Launched in December 2005, the Ethics in a Violent World initiative aims to engage scholars, policymakers, and concerned citizens in debate about the ethical background and choices that always inform the international institutions regulating war and peace. This year, our focus is on three institutions of intense public concern:


  • UN Reform and Collective Security

  • The establishment of the International Criminal Court

  • U.S. judiciary's relationship to international law and its enforcement


In the 2004 presidential election, American voters consistently cited "values" as among the most important factors in their political decision-making. The "values" debate lacked, however, an important international dimension, as it tended to focus on issues of private morality. The Ethics in a Violent World initiative seeks to extend citizens' deep-seated and pervasive concern for values to an understanding of American foreign policy. This can be done through clarifying and strengthening the public's intuitive sentiment that international institutions can be a force for the public good, both at home and abroad. Not only do 62 percent of Americans favor participation in the United Nations, but 69 percent believe, more specifically, that the UN brings legitimacy to the use of military force.1 58 percent of Americans want the United States to support the International Criminal Court (ICC).2 And, on the issue of torture, 88 percent of Americans favor having international laws govern how a country must treat an individual it has detained in a time of war.3


Yet this general support for international institutions that govern violent conflict has not translated into policy action. The United States has recently launched a war in defiance of the Security Council and has appointed an ambassador to the UN who has consistently criticized that institution; it rejects recognition of the ICC; and the dominant thinking of U.S. judges is that international law is not enforceable in U.S. courts, even when the United States has agreed to abide by that law.


The Ethics in a Violent World initiative highlights the competing moral priorities at work in the design and interpretation of international institutions that regulate conflict—and it encourages citizens and policymakers to believe that they can contribute to positive change through supporting these institutions, however critically.