From the Margins to the Mainstream: A Blueprint for Ethics and International Affairs

May 6, 2004

Originally published on May 6, 2004.

The Carnegie Council’s 90th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on where the Council has come from and where it is now. At the start of the 21st century, discussion of ethics and international affairs is no longer the exclusive province of religious leaders and scholars, as it was in Andrew Carnegie’s day. The Council’s work – ranging from just war to human rights – has moved from the margins to the mainstream.

In the March/April we excerpted a lecture by Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal to the Council’s Young Associates. Here we continue that lecture, focusing on the Council’s current agenda. An edited transcript of his remarks appears below.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: For me, the way into the study of ethics and international affairs begins with the concept of choice. Ethics is a reflection on the choices one makes and the values that come into play when making those choices: how do you justify your decisions? It’s the weighing up of competing moral claims.

I can get up here and say, “Peace is better than war,” “Life is better than death” – such aphorisms are relatively easy to deliver. And while it’s important to remind ourselves about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – doctrines like this are a kind of touchstone – in terms of the Carnegie Council’s work, ethics is more of an untidy process. We’re not here to be the moral report card for the world: “This is ethical; this is not.” Rather, we’re here to reflect on how to choose and how to imagine better options.

There are many challenges to approaching ethics in this way, particularly as it applies to international affairs. I’m going to focus on four of them today.

1) CULTURAL RELATIVISM: To what extent can norms for international affairs be considered universal?

All of us belong to groups – professional groups, nation-states, civilizations – whose members adhere to common behavioral standards or norms. It is with reference to these norms that we make our judgments about right and wrong. But what happens when we try to interact with groups whose members operate with a different set of normative principles? How do we decide who is right? Part of our work at the Council consists of exploring the normative differences that affect the conduct of international politics. Some of the most dramatic examples are women’s issues. How is it that some traditional societies deem it appropriate, even obligatory, to engage in female genital mutilation? What is the process by which such a practice is considered legitimate, and how can those of us who care about human rights respond to that?

Another well-known example is the phenomenon of honor killing within traditional, primarily Islamic, societies. People within these societies tend to view this practice as a legitimate means of enforcing their code of sexual mores. How do we deal with that and what strategies can we use to de-legitimize it?

Given our approach, one of my greatest fears is going too far down the road towards cultural relativism. We don’t want to let just any moral claim in the door, to give into the temptation to say “anything goes.” That is not our intent. Our idea is, rather, to help people reflect on various moral claims and then to make enlightened decisions on where they stand. 2)

HUMAN RIGHTS: To what extent does an individual’s right to freedom conflict with the obligation of governments to provide order?

Human rights has been the revolution of the past fifty years. What’s amazing is that people today have a hard time grasping the significance of how far we’ve come.

In 1948, Professor Morgenthau wrote Politics Among Nations, which became the standard textbook for international relations at colleges and universities throughout the United States. In the index of that book the term “human rights” does not appear. Think about that. The field of international relations didn’t even have the concept of human rights, because individuals and their claims were not the subject of international affairs. The discipline was about the relations among states. It was taken for granted that we live in a world of sovereign states, each of which has authority over its own affairs, over what happens within its territorial borders.

But then around the time of the Council’s founding, an agreement was reached establishing sovereignty as contingent on self-determination. This principle later became enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another watershed in human rights history was Nuremberg. The Nuremberg trials established individual accountability for acts taken in the name of the state.

Thus the study of international relations is no longer just about relations between states; there are also certain human rights claims. At least in theory, what happens within states matters.

3) JUST INTERVENTION: To what extent do we have a moral responsibility to promote human rights norms and to intervene in the affairs of “failed” or “rogue” states?

We have reached an extraordinary moment in the development of international relations as a field. The norm of state sovereignty, on which most of the literature rests, is evolving. On one end of the spectrum we have failed states like Afghanistan; on the other end, we have nations that threaten world security, such as Iraq and North Korea. What is the best way to handle so-called failed or rogue states?

Another way of casting this issue is in terms of the politics of rescue: what kinds of responsibilities do we have to protect minorities, to rescue people who are being oppressed within states?

During the 1990s, many people were concerned about genocide and ethnic cleansing within the former Yugoslavia. They argued that if people are killing each other just because of their race, then the international community has a right to go in and stop the atrocities because of what the UN Charter says about human rights claims. Under these conditions, a state forfeits its right to sovereignty.

Today there is also growing support for the right to intervene in the affairs of states that possess weapons of mass destruction and are threatening to use them against others. This was one in the basket of arguments for justifying the war in Iraq.

4) MORAL RESPONSIBILITY AND “AGENCY”: Which actors are making the choices that affect other groups, and how do you hold them accountable?

The increasing power of non-state actors in world affairs – whether you’re dealing with genocide or social justice issues – has made it much more challenging to identify moral responsibility. In other words, it’s no longer enough to hold states accountable; you also have to look at informal political networks, corporations, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Today when we think about ethics, we have to think about agency. Multinational corporations are not nation states, but they are an incredibly powerful economic force. We can’t underestimate their power to bring certain resources to bear on situations and to shape labor and environmental standards. NGOs, too, have become a force to be reckoned with, particularly in the field of humanitarian aid. We should be asking the same questions of these actors as we do of states: who are their stakeholders, what are their norms, and to whom are they accountable?

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