his Harvard lectures on "Justice" to online audiences around the world. In a recent New York Times column he is quoted as saying, "Students everywhere are hungry for discussion of the big ethical questions we confront in our everyday lives ….My dream is to create a video-linked global classroom, connecting students across cultures and national boundaries — to think through these hard moral questions together, to see what we can learn from one another. With this initiative and others like it, education has reached a new stage. A truly educated person in the 21st century will have to take account of ideas and information from sources around the world.

How will we know when new norms might be making a difference? Meaningful normative shifts toward accepting a global ethic will shape personal identity. Individuals in even the most remote locations will begin see themselves as part of a global economy, a global climate, and a global information system. Values and priorities will evolve to take into account global-level concerns. Zero-sum thinking will begin to give way in some circumstances. Political and social arrangements will evolve. More and more, systems and structures will be designed to align with global expectations while preserving local autonomy and flavor.

Done well, ethics and international affairs in the 21st century would inspire, not legislate; it would offer insight not rules and regulations. Its goal would not be to make everyone the same or impose consensus. It would be, rather, to preserve liberty and diversity by recognizing a new reality and norms that must come along with it.

A moral world is not the same as a world in which everyone acts with perfect ethical result. This is not possible. However, it is possible to have a world in which the idea of morality is central to decision making. If we can create a world where pluralism, responsibility, and fairness are taken seriously, then the study of ethics and international affairs may indeed be a useful and practical art.


1 Simon Blackburn, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 4.
2 Isaiah Berlin, "The First and the Last," New York Review of Books, (May 14, 1998).
3 Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986, 6th edition); John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).
4 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
5 Isaiah Berlin, "The First and the Last."
6 Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
7 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, (New York: Norton, 2006).
8 Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
9 Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality , (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
10 Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Pantheon, 2000).