This is the first of six lectures delivered by Carnegie Council president Joel Rosenthal at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Tufts University, over the 2000–2001 academic year.

How I Got Here: A Story from the 70s and 80s
What is Ethics? Some Definitions
The Oxymoron Problem
The Relativism Problem
The Agency Problem
The Vocabulary Problem: Multiple Sources, Multiple Languages of Ethics
The Application Process
Where and How Ethics Matter
The Development of the Field


Perhaps the most difficult problem in ethics and international affairs is defining it. What analytical frameworks are available? From where do they arise? Can we propose an approach that is interdisciplinary, rigorous, and that helps us to deal with urgent policy matters?

In this first lecture, I begin by revealing the roots of my own interest in these matters, providing some essential definitions of terms and concepts, and then addressing the four major challenges confronting the analyst who wants to use the ethical approach: the challenges of realism, relativism, agency, and vocabulary. After this necessary ground-clearing operation, I will discuss the development of the field in the past 50 years and how we might build on it to address the most critical issues of our times.

HOW I GOT HERE: A story from 70s and 80s

I first became interested in the topic of "ethics and international affairs" as a high school student in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter had just been elected president. The United States was trading in the Vietnam War and Watergate for human rights. Just as Carter was taking the high road, morally speaking, to be followed by Reagan who ceded no ground to Carter as a moralist of his own stripe (you remember the "evil empire"), I began my own serious study of U.S. history. What I found was not as attractive as I hoped it would be. The story of America was, as my immigrant grandparents had led me to believe, the story of a moral nation. I still believe this. Yet as I read and explored, I soon saw that the myths my grandparents lived by needed unpacking, or dare I say it, deconstructing. The moral nation was not founded solely on the heroism and benevolence of explorers, entrepreneurs, farmers, shop workers, factory workers and immigrants, although heroes to me they still are. No, the moral nation came about through difficult choices between competing moral claims; through sometimes ugly and tragic confrontation at home and abroad; through struggles over power and interest that were often cast in terms of morality, even (and perhaps especially) when naked self-interest was at the core. The story was a heroic one, but for different reasons than I thought at first.

My interest deepened later in college and graduate school when I encountered the work of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The mere titles of two of his books caught my imagination. The first, The Irony of American History, expressed my own thinking in ways I could not articulate at the time. Niebuhr showed me that the story of America was best understood not as separate from the experience of human history, but as part of it. For all of its exceptionalism and difference, the American nation and the American people could never escape the realities of political and financial power, prejudice, and natural human tendencies to seek advantage at the expense of others. What America did best, according to Niebuhr, was to restrain power when necessary, and, over time, channel it into areas of much needed reform. Later when I read Louis Hartz's ode to American exceptionalism, The Liberal Tradition in America, the picture became even clearer.

The second title from Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, spoke to me on a more personal level. How is it possible to be a good person in a sinful and recalcitrant world? Niebuhr showed me two things in this book. First, that there is indeed a logic of group organization and behavior that must be understood in all of its complexity. One cannot translate one's own individual moral impulses directly into social life. As Machiavelli taught previously, Christian ethics is frequently aimed at the perfection of the individual, while the law of Republican Rome is aimed at the power and glory of the body politic. Niebuhr showed me how and why it was irresponsible—if not immoral—to deny the differences between these two level of ethical thinking. The truly moral course required an acute sense of political reality, ultimate consequences, and humility. Second, Niebuhr illustrated the irresponsibility and danger of assuming that reason would always prevail in clashes between values and interests. Faith in reason, technology, and progress did not stop the communists, fascists, or later, or the Nazis. In fact, this faith in rationality and progress enabled their rise to power. From Niebuhr I learned that utopianism was to be feared rather than admired. Here I began to understand the plight of the Cold War liberals I so admired. Their goal, as they saw it, was to develop the "vital center" of American democracy, holding off the utopianism of communism on the left, and fascism on the right. Power and morality were two sides of the same coin. The first lesson for the would-be moralist was to absorb this very point.

My interest in these topics deepened in graduate school when I began teaching American politics and foreign policy. My students were most interested in the moral questions. Should the United States have used atomic weapons against Japan in 1945? Was the policy of nuclear deterrence known as mutual assured destruction (MAD) morally defensible? Was the Vietnam war a just war? Was the United States obliged to promote human rights around the world? These questions led me to a deeper inquiry into the intellectual roots of American foreign policy. What resources were available from the great scholars and statesmen? What frameworks had been established? Here I found a treasure trove of writing representing a variety of views ranging from liberal internationalists writing in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson to the realists following in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt.

As I went in deeper and deeper, I saw that a historical approach was helpful, but it did not do the whole job. As a historian, I could understand context and contingency, and I could trace the development thought, the history of ideas that inform the moral dimension of international affairs. What I did not have was any theoretical framework to make moral judgments. I had no framework for making judgments synchronically, that is, within the time frame of the case itself, according to how the actors perceived their situations at the moment of decision. Nor did have any method available to make judgments diachronically, that is, across the span of history. I saw that I needed help from other disciplines. I needed help from philosophy, political science, religious studies, and anywhere else I could find it. I have been looking for this help for the past ten years in my work at the Carnegie Council. The Council has turned out to be an ideal place for me to do this. All of the work at the Council is interdisciplinary, interprofessional, international, and interfaith: we call this the four "I's." The four I's go a long way my own approach to ethics and international affairs.

  • Interdisciplinary (Multidisciplinary). Interdisciplinary stems from the belief that the study of human behavior as it relates to complex social problems is enhanced by drawing upon the insights and analytical methods of a variety of disciplines. After all, what is international relations if not a careful blend of political science, history, law, economics, and area expertise, although I once had a smug friend who insisted the IR is nothing but slightly defective history! For those of us involved in ethics and IR, the circle extends even wider than usual for IR students, encompassing philosophers, theologians, students of religion, and others. The goal is to create a vocabulary, a common agenda, and literally, the intellectual space for those of different disciplines to come together. The idea is not to dilute or merge together several disciplines into one; rather it is to draw upon what is best in each discipline and make it accessible outside of the narrow confines to which it is usually relegated. Political scientists, historians, philosophers, and others are asked to draw upon what is best from their own disciplinary perspective to bring it to bear on issues that span across the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. To have truly competent analyses of policies on, say, environmental matters, biotechnology, or global economic problems, one needs to draw upon the talents of scientists, engineers, politicians, and local actors. In today's world, very few policy issues can be dealt with adequately within the bounds of a single discipline.
  • Interprofessional. Good theory responds to practice, and good practitioners care deeply about the theoretical premises and operating assumptions that shape their work. In order to have sound thinking on medical ethics, it is important to have the input of doctors with clinical experience. Similarly, in order to have sound thinking on issues such as peace operations or humanitarian intervention, it is important to have input from those with on-the-ground experience: soldiers, diplomats, and NGO leaders. Ethics and international affairs is where theory and practice meet. Ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse are translated into policy. For me, normative thinking cannot be thought of in isolation of empirical facts. For that reason, interprofessionalism is central. In a new twist to an old cliché, one could say that just as war is too important to be left to the generals, ethics is too important to be left to the philosophers and academicians.
  • International. There is a great temptation to rely on one's own experiences and intuitions in making moral and ethical judgments. Is there any way to check these impulses to make the process less idiosyncratic and more systematic and objective? One way to address this problem of personalism and ethnocentrism is to make one's orientation international or global from the start. By including different voices from different ethnic and national traditions, one has built-in exogenous tests for the validity of any one position or claim. Niebuhr reminds us of the necessity for humility in making moral claims; there is nothing worse than self-righteous moralism. By listening to voices outside of our own experience, we learn not just about the other, but also more deeply about ourselves. In encountering foreign or "other" points of view, we necessarily see our own positions reflected back, providing us with a natural check and balance against our own egoist impulses.
  • Interfaith. There can be nothing more tragic and self-defeating than to attempt dialogue among true believers who do want it. Religious faith and belief, by its very nature, can breed exclusivity and the notion that there is one way to "truth." My interest in interfaith perspectives follows on my last point about international perspectives. Religious traditions offer enormous resources for moral judgment. Many of us call upon those resources in formal and informal ways. For us, the goal is to create a conversation, a discussion, and an inquiry where individuals and communities can bring their religiously informed moral positions to the table, offering those positions in dialogue with others. By phrasing our inquiry in terms of "ethics" rather than "religion," it might be possible to bring religious ideas and commitments to the table in ways that facilitate dialogue rather than confrontation.

The four I's do not constitute a methodology, certainly not in any socially scientific sense. Yet they do offer a basic framework and starting point for a normative approach. As my thoughts on "methodology" evolved along these lines, my original question about America as a moral nation evolved into a more fundamental question: Is it even possible to evaluate American foreign policy in terms of ethics, especially in the context of international politics where anarchical characteristics are often presumed, international standards are often in question, and there is no enforcement mechanism for international law, such as it exists? In short, even if America were a moral nation, how would we know? Who would decide such a thing? And what tools do we have to make these judgments?

I decided to begin with the one thing of which I was certain. When we reflect history and on our choices, we experience a range of responses: pride, regret, forgiveness, and shame. Ethics then, became for me the process by which we analyze the choices we make and the emotions they engender. In a sense, ethics is a thoroughly and uniquely human activity. It tells us who we are, and who we want to be.


Analytical rigor requires precision. In our case, precision depends on clarity in the definition of terms. Ethics stems from Socrates question, "How should one live?" The study of ethics is an attempt to answer the question, what is the right thing to do? What action is right rather than wrong, better rather than worse? Ethics is an investigation into the claims that have a hold on us. For me, ethics hinges on the concept of "choice." What standards do we use when we make choices and judgments? What values do we invoke and why? In studying ethics, we use reason to interrogate our own decision-making process and hierarchy of values.

The word "ethics" comes from the Greek "ethos," meaning custom, usage or character. The word "morality,' from the Latin "mores," also means custom usage and character. While ethics and morality are often used interchangeably, I find it useful to make a distinction. As one commentator has put it, the two words have "come to signify different aspects of experience."

  • Morality refers to commonly accepted rules of conduct, patterns of behavior approved by a social group, values and standards shared by the group. It consists of beliefs about what is right and good held by a community with a shared history.
  • Ethics is the critical analysis of morality. It is a reflection on morality with the purpose of analysis, criticism, and interpretation of rules, roles, and relations of a society. Ethics is concerned with the meaning of moral terms, the conditions in which decision making takes place, and the justification of the principles brought to bear in resolving conflicts and moral rules.

Because these concepts get so complicated so quickly, I think it is important to distinguish between different levels of analysis. And when we "do" ethics and international affairs, we need to be explicit about just what level we are on at any given time. We can think of ethical analysis on four levels:

  1. Metaethics. This consists of an inquiry into the meaning of concepts themselves. For example, what constitutes justice, compassion, fairness, or freedom? How do we derive such standards, and according to what criteria?
  2. Descriptive ethics. Here we study the actual ethical rules of a particular group. For example, what do Americans believe about capital punishment? How do Catholics teach euthanasia? There can be some empirical problems here in determining representative groups and texts. However, in most public policy contexts, there are at least some official texts that do provide benchmarks and points of departure.
  3. Normative Ethics. This deals with norms of behavior, of lived rules for social interaction. This would include what has been called the declaratory tradition in international affairs - the various codes, covenants, and treaties that declare certain norms to be desirable: the sovereign equality of states, the presumption of non-intervention, the fair, reciprocal treatment of diplomats, and norms of human rights as established in the Geneva conventions, the UN Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  4. Applied Ethics. This would focus on the study of a particular problem or choice to be made. There is an analogy here to medical or bioethics, business ethics or military ethics. That is, what should be done in certain situations? For example, what is the proper distribution of a scarce resource? How can one decide if he or she is supporting a just or unjust war?

So the first thing a student of ethics and international affairs has to decide is just what kind of ethics he or she is doing. As an amateur philosopher, I never touch meta ethics. I deal in the realm of the latter three categories; first, describing the worldviews of the relevant actors; second, measuring the actors' behavior against their self-professed normative standard as well as international or exogenous standards such as they exist; and third, evaluating actions in a way that accounts for particular circumstances but that connects to larger ethical traditions.

Before I talk about the larger ethical traditions we have at our disposal, let me say a word about four other conceptual hurdles that require immediate attention. Until one can vault these hurdles successfully, discussing ethics and international affairs is likely to do more harm than good.


The first hurdle is set up by the "realists" who argue that the very idea of ethics and international affairs is an oxymoron. For the prototypical arch realist, international politics is driven by the quest for national security, the pursuit interests, and the universal impulse to maximize power. This position is summed up famously in Thucydides' reference to the Athenian generals who argue that "the strong do what they will, and the weak do what they must."

The realists are quite right to look at international affairs as a study of power—primarily the "struggle for power and peace" as Hans Morgenthau put it in his twentieth century classic text, Politics Among Nations. But even the most ardent and unreconstructed realists tend to adopt a view that Hedley Bull called the "anarchical society"—a term that could also be considered an oxymoron, mixing as it does the notion of anarchy and lawlessness with the notion of a society that is bound together, however loosely, by some kind of common standards or understandings.

The first move in the study of ethics and international affairs is to show how and why vulgar realism has it wrong. As I have written elsewhere, the best way to make this move is to study the realists themselves. A close reading of their work reveals a deep preoccupation with moral questions even as they emphasize the need to privilege prudential concerns over ethical desiderata. As Hans Morgenthau put it, "The choice is not between moral principles and national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of moral principles divorced from political reality, and another set of principles derived from political reality." According to Morgenthau's formulation, the mere assertion of moral principle, absent political context, is apt to do more harm than good.

We also need to keep in mind that while most realists celebrate the primacy of politics and power, they also recognize that power must ultimately serve principle, that power in itself is no end. Even the realist asks, power in the service of what ends? Power, then, must be thought of as a means rather than as an end. "In order to be worthy of our lasting sympathy," Morgenthau once wrote, "a nation must pursue its interests for the sake of a transcendent purpose that gives meaning to the day-to-day operations of foreign policy."

The oxymoron problem can be answered, but it must be done in a way that addresses the two opposite ends of the problem. The cynicism and nihilism of the vulgar realist must be answered in a way that does not give way to the self-righteous moralism of the crusader who sees principle and principle only. For the realist the hazards of valueless nihilism are trumped only by the specter of a value-laden crusade. The truly "moral" path, for the realist, is the path that avoids both of these extremes.


Whose justice? Whose ethics? These are inevitably the questions of those who make it over the first hurdle, convinced, at least provisionally, that international affairs cannot and should not be reduced to the one-dimensional assumption that international affairs is only about the maximization of power. George Kennan states this position forthrightly when he suggests, "state behavior is not a category fit for moral judgment." He has a point. The question for us is how we square this idea with the reality of burgeoning sets of international moral norms as represented in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva conventions.

Are human rights universal? Or must they be understood as culturally specific? I take the position of Isaiah Berlin who coins the term objective pluralism. This position cedes some ground to those who favor particularism over universalism, although it is emphatically not a position of relativism. Berlin sees the necessity and wisdom of human rights as mediated by time and place, and yet he does not countenance an "anything goes" approach. For him, there is a core essence of humanity and human dignity that is not negotiable. Yet where one draws the line between acceptable and unacceptable is a difficult question. It is in the drawing of these lines where competition among claims is intense, and it is here the hard work of ethics is actually done.


If ethics is about choice and responsibility, then who or what is the target of our analysis? Until very recently, international relations has been about the relations between states. Most of our theories deal with interstate behavior; and hence, we speak of Washington and Moscow as if they are anthropomorphic actors. Individuals come into play usually in their role as statesmen.

It is no longer satisfactory to understand international politics solely as a function of interstate behavior. Non-state actors such as international organizations have gained in power and influence, as have other non-state actors such as business and NGOS. The UN and its specialized agencies now play prominent roles in issues ranging from humanitarian relief and peace operations to refugees affairs. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have new missions in the promoting economic development and in addressing poverty and even health issues. Multinational businesses enjoy immense power and privilege, especially in developing countries. This power can be used, for good or ill, to set new human rights, labor, and environmental standards. The power of NGOs is becoming increasingly apparent since the end of the cold war. NGO groups have propelled the human rights movement and brought pressure to bear on issues including the treaty to ban landmines and the drive to establish an international criminal court. Various NGOs, with varying degrees of success, are now jumping on the anti-globalization bandwagon, pressuring the World Bank, the IMF, and corporations to address the potentially deleterious economic and cultural effects of global economic integration. Individuals are no longer seen as merely citizens. Individuals are, simultaneously, citizens, consumers, and members of various transnational communities ranging from church groups to professional associations. In these various roles with overlapping and sometimes contradictory identities and allegiances, individuals can exert power in unprecedented ways.

In order to talk about ethics with any measure of coherence, one must settle the agency issue. In any given analysis, what is the target or agent of that analysis? How do various agents interact? What range of motion is possible for the agent?

I am haunted by Thomas Friedman's statement about the Internet—"Everyone is connected but no one is in charge." There is some degree of truth to this. But it is also a cop out. The Internet is a manmade structure—a social creation. As a social creation, the Internet can and should be subject to human responsibility and accountability. For those of us interested in the ethical dimension of international affairs—especially in this age of globalization, interdependence, and integration—we must find the points of agency, the points of decision making where issues of justice, fairness, and equity can be addressed.

THE VOCABULARY PROBLEM: Multiple sources, multiple languages of ethics

While no one will ever confuse me with a post-modernist who sees all of life as a language game, structuralism does present a powerful tool of analysis in calling attention to language, trope, myth, symbol, and image. Yet a major part of our ground clearing operation in "doing" ethics and international affairs must be devoted to comprehending and keeping straight the multiplicity of languages, theories, and moral stories that form our individual and collective reference points. Individuals and communities use story and myth to teach, explain, and cope with the human condition. Stories—or in the current jargon, narratives—transmit values and standards. They provide the building blocks from which we make our ethical judgments.

Complicating our task is the fact that all of us hold many different story lines and vocabularies in our head simultaneously. We inherit numerous moral and ethical traditions, both secular and religious. We also inherit countless narratives, some contradictory. Narratives compete for legitimacy, as do different moral systems. One person's narrative of America as a moral nation might highlight the achievements of a prosperous and relatively benevolent nation that has, through hard-won experience, led the world in the development of civil rights and human rights. That same person can also understand the story of this same moral nation as one filled with spasms of racism, sexism, and imperialism. Does this mean that all narratives should have equal standing? No, such blanket, uncritical acceptance would be moral equivalence of the worst sort. Facts must be established, argued over, and verified. But the fact that these different narratives do exist needs to be acknowledged and accounted for in our normative approach.

The first diagnosis we must make in analyzing ethical choice is to pinpoint the ethical tradition in which principal actors understand their situation and argue their position. In the most general and abstract terms, the sources of morality can be broken down into four major categories: deontology (duty-oriented); utilitarian (consequence-oriented); virtue (act-oriented); and religious (faith oriented). From these general categories come intermediate categories familiar to us all, represented by traditions of international ethics that include international law, realism, and liberal internationalism. Again, to emphasize my point about multiplicity of ethical traditions and the simultaneity of their use, note the inevitable hybrids that these categories suggest. It is a rare person who thinks of himself in purely categorical terms. For example, there are very few realists who do not, on occasion, appeal to aspects of international law and liberal internationalism. Our task, as mentioned previously, is to disentangle the competing and complementary claims and analyze the vocabulary that is in play, and connect these ideas to their function in politics.

Many a realist has made a career of pointing out the fecklessness of moral argument in international politics, pointing to egregious uses of rhetoric used to mask base, power considerations. Crusading moralism has done immeasurable damage, argue these same realists. Better to shelve moral argument in its entirety than to use it in cynical ways—ways that only prove hypocrisy and illustrate the inevitable gap between words and deeds.

Even the most casual observer of international politics today can see that an utter dismissal of moral argument is just not feasible. The fact is, moral argument, cynical or not, has real weight in policy terms today. Two principal moral traditions frame two central issues of international affairs today: the medieval tradition of the just war, and the thoroughly modern, if not contemporary, tradition of human rights. The question is, how can we take these ideas seriously and make them work for us in analyzing policy options?

The just war tradition comes down to us from Augustine and Aquinas, and it frames our understanding of what constitutes a moral approach to the use of force. Political pressure is such today that policy makers are obliged to make their recommendations using the terminology of just war thinking. Just cause, proper authority, reasonable chance of success, proportionality, and discrimination—these are the very tools and concepts of policy making when it comes to the use of force. It is, literally, part of our way of thinking. There are of course non-Western traditions dealing with the use of force. Jihad is probably the best known among them. Like just war, jihad is not merely a word or concept—it is a basic building block of policy.

Human rights is a relative newcomer to our lexicon. Rights, of course, were prominently mentioned in documents dating back to the Magna Charta, and had their flourishing in the French and American revolutions. But it was not until their enshrinement as human rights in the UN Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that they became a central fixture in our understanding of international politics. In fact, it is interesting to note that as late as 1948, the preeminent textbook in international relations, Politics Among Nations by Hans J. Morgenthau, did not even mention human rights in its index. It is hard to imagine a textbook today that would not have human rights prominently and frequently mentioned. Human rights has, in many ways, moved to the center of the discipline.


With all of the conceptual problems I have mentioned, how then does one "do" ethics and international affairs? Let me suggest one way in. I believe that the best approach to this topic is to be issue specific and case study oriented. One must, in a sense, get inside a case to try to solve a particular puzzle or thorny ethical dilemma. I think that it makes little sense to try to apply a theory, top down, if you will. It is ultimately unsatisfying to, say, take a utilitarian or deontological theory and then see what it means for a case like the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, a bottom up description of the case—unbounded, undirected and theory-free—is bound to be equally unsatisfying. There needs to be a back and forth motion, with the facts informing the theory, and the theory informing the facts. One must first gain a sense of how the actors perceive their own situation, understand and clarify the vocabulary they are using, and then one must also be willing to judge them across time as an outsider to their particular situation.

Again, I find inspiration in Isaiah Berlin. In describing his field as one of "human studies," he writes, "…. the rational study of man, not just as physical animal, viewed 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 tirelessly once and for all, but in his most basic, all informing, evolving—and sometimes violently transformed and clashing—concepts and categories."

For me, as for Berlin, the key to ethics and international affairs is in identifying and ultimately the judging of competing moral claims. In the real world, truth conflicts with loyalty, freedom conflicts with order, the individual conflicts with the community, justice conflicts with mercy. If you are doing ethics correctly, there will be no simple or non-controversial answers. As Berlin puts it, as soon as I find one truth, I look for another.

What I am proposing here is not positive social science. There is no method here worthy of that name, at least as far as "method" is understood in contemporary American political science. It is my considered judgment that for the normative approach that I am suggesting, it is impossible to isolate variables in ways that are meaningful, or to test hypotheses in ways that are verifiable and reproducible. It follows then that the normative approach is humanistic rather than scientific. While I do not rule out the contributions of positivist theorists who add to understanding of human behavior through their use of rational choice and collective action models, I do maintain that these theories are not sufficient in normative terms and that their findings must be placed in larger contexts.

Also helpful but insufficient is the work of those on the other end of the spectrum in the study of human behavior—the work of the so-called post-modernists. While their work is helpful in making us aware of the notion of competing narratives and the social construction of histories and identities, this mode of analysis is ultimately unsatisfactory in terms of providing tools for making ethical judgments. I would suggest that the absolute relativism (another oxymoron problem!) of the most doctrinaire post-modernists is antithetical to the normative approach, as I have defined it. Just as contemporary realists try to navigate between moralism and nihilism, so too is it necessary for us to navigate between the two poles of human studies today—the poles of hyper-rationality (rational choice), and hyper-relativism (post-modernism).


What is the pay-off for this conceptual work? The normative approach, as I have defined it, focuses on the tough matters of moral choice that are not reducible to single modes of analysis. Let's look at some examples.

Recent military operations in Kosovo raise perhaps the central IR issue of our era: human rights versus sovereignty. Should there be a new norm—humanitarian intervention? Both sovereign and human rights norms are prized and privileged by the international community. Is it time to re-think, in a systematic way, the notion that sovereignty is sacrosanct?

What threshold tests should be in place to determine when force should be used? And when force is used, what standards should be in place to govern its scope and magnitude?

Should there be international standards of justice for war criminals, or are these issues better handled on the national level. Who should make decisions on justice (punishment) versus amnesty (reconciliation), and on what basis should those judgments be made?

As the world economy continues to integrate, what standards should be in place to regulate business practices in terms of human rights, labor rights, and environmental protection? Can there be a balance between the need to promote growth and corporate profits with the need to address the radical inequality of resources and even opportunity?

On environmental matters, how does one balance the need for conservation and threat posed by global climate change with the needs of those in the developing world to use the natural resources that provide their principle means of existence?

And what of the inevitable contradictions in some of our claims? How do we respond to the Serbian human rights activist who can no longer identify herself as a human rights activist because, in her view, NATO violated human rights norms in the bombing campaign waged in the very name of human rights? How do we deal with unavoidable accusations of double standards?

The point I am making is that ethics is an integral part of how we think about internal affairs. The decisions we make and endorse have ethical motivations and ethical consequences. The language and the concepts we use are not always consistent. But it is our job to attack some of these issues in ways that are in fact consistent—along one level of analysis or another, and in one idiom or another—while not reducing them to simple, one-dimensional problems.


It is important to note that IR itself began with a normative bias. It was born, in its modern incarnation, in 1919 with the establishment of the first chair in IR at the University of Aberstwyth, Wales. E.H. Carr, who became one of the best-known analysts of the interwar period, held the chair. The discipline was founded out of the horror of World War I. Something had obviously gone terribly wrong. Those who took up the study of IR as a field thought that it was their duty to diagnose the situation and to prescribe remedies.

This sentiment prevailed through the interwar years, until World War II put to rest any prospects for building on the ideas of Wilson - ideas that favored building robust international organizations such as a League of Nations that was capable of coping with the malignant power of Nazism and fascism. Realism was a tonic; a tonic that was meant to rid the field of the "moralistic-legalistic" assumptions it was built on, and to get it to turn its attention to the study of power as it operates between states. The field has always been reformist in that it has sought to respond to real world failures. After World War II, the signal moments and issues for the field include:

  • Cold war interventions (e.g. Vietnam)
  • Post cold war interventions (humanitarian and peace operations)
  • Nuclear deterrence (MAD)
  • Environmental protection
  • Global economic issues (debt, development, distribution)
  • Human Rights

Several literary landmarks guided our way: Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars; The Roman Catholics Bishop's Letter on Nuclear War and Peace (1983); The UN Report "Our Common Future" (1983), and many others.

Within IR theory, the normative approach as suggested here has been largely shunned, particularly by the dominant idiom, neorealism. Neorealist thinking has focused primarily on structural issues within the international system, traditionally defined by the realist paradigm. The emphasis has been on parsimonious theory that seeks to isolate variables and create models of international interaction and exchange. Constructivism, a relatively new addition to international relations theory, is closer to the spirit of normative inquiry suggested here, yet it remains squarely within the positivist traditions and deals with normative issues primarily in descriptive terms.

Ethics and international affairs as outlined in the expansive way I have outlined here gives us a way to talk about both aspiration, and critique. It allows us to explore both the "ought"' and the "is." In many ways, this field is all about measuring that place in between the desirable and the possible. It enables us to look seriously at the past while also looking toward the future. I suppose for me, this is the underlying premise of the field: How can we do better? How can we respond to the failures that we see? What ends do we seek? What means should we use to pursue them? What consequences are we willing to bear? How will we choose? According to what standards?