The Morality of Amorality in Foreign Policy

Tr@nsit Online

When it comes to morality, diplomats are usually seen as cold and calculating. Machiavelli and Metternich are synonymous with the ruthless pursuit of interest verging on dishonesty. Sir Henry Wootton, Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Venice and Bohemia, described his profession as being made up of honest gentlemen sent abroad to lie for their countries. But good reasons exist for diplomacy’s amoral tradition; paradoxically, this tradition embodies important moral values.

Speach on the conference Morality and Politics, Vienna, 7 December 2002

Many of us, despite our great respect for the US, react against phrases like “Axis of Evil” not because the countries listed do not present serious challenges, but because of the difficulties that follow from mixing foreign policy and morality. “Evil” is a religious term, not a foreign policy principle.

Foreign policy is about war and peace. If wars are fought on moral or religious grounds, no basis for restraint exists. After all, to call something evil is to invoke a moral duty to destroy it. No compromise, no modus vivendi, no peaceful co-existence is possible. Even containment is ruled out, for there is simply no room for negotiation and compromise. You cannot do business with the Great Satan.

Europe twice endured unrestrained wars. The Thirty Years War, fought over religion, laid waste to the Continent, killing one-third of Germany’s population. Memory of the war’s horrors led to a period of rationalism and restraint in international politics.

But memories fade. In the last hundred years, contests of nationalism (with God on both sides) nearly annihilated Europe, and the Cold War could have done so. The moment you believe “better dead than Red” you are in trouble. Dying to save your home, family, or country may be rational. But martyrdom is different and dangerous. As the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran says: “Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a God the consequences are incalculable.”

The amoral approach has been Europe’s main tradition since the Thirty Years War. Its pantheon includes such passionless executors of raison d’état as Metternich, Talleyrand, Richelieu, Bismarck, and Kissinger–people who make alliances with morally repugnant partners and then sometimes reverse them at the drop of a hat.

The objective of amoral foreign policy is to sustain order in an anarchic international system by ensuring tolerance and pluralism among a number of independent actors. This is the best way to restrain power in a world where there is no one but us to do so. In such a world, interests must come first, because we cannot negotiate about values.

Naturally, several qualifications apply. Tolerance has limits. Genocide cannot be defended on the grounds of pluralism. There is also an imperative to deal with anyone who threatens the pluralistic nature of the system.

Second, although an “amoral” international system may be necessary to support pluralism, an individual country’s foreign policy need not be value-free. There is also ample scope to decide whether we define our interests broadly or narrowly, and whether we pursue them by negotiation or violence. We have choices to make about all our policies, and these choices are not morally indifferent.

For the most part, there is no such thing as an “objective” national interest. Abolition of the slave trade, or the triumph of socialism, or the spread of human rights and democracy can all be deemed a national interest. Sometimes countries adopt policies that threaten their survival, conscious that they are doing so. Poland and Czechoslovakia reacted differently to the Nazi threat not because their interests were different, but because their people were different.

How you define your interests reflects how you define your country. The Soviet Union and America had similar interests at the end of the Second World War. America pursued its interests through openness and multilateral systems. The USSR pursued its interests by force, reflecting the brutal nature of its regime.

Some argue that insisting on amoral diplomatic language is no longer necessary, because human rights are more or less universally accepted, if not always observed. But this is true only to a point. Globalisation has brought increasing acceptance of common rules and legal norms, but this is not the same thing as universal acceptance of human rights. Many countries claim that their law is based on divine authority, say, the Koran, returning us to the bleak potential for unlimited conflicts over values.

There is also a different order of priorities between weak and strong states. In countries where order may break down at any moment, it may not be better–as it is in stable, well ordered countries–to let ten guilty men go free rather than punish one innocent man wrongly. In practice, order must be established before it can be limited by the rule of law and international human rights norms.

Today, the threat of terrorist attack causes people to re-examine human rights and legal standards. It may be more important instead to look at the language in which we discuss terrorist incidents. At times dialogue with terrorists may be needed; there may be reason to avoid making this impossible by fixating too rigidly on moral imperatives and condemning all terrorists as unspeakable criminals.

The case for a morally neutral diplomacy remains more compelling than ever, for on closer inspection, it is also a case in favor a foreign policy based on clear moral values.

Tr@nsit online, Nr. 25/2003
Copyright © 2003 by the author, Transit – Europäische Revue & Project Syndicate.
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