All Options Are on the Table: Threats and Coercive Diplomacy in Foreign Affairs

September 27, 2018

Donald Trump at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly, September 2017. CREDIT: The White House/Public Domain

JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us.

The subject of this evening's discussion is diplomacy. Diplomacy covers a vast territory, and exploring its many aspects can be tricky, so for our purposes the focus will be not on the traditional diplomacy where qualities of negotiation and compromise have allowed diplomats to resolve intractable conflicts. Instead, the discussion will focus on that aspect of diplomacy that examines the use of threats and how threats represent a distinctive category within the broader field of "just war" ethics. In choosing to set a discussion on traditional diplomacy aside, we are left with a central question, which is: Under what conditions can and should threats of force be used effectively to accomplish different types of foreign policy objectives, and are there ever justifiable reasons for issuing threats?

For the curious who are wondering about why this program and why this topic: This program came about at the suggestion of our journal editors, Adam Read-Brown and John Krzyzaniak, who in the Summer issue of our acclaimed journal Ethics & International Affairs, published an article entitled "Threats and Coercive Diplomacy: An Ethical Analysis." (By the way, we have complimentary copies which are available on the balcony during the reception.) But knowing that the authors of this essay would be in New York City for the opening of the General Assembly, they thought, What a good idea to have them here to discuss their essay, and I agree.

So it is with great pleasure that we welcome Professors Greg Reichberg and Henrik Syse from Norway. To enrich this discussion, they have invited Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo, permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations, who is joining them on the podium. I believe you all have a copy of their bios, which were handed out when you checked in, and I encourage you to read them if you haven't already.

The Carnegie Council, as many of you know, is a platform for discussion. As such, we look forward to hearing the views of our panelists, with whom you may choose to agree or disagree.

Each panelist will speak for about seven to ten minutes, and then we open the discussion so that you can ask any questions that haven't been addressed during their presentations. I ask you to please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guests today and Ambassador Khoshroo. Thank you for joining us.

HENRIK SYSE: Thank you so much, Joanne. Thank you so much for the invitation to come here. And thanks lastly to the wonderful journal editors at Ethics & International Affairs. I really mean that. I'm a journal editor myself and spend much of my time moving commas, and they do it better than most. I wonder, should it be "Ethics Matter" or "Ethics Matters"? But we can discuss that later.

Our topic today is threats. I hope no one has felt threatened to come here. Before I quickly introduce the topic I would like to say that we are very grateful to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which actually helped fund the research that is at the background of this project. We come from Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Also, we have been working on this for a few years, and I'd like to point out that President Trump and his administration is not the focus. Many of the problems we are discussing definitely predate Trump. But the relationship between the United States and Iran today definitely illustrates the many vexing challenges of threats and coercive diplomacy, and hence we are most grateful to Ambassador Khoshroo for setting aside the time during a very busy week to be with us here tonight.

This evening is not about taking sides or finding final solutions, but it is about listening to viewpoints, and I think arguably we need to do more of that.What we are discussing here tonight is indeed a deep-seated problem of international politics, yet it is also an everyday challenge from our regular lives, and I would like to take that as my point of departure. This is what the philosopher John Rawls calls the "domestic analogy," when we can compare this to things that we know from everyday life.

For instance, your child does not want to go to bed. You tell her, "If you do not go to bed now, I won't let you go to the Carnegie Council to hear Drs. Reichberg and Syse and Khoshroo speak." If that doesn't scare her, nothing will.

Well, maybe something else then. Mine used to be—and I have one of my daughters with me on this trip, which is wonderful—"If you don't go to sleep now, we will not go on our summer hike." Of course, the kids soon looked through me and said: "Dad, we know we're going on the summer hike anyway. You've already rented the cabin." Which renders the point moot.

Let me ask you this question. What if we threaten something that it would be immoral actually to do? What if you say, "If you don't do this, I'll kill you"? And what if the threat succeeds in the sense that the other party does what we want him or her to do? Maybe it is even something that is truly good that comes about. Will a threat then be justified? These are the sorts of questions that we humbly broach in our article and which we find very much underexposed in the literature on the ethics of war and armed force.

The founders of the United Nations clearly worried about the threat to use armed force as a way of illegitimately getting one's way. So, famously as most of you will know, the UN Charter does not only forbid the use of force but also, and indeed equally, the threat of the use of force.

Our article aims to explore whether it is actually the case that threats are as unethical as the actual unethical acts and also to explore whether there might be legitimate uses of threats of use of force. Our conclusion is nuanced but largely affirmative of the thesis that threats of use of force are often problematic along with the acts one threatens, and maybe in more ways than we initially think of. For instance, if you are to threaten something, you also have to prepare yourself to do it. If you are to threaten with nuclear weapons, you have to build them and maintain them. Does that also increase the danger that they will be used? But at the same time we do not rule out that threats or threat-like statements can sometimes be just and useful.

Our article delineates how threats can be characterized as different sorts of speech acts. I won't go into detail on that now—Greg will deal with a few more of those. But if we are to use some of this technical language, technical terminology, we can say that a threat, properly speaking, combines what we call the "directive" and the "commissive." That means, we actually want to direct some sort of action or maybe avoid it. We want to tell someone, "Do this rather than that," and we also commit ourselves to doing something if this does not happen. That's the standard formula of a threat.

If it is said unconditionally—"We'll actually do it anyway"—then the directive part of the threat is pretty weak: "We'll catch you dead or alive, whether you want to or not."

But if it is conditional, you may do something to avert this: "Unless you do this, I will do that" or "Unless you stop doing that, I will have to do this." Then you have a choice.

As I said, Greg will go further into this, but what we are talking about then is conditional threats, and these require intentionality. The threatener intends to achieve something by this, and the way in which the other party acts in response will influence the way in which the threatener achieves it.

The final point that I'll make before giving the floor to these other eminent gentlemen is that the sort of speech act that I've just described where you threaten to perform some harmful act unless a person or group of persons does not or does something, is it necessarily immoral? Clearly not. Domestic law does this all the time, doesn't it? "Unless you pay your taxes, we may compel you to  pay either them or a fine or suffer a penalty." We all think that's okay.

But key to legitimacy of such a threat is the legitimacy of the authority formulating the threat, and the threat must also be proportionate, predictable, and credible. If the government, for instance, threatens automatic incarceration without trial or they threaten loss of life for the late payment of taxes, we would clearly find ourselves outside of legitimate coercion.

Likewise, if neighborhood posses—I like that term, the "posse;" "Gather the posse"—took on the job of enforcement, or if the demands were totally unpredictable and changed all the time, such that what was allowed one day was suddenly severely punished the next, we would say that the threats are illegitimate, and these are the kinds of things that we try to delineate because we believe that these things do happen in international diplomacy all the time, not least the lack of proportionality and the lack of predictability and credibility.

By this, I give the floor to my excellent colleague, Greg Reichberg.

GREGORY REICHBERG: Thanks very much, Henrik.

Henrik made a distinction between unconditional and conditional threats. I'd like to start off by making a couple of other useful distinctions in this context.

First of all, conditional threats differ from warnings. By the enunciation of a warning, a speaker simply tells a target what consequences are likely to follow from her action. A warning is a statement of fact. With a threat, by contrast, a stated consequence, "I will do X," is explicitly linked to another's compliance with some directive: "Do Y or X will follow."

In dancing—I'm a terrible dancer, so this will be relevant—if I inform my partner that I will in all likelihood step on her foot if the fails to dance in time with the music—my wife is here, this has happened—that's a warning. By contrast, if I inform her that I will intentionally step on her foot unless she dances in time with the music, I am threatening her.

That said, warnings are often thought to be more morally acceptable than threats, so it is not uncommon for parties to reformulate their threats as warnings. It makes them sound more acceptable.

Conditional threats are of two kinds, deterrent and compellent. In both cases, I issue a directive to someone, and a penalty is assigned for noncompliance. The directive can consist in an order not to do something. The point of the threat is to deter a certain line of action, to prevent it. These are deterrent threats. Of course, nuclear deterrent threats are a subcategory of the wider field of deterrent threats.

In contrast, I can seek to compel someone into a particular line of action, as when Saddam Hussein and his sons were told by George Bush, "Leave Iraq or else." They weren't trying to deter anything. They were trying to tell them: "Do this. Take these steps." These threats are compellent.

With deterrent threats the penalty is kept in reserve. It is posited in a conditional future should the target engage in forbidden action, and it is here that the language of "red line" comes into play: "Cross this line, and this penalty will be administered."

However, if compellent threats are to be credible, usually some pain must be administered upfront so that the target starts moving in the desired direction, and the target does not want to move in that direction, so you've got to do some pushing.

The U.S. sanctions that have lately been renewed against Iran have the character of compellent threats. The penalty—in this case a trade embargo—is intended as a message. Let us call this an "action threat." The message is this: "Unless you comply with our demands, renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), remove your troops from Syria, stop your support for Hezbollah"—and the list goes on—"this pain will be continued and even intensified." This is a compellent threat.

What ethical principles can we bring into play to assess threats? We have already noted that threats are not necessarily bad. Sometimes they can even be good. What principles can enable us to discern the difference? In our article we draw on the so-called "criteria" of the just war tradition to organize our thinking about the relevant ethical principles.

I gave a presentation on this topic two weeks ago, and I spent at least three hours talking through the relevant ethical principles, and I can't do that tonight because my time is nearly up, so I just want to refer to two of these ethical criteria. The first is just cause. Just cause is paramount. Threats are not the default position in any civilized discourse. There is a presumption against threats. Their use must always be justified. I cannot here rehearse all of the possible reasons that might warrant resort to threats. Suffice it to say that a wrong must have been done or is in the process of being renewed.

The penalty threatened must be commensurate with that wrong. If it should be apparent that an individual or a state has little or no inclination for the wrongful behavior that the threat aims to stop, we would say that that person or state has been unjustifiably threatened.

Someone who views himself with no propensity for committing the wrong in question will invariably feel that his honor has been impugned when he has thus been threatened, and I think this would describe Iran's position and reaction as it relates to nuclear weapons. We should not underestimate the importance that honor plays in the eyes of statesmen. They view themselves as the custodians of their countries' honor. So that's just cause.

I want to wrap up with a few words about right intention. If threats are to be rightly issued, they must be done with the right intention. This implies, among other things, that the penalty promised in the event of noncompliance will be withheld if the stated demand is met. It is easy to construe a situation in which the party issuing a threat wants to implement the sanction regardless of what the other does and is looking for any pretext to demonstrate noncompliance so it can do what it wanted to do all along. This is a patent violation of the condition of right intention.

Second, behind every threat in due form there is an assurance that the promised penalty will be suspended if the stated condition is met. The assurance is integral to the threat. This assurance must be credible, clearly stated, with benchmarks laid out so the adversary will know what is expected of him. Moving the benchmarks—or as we say the "goalposts"—so that with each act of compliance a new demand is proffered is inconsistent with right intention.

To conclude, I think it is important to inoculate ourselves against the mistaken assumption that in relations between adversaries only threats will do, only threats will have an impact, only threats will modify behavior. But in making this assumption we forget that the adversary need not always be an adversary. We forget that there is a very real process by which an adversary becomes a friend or at least someone with whom I can cooperate.

There is a saying I learned in school: "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me." That is false. Words can harm, and when their effect is to cast aspersion on the honor of another person or even a nation, the wound will stick, even for years. An enmity will deepen. I think it was Comte who said, "Do not do in war what will prevent the resumption of amity after war's end." The same holds true for threats. So even when threats may sometimes be necessary our use of them should be very sparing, and they should be framed in such a way that space is left open for future friendship.

HENRIK SYSE: Thank you, Greg. Very good. We'll move then to His Excellency, Ambassador Khoshroo. Very happy that you could set aside the time to give some comments on some of the things we've claimed here or whatever other part of this problem that you'd like to highlight in your seven to ten minutes, and then we'll open up to the floor.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: Thank you very much. I have prepared about seven to ten minutes. I will read that piece and then would be more than happy to get involved in dialogue.

The contemporary international law is based on the presumption of sovereign equality of states which prohibits the threat or use of force and opts for the path of multilateralism and peaceful settlement of dispute as a viable solution.

The founders of the United Nations put the Member States under a concrete legal obligation to resort to peaceful means to settle their international disputes and to refrain from the threat or use of force. These proscriptions and prohibitions are not only inserted in the UN Charter, but they have also been endorsed in other instruments such as the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and the 1970 Declaration on the Principle of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States. Hence, resorting to unilateral threats as a means of foreign policy has very little room in current international relations.

Some might notably argue—as you did—that sanctions and threats would sometimes help restore justice to international communities, such as for the plight of racism in South Africa in the past, and even assist in preventing wars and therefore shall not be rejected altogether. Even in those instances, where such tools as threats and sanctions are applied to make accountable countries that based on credible ,substantiated, and objective evidence breached international law and specifically peremptory norms, it would certainly be unwarranted side effects for innocent civilians and the rights of the wider public. In any case, application of these methods where the object is fully complying with the international law can in no way be justified.

In the case of Iran in the case of JCPOA, I will elaborate on that. This administration is punishing Iran not because of violating the resolution and the content of the JCPOA that was supported and endorsed by a Security Council resolution, but because it has abided by that, because two reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has clearly indicated and confirmed that Iran has been fulfilling its obligation under this deal. Then the United States is punishing not only Iran but punishing Norway, France, China, and all countries in the world if they abide by this resolution of the Security Council. This is a new phenomenon.

This is laughable. I will describe that ultimatums, imposing sanctions, and making threats against other states has been a consistent tool and an essential element in U.S. foreign policy. Most United States' administrations and political figures in one way or another have illegally and immorally threatened others in order to proceed with their short-sighted national policies or even aspirations of their relevant political parties. The well-known phrase of "all options on the table" comes against this background.

However, the new administration seems to be utterly reliant and confident about using threats in different forms and manifestations and coercion in international relations that put the whole notion of multilateralism at stake. This administration has gone so extreme that recently it intimidated the International Criminal Court with unilateral sanctions and threatened to prosecute the Court's internationally elected judges and prosecutors in American courts.

The United States seems to believe that sanctions, bullying, and threats represent magical solutions to every challenge that they face in their relations with other states, be it Turkey, China, Mexico, Russia, Cuba, or Venezuela.

Trump speaking at the previous UN General Assembly last year is a good example of illegal and immoral threats against other states. By threatening North Korea with total destruction in the Assembly Hall, Trump crossed all the ethical and legal boundaries.

His statement also contained several weird and odd threats against the Islamic Republic of Iran. He threatened to withdraw from the nuclear deal endorsed by the Security Council, despite strong appeals from the international community, including their closest allies, which [his administration] actually did a few months later. This administration later declared its intention to impose the strongest sanction regime in history that included extraterritorial sanctions against third countries and foreign parties. It means that the United States, by weaponizing its economy and currency, is threatening the international community not to make business with Iran.

This policy not only interferes with the internal affairs of other countries but also violates Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls for promoting and facilitating the development of normal economic and trade contacts and cooperation with Iran. It is ironic that for the first time in the history of the United Nations the United States is engaging in penalizing nations across the entire world not for violating a Security Council resolution but rather for abiding by it. This is something very new and very special. Based on this resolution, countries are encouraged to normalize their economic relationship with Iran, and Iran has abided by the content of this resolution. The United States unilaterally withdrew from it and imposed sanctions.

We didn't have an economic relationship with America. There was a good deal between Iran and Boeing. We were supposed to buy, for I think 15 years, about 300 aircraft that would create 100,000 jobs for Americans, but they decided not to do that.

The rest of our economic relationships are not with America but with the rest of the world, and this administration is threatening others, not because Iran is not abiding by international law but because it is fulfilling its commitment. This is something that we should consider. This is really a new phenomenon, and I wanted you to comment on that.

Thank you.

HENRIK SYSE: Thank you so much. What we will do now in the remaining 23 minutes is to open this up to the floor for questions. This is not like a radio or TV program where we have absolutely every view represented.

I guess to most of you the U.S. position will be quite well-known that Ambassador Khoshroo is here responding to, but of course the interesting thing are the arguments that he lays out are directly related to the topic of our article, namely how do we enact this sort of diplomacy where we have these deep disagreements and where we wish somehow in spite of the equality of all nations and the respect we should show each other nonetheless to influence the policy of another nation. How do we do that?


QUESTION: I'm Angela Kane. I'm a longtime former UN staff member, and I'm now living in Vienna and am the senior fellow at a non-governmental organization (NGO).

I found your analysis very compelling about the nature of the threats and how they are presented, but I think that what we have now—and as the ambassador has very rightly said—is an unprecedented situation. The question is, you should have another paper written about: What is in the toolbox? What tools can be applied in order to remedy the situation because we are now totally helpless in terms of it's not only Iran, but it's also other countries, European countries, in terms of the sanctions and the threats that have been made by the United States? So what can actually be done?

I'm thinking that within the United Nations you've had other instruments that were created like, for example, peacekeeping. That's a very big topic, but on the other hand what else can be done within the organization to think about how to counter this?

GREGORY REICHBERG: That's a great question. I think there's a systemic problem in political science because if you study the foremost theoreticians of threats, like Thomas Schelling, they say that there is something above threats, another kind of interaction. But they never spell that out, so you get this impression that the whole field of international affairs, particularly where there are some adversarial relationships going on, is dealt with through threats of different kinds. I think we need to put more effort into thinking about these other modes of interaction and become more skillful in those.

HENRIK SYSE: I agree. Of course, this also touches on the question of international jurisdictions, which right now is very hard when you have one of the leading nations of the world saying that we do not want to be part of these sorts of institutions if they can punish us. Of course, what I'm referring to now is the International Criminal Court, but if we're thinking what kind of organization you could have to somehow negotiate in these sorts of situations, it's hard to see what that would be right now.

You are right it's an unprecedented situation in many ways. It's a very special week right now, isn't it, in so many ways. We'll leave some of that. We won't talk about the Supreme Court now. So we'll leave that out.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: The whole notion of international law is that if one is powerful, it is not legitimate to violate others' rights, those who are weaker and not as strong. But now this administration is saying that I'm mighty, and I'm right, and I'm threatening all, and it doesn't matter how and why. I will do that.

This is a new phenomenon. They are even threatening us, and they are telling us if you don't give me a photo opportunity with your president, you will be sanctioned, like that. This is ridiculous. This is not acceptable.

International law is for respecting others' equality and justice and fairness, and then mutual interaction. Otherwise, we are not living in human society. We are getting back to those areas where the one that was more powerful was—by arresting, by killing, by attacking. This is not good.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you, Ambassador Khoshroo, for taking the time to come here today.

I have a question about the new dynamic that you talked about and where abiding by an agreement can actually lead to punishment and how perhaps that seems to go beyond the concept of right intention that we learned about earlier. What is the reason for this upheaval or this shift, and does the increased messianic and fundamentalist tone of certain actors on the political right have anything to do with this change?

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: We don't know, but here in America this administration is against whatever the previous one has done. It doesn't matter if it has been good or bad. For example, this nuclear deal, he considered this as something that Obama was doing or Kerry was doing, therefore it should be rejected. This reflects some kind of ideological approach toward something that the previous administration has done.

We really don't know what is happening in the United States. Is it a new trade agreement, a new way of merchandising some political relations? We do not understand whether it is bullying or whether they only wanted to have—they are telling us, "Come and I will give you a better chance, better achievement."

Even yesterday President Trump tweeted that "I have no plan to meet the president of Iran but I'm sure he is absolutely a lovely man." We were surprised. I gave this to the president, and he was laughing. He was saying, "What does it mean, 'I'm sure he is absolutely a lovely man'?" This was at 7:00 in the morning he wrote this.

We are facing a situation that nobody can understand. Then, inside the White House there are different voices, outside the White House there are different voices. Some are talking about regime change, some are talking about change of behavior, some are talking about engaging in a grand bargaining matter.

Also, yesterday there was a meeting of the Security Council where President Trump said that this meeting is only on Iran. It was not on Iran, but he said that I will speak on Iran. He repeated the same accusation that he did Tuesday in the General Assembly, and it seemed that he owed one thanks to Iran, and he said, "I'm thankful to Iran and Russia and Syria because of their position toward Idlib in Syria."

We were surprised that this Security Council meeting was only convened to thank Iran and Russia on Syria. We are perplexed. We don't know really. You should explain it to us.

QUESTION: Allie Mazzara with the State University of New York. I direct a program for promoting and empowering young women to become global leaders, and one of my young colleagues is here who just graduated from the program.

I thought the presentation was excellent in laying out the different perspectives and aspects of the threats and other areas. One of the things that really stuck with me was the whole idea of respect and the honor that in order to negotiate, and maybe the other side is that hopefully in the future, be it Iran or other countries, we would have that relationship.

So Ambassador, if I go back to the program that I work with or other colleagues, Americans, what would you want me to take in saying from an Iranian perspective—and I know this is a very broad question—that you would want us to know in order to be able to respect and understand what is coming from the Iranian government?

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: The history between Iran and America is not a good one. It started 65 years ago, almost a year before I was born. Then it was a coup d'état in Iran by the United States and the United Kingdom and then the aftermath of it. I don't want to go through that.

But with this background, President Obama started to open channels with Iran. He sent different letters to Iran. Those letters to the president, to the leader delineated a framework that we respect Iranian culture, Iranian history, we wanted to deal with you with mutual respect and equal sovereignty. We have some concerns about your nuclear program. We wanted to negotiate with you, and we are ready to recognize your legal rights concerning enrichment if you are open and transparent.

This kind of talk, first we didn't trust America. Later some of our friends came to us and described that they are genuine in that. They wanted to do this. Then we started negotiating with them.

But President Trump is threatening us and saying you should come to the table and we should do that, we should do this. They are threatening us to become friends, how through threat we can become friends. What kind of friend is this?

We were negotiating with America through this JCPOA mechanism at the level of foreign ministers each year several times, our foreign ministers and U.S. foreign ministers were negotiating with each other, and at the level of deputy foreign ministers.

I was also involved here with the American permanent representative (PR) in the United Nations. We were exchanging views on different issues. There were several misunderstandings and several differences, but we were engaging in a respectful manner. At the end of the day we were able to reach an agreement.

Then, yes, the United States should differentiate between destructive power and constructive power. The United States has the most destructive power in the world. They can annihilate the whole world in less than a second. But the United States is unable to rule a village in Iraq, a village in Syria, a village in Yemen, or in Afghanistan because it lacks that kind of authority. We do have this in the region, which is why they are so unhappy about Iran.

Anyhow, true constructive engagement is [the goal of] President Rouhani. His first motto in his election was "Constructive engagement with the world." With the "world," he meant with America. And we were able to do that.

We have different discussions. Our friends here know that. Based on that constructive discussion, this constructive engagement, we were able to reach a conclusion that was JCPOA, and it was very good for everybody. It was a win-win solution for a very difficult problem.

JOANNE MYERS: So I assume constructive engagement is the takeaway, is what you should bring back to your students. Moving on.

QUESTION: I'm Raj Ghose from the British Mission to the United Nations.

Can I just shift your principles, apply your toolbox to Europe? I think one of the biggest threats we face in Europe with all due respect to the moment to the rules-based international system and international law is Russia's actions from our perspective. So, the panel's advice on how most reasonable European countries should try to engage Russia?

HENRIK SYSE: If I may be very brief in trying to answer that, I would echo what Greg talked about when it comes to—well, I touched on it, too—predictability and the credibility that follows from that. Because if you get all kinds of different signals being sent and they're very unclear—sometimes that can be of course part of diplomacy, "good cop/bad cop," but when it's unpredictable so that you do not really know what is it that you are demanding . . . Greg used the old sports term of "moving the goalposts," which makes it very hard because then you set a demand, and then seemingly a demand is met, or if it's not met, you follow up. But then suddenly a new demand is made. I think that's part of the problem in dealing with Russia today is that there is a certain lack of predictability and thereby credibility, which of course goes both ways. It really is a difficult situation which goes back to way before Trump. It goes back to Georgia, it goes back to Ukraine.

The final thing that I would like to say which is directly echoing what we just talked about is this question of respect. I guess somehow that is what the president is trying to convey in meeting with Putin. Many of us would say he's not doing it in the right way, but of course this sense, when you talk about Russia it's a lot like with Iran. It's a long history. These are deep historical roots and ties, and if you don't want to engage with them or just dismiss them or talk disrespectfully about them, that is also clearly a problem. That would be my careful take based on our article.

QUESTION: I'm John Krzyzaniak. I'm associate editor of Ethics & International Affairs, so I just work right upstairs.

My question gets at the distinction between law and morality because all of you pointed to a tension that exists between what international law says, which is that there is a pretty clear unequivocal blanket ban on threats of use of force and use of force, but on the other hand in your article and in your comments you indicated that maybe in some, even however narrow situations threats might be justified.

My question is basically: Does the UN Charter have it wrong, or what is the value in a blanket ban in international law even when our ethical intuitions tell us that they might sometimes be justified? How do we explain that sort of mismatch?

GREGORY REICHBERG: The UN Charter, the statement on the ban on use of force and threats relates to using force and threats to settle disputes, as a dispute-settlement strategy. There is no ban in the UN Charter on using force for purposes of defense. So presumably one can also use threats for purposes of defense. Of course, the Security Council is also authorized to use force, so presumably the Security Council is also authorized to use threats.

I just want to point out that international law is not quite as narrow as you presented it to be. But I do want to emphasize—and I thought Ambassador Khoshroo made a really important point—that in the past when the United States did use armed force, for instance, in the invasion of Iraq, which lacked a Security Council mandate, but even there the United States tried to show that there was some basis in Security Council resolutions, that this armed action was supported, maybe not technically in the narrow sense, but had some support in international law.

But now it's just the opposite. It's true. Countries are penalized for supporting international law, and that's a very dangerous drift. A lot more could be said in response, but I'll leave it at that.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: May I add also one sentence?

Yes, we are here focusing on international law. International law is also a kind of compromise among nations. If we wanted to talk about morality, that is a higher standard—if international law is here, morality is there—then sometimes some of these rules and regulations of international law would be immoral, for example, the threat of force and sanctions may prevent sick people from getting medicine and they are dying because of that. Even if that sanction is legitimized by international law, morally it's incorrect. If we wanted to judge by moral standards, many actions are not compatible with morality.

GREGORY REICHBERG: We can take more questions, otherwise there would now come a long speech on the responsibility to protect and the relationship to morality. That's for next time.

QUESTION: My name is Leonard Stall, and I'm the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Philanthropy Age.

I'd like to take the United States and Iran out of this question. It's something for you to comment on, if you would. I think it was Henrik who used the threat of putting his daughter to bed. You have the moral authority to do that. Surely no one nation-state should assume a moral authority to threaten or coerce another, and until there is an equality of sovereignty then the toolbox cannot work.

HENRIK SYSE: We do discuss that in our article because it's not just a legal question of the equality of nations it's also a question of having what we often call the "moral high ground." In some cases in international politics there are states that act in such a way that what we often call the "international community"—a complex concept in itself—says we have to react somehow.

When we read history, we sometimes say one should have reacted earlier. The Rwanda problem, there should have been something done. Sometimes that will be because sovereignty has broken down, but you're quite right, and that makes the whole question of legitimacy of authority one of the really difficult questions here. Because why can this nation say this?

QUESTIONER [Mr. Stall] [off-mic]: My specific point was that only one nation-state should assume moral authority. Acting together as a cohort is a totally different—

HENRIK SYSE: That's very true.

QUESTION: Good evening. Mark Duncan.

Thank you very much for a panel of very interesting pieces. You spoke very briefly about the legitimation criteria for coercive diplomacy and that they should be predictable, proportionate, and also credible.

There is another problem there that is kind of impossible to make an objective assessment of whether that criteria is ever fulfilled. If we use the Iran example just because we've talked about it a lot, then from the U.S. perspective they might say that their response was predictable because they've repeatedly indicated that this was a response that they were considering, and it was proportionate in regard to the issues that they had chosen to link the JCPOA with in terms of the greater Middle East and security issues, whereas other outsiders and of course the other party themselves might consider them to be both unpredictable and disproportionate.

HENRIK SYSE: If I can say just very briefly, and I'll leave it to the two others to deepen the answer, but first I would say if one looks—it's a great question—at the last few weeks of American diplomacy on this issue, many things that the secretary of state has said, I would say it is quite unclear. There are different sorts of demands. It's not easy to sit on the other side and try to figure out, "Well, what it is they want us to do?" But I agree. That could be read differently.

But when you mention proportionality, as some of you will know, in we call the "just war" thinking it's not just what we talk about as the ad bellum question: Is it right in the first place to do this, to go to war, to threaten? It's also the question of the actual effects, which in war is called in bello.

I think personally that one of the big questions now is the effects of sanctions. I'm not now commenting on Iranian policy per se but the effects of sanctions on the Iranian population today, whether that is a proportionate sort of damage to what you are trying to achieve. Then you're back to discussions in war.

If you actually bomb a city, but by doing that you can force them back, well, clearly, international law says no because it is a direct attack on civilians, and one could construe some of the worst effects of the sanctions that are about now to come into effect to be of that kind. At least, that could be argued, and that would be a violation of proportionality.

GREGORY REICHBERG: Just on the Trump administration's claim that JCPOA was flawed because it was not linked to a wider range of issues that it thinks are important seems to neglect the fact that when JCPOA was negotiated the negotiators discussed this wider range of issues and could not reach a resolution on them, and they deliberately decided to set them aside, and they reached an agreement on a narrow range of issues. To open that up and claim that the agreement was illegitimate for that reason to me makes no good sense, as though the problem had not been entertained. I heard Foreign Minister Zarif say that Iran was deeply unhappy with the JCPOA, and he acknowledged that the United States, too, was deeply unhappy with the JCPOA. He said, "To me this shows why it's such a good agreement," because it's a true compromise. Neither party got all of what it wanted.

For the Trump administration to come back and say, "We want the whole hog. We didn't get all that we wanted, therefore it's a bad agreement." It's just that agreements are not made that way.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: Concerning the Middle East, I haven't seen anybody, any scholar or diplomat who can explain to me what is American policy in the Middle East, what America wants. They have destroyed Iraq, they have supported the opposition in Syria, they are supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen. What does America want?

JOANNE MYERS: One could also ask, what does Iran want?

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO: I will explain. Iran is an immediate neighbor of these countries. When America was supporting Saddam Hussein and Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, most Arab countries were supporting Saddam. We didn't surrender. We fought that war for eight years, and later Saddam became the bad man, and then followed what America did.

In Afghanistan, Taliban were there. We were against the Taliban and were supporting the very tiny group that later America helped to come to Kabul. America, Saudi Arabia, and others have made repeated mistakes in the region, and because of their mistakes they have helped us to become powerful in the region. We didn't topple Saddam Hussein. America did. We didn't topple the Taliban. America did.

This is why I'm saying we don't understand what America is looking for. In Syria also, after all these six years of war, why Trump should come to the Security Council and thank Iran? Because American foreign policy was so wrong there. Arab countries were supporting terrorists, and now Russia, Iran, and Turkey are somehow moving toward a constitutional arrangement for Syria based on the political will of the people.

Iran is not supporting terrorists in the region. Iran is not destabilizing countries. Iran helped Iraq to fight against Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. Iran helped Syria to fight against Daesh and Iran was helpful to get the Taliban outlawed in Afghanistan. Iran wants a peaceful, stable, secure, prosperous region. Everybody shares that, and this is what Iran wants to do.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to just reiterate once again that this is a platform for discussion, and you may agree or disagree with the views that are presented. But it does present a conversation to continue, so I invite you all to have a drink and continue the conversation. Thank you.

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