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Assessing The Ethical Foreign Policy Makers Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2943 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Kant states that we are rational beings; we can free ourselves from the casual necessity of the ordinary world of feelings and inclinations, and can follow the pure moral law, given by reason alone. The debate of means and ends is deeply involved in ethics and ethical foreign policy. Academics suggest that means and goals should be judged by the same set of ethical principles. Often actions that states undertake for a particular purpose can be ethical or unethical. “Ethics can be defined as a complete and coherent system of convictions, values and ideas that provides a grid within which some sort of actions can be classified as evil, and so to be avoided, while other sort of actions can be classified as good, and so to be tolerated or even pursued” [1] 

If ethics involves a choice between what is morally right and what is morally wrong, the possibility for ethical actions in foreign policy has proven in the past to be quite limited.

Ethical foreign policy

What passes for ethical standards for governmental policies in foreign affairs is a collection of moralisms, maxims, and slogans, which neither help nor guide, but only confuse, decision [2] .


“Foreign policy is the area of politics that seeks to bridge the boundary between the nation state and its international environment. It refers to decision and actions that involve relations between an independent actor and other actors in the international arena” [3] . The essential aims of foreign policy are the promotion of safety and prosperity. Sometimes domestic, international and regional actors and factors limit this aims.

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It has been argued by analysts that morality sits poorly to political action. This is due to the fact that is not always possible to make the best choice, and often the chosen one could be quite far from what is considered the best possible in the political world. Analysts suggest that an ethical foreign policy could be acceptable if:

The procedure of the decision- making meets the demands of democratic decision-making.

The consequences of the policy alternatives should be more useful than any alternative options examined.

The human rights should not be violated.

Idealists, Realists, Pragmatists

The idealist school of thought states that ethics should govern all relationships. Furthermore, they argue that morality should not be taken in consideration only in domestic political life and ignored where other nations are concerned.

Realists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes argue that the state of war is unavoidable in the world politics. The ethical problem of a separation between action and the notion of justice was central to the thinking of Machiavelli. In The Prince, he offers some immoral advice to the new prince: he must know when to act as a beast, how to look only to appearance, how not to be good. Machiavelli’s ethics consists in recognizing that the existence of human beings is burdened with conflicts [4] . Realists sustain that ethics is cultural and therefore variable and controversial.

Pragmatists enunciate that foreign policy cannot be based on an absolute “ethical” ore unqualified “national interest” foundation. It must be factor in both but not totally reliant in one or another.

The Doctrine of Double Effect and decision-making

“The principle of double effect states that we are responsible of those consequences of our acts which are both anticipated and intended” [5] . This principle relies on the fact that states are allowed to carry out certain measures conscious from the fact that the measures have possible negative consequences. This Doctrine has later on combined to the Just War tradition related to the humanitarian military interventions. We are aware that is not ethical to attack non-fighting civilians, but according to the tradition it could be that states can attack morally even though the damages to the non-fighting parties can be anticipated. The moral value is determined by the actor’s intentions and motives. Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to determine the motives. If we take the example of the US attacking Iraq we cannot draw a line between the interests and the real motives, we do not know if the US wanted to free the people from the dictator or to ensure oil supply.

Decision-making and evaluations of their consequences are often uncertain. Actors should evaluate better the consequences of their actions, for example, they should consider the effects of a war that could lead to environmental issues , to violence, that often is directed towards civilians and to the development aid which can lead to corruption of the administration. Often actors ignore such considerations in the pre- decision- making process. Decision-making and ethical evaluation remains an issue. In a representative democracy, citizens elect and authorize decision-makers to make decisions for the state to make decision on their behalf. They estimate how the state is promoting national interest; the foreign policy decision- makers represent their morals especially during the election process. Arnold Wolfers states that foreign policy decision making is not beyond moral judgment but rests on moral choices [6] .

The “National interest”

A democratic definition of the national interest does not accept the distinction between a morality-based and an interest based foreign policy. Moral values are simply intangible interests [7] .


Democratic governments use strategic deceptions by justifying them with the concept of “national interest”. The division between what is in the national interest and what can be morally justified is often questionable. The “national interest” is the taking-for-granted base line for foreign policy within all the major parties ( Diana Francis CCTS REVIEW 33). It is a slippery concept, used to describe as well as prescribe foreign policy. It covers five crucial areas of foreign policy: Security, autonomy, welfare, status and prestige and economy. When we speak about national interest we almost always mean the common good of the members of political communities organized as sovereign states not the common good of “nations” that is, imagined communities of people united by ethnicity, language, history, culture, mythology or kinship (Anderson 1991) [8] . The phrase “the national interest” masks exactly which values leaders are attempting to promote and which they are willing to sacrifice” [9] . Morgenthau considered as the ultimate realist philosopher, equated “interest defined as power” [10] . He argues that;

…There is a misconception, usually associated with the general depreciation and moral condemnation of power politics that international politics is so thoroughly evil that it is no use looking for moral limitations of the aspirations for power on the international scene. Yet, if we ask ourselves, what political leaders and diplomats are capable of doing to further the power objectives of their respective nations and what they actually do, we realize that they do less than they actually did in other periods of history… [11] 

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In the last decade, western government policy-makers have considered “ethics” shifting away from the “realist” approach, where the national interest was the basis of policy-making. This policy shift has meant that the declarations of ‘ethical foreign policy’ emanating from the governments of leading world powers are often uncritically taken at face value and assumed to be ‘simply the right thing to do’ (The Guardian, 27 March 1999). The drive to act in the interests of others, rather than in purely national interests, can be seen in the justifications for a host of new policy initiatives including major international involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, East Timor and Sierra Leone in recent years. [12] For many commentators, the new, ethical nature of international foreign policy was given clearest expression in the international community’s support for military intervention in the 1999 Kosovo war [13] . The US intervention against Afghanistan in 2001 was framed using an ethical language underlying that the US was caring of others and was not pursuing its national interest. George W. Bush described the bombing of Afghanistan as an action of “generosity of America and our allies” in the aid of “oppressed people of Afghanistan”(Bush 2001). The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld stated that the military action was following previous US-led interventions in Kuwait, Northern Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, “for the purpose of denying hostile regimes the opportunity to oppress their own people and other people” he continues adding that “We stand with those Afghans who are being repressed by a regime that abuses the very people it purports to lead”( Rumsfeld 2001). David Chandler argues that western governments justified their military action to remove the Afghan regime, after September 11, through the condemnation of human rights record of the Taliban government, Tony Blair stated that;

Look for a moment at the Taliban regime. It is undemocratic. That, goes without saying. There is no sport allowed, or television or photography. No art or culture are permitted … Women are treated in

a way almost too revolting to be credible. First driven out of university; girls not allowed to go to school; no legal rights; unable to go out of doors without a man. Those that disobey are stoned (Blair 2001).

Tony Blair’s statement shows again that the US and UK don’t give other solution that military intervention. This was a further hint behind ‘ethics’, without taking in consideration the consequences on human rights.

According to Mary Robinson ethical goals, like human rights protection are held to be moral duties and therefore the responsibility of everyone ( The Guardian, 23 October 1999)

The ethical dimension

“Non- violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages” [14] 

-Thomas Alva Edison

On May 1997, the Labour government returned into power in Britain. An immediate change of the new government was the disclosing of the Mission Statement for the FCO. The Statement reads:

“The Mission of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to promote the national interests of the United Kingdom and contribute to a strong international community”… “We shall pursue that Mission to secure for Britain four benefits through our foreign policy”, the four benefits being security, prosperity, the equality of life and mutual respect. “We shall work though our international forums and bilateral relationships to spread the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves” (FCO, 1997a)

Robin Cook (Foreign Secretary) seen as the initiating champion of ethical foreign policy strengthened the launch of the Statement:

The Labour Government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business. Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. We will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office ( Ethics and foreign policypg 15-16)

Cook made the arms trade an issue. He made the following commitment in 17 July 1997 during his speech;

Britain will refuse to supply the equipment and weapons with which regimes deny the demands of their peoples for human rights…(FCO, 1997c)

It was evident that such a policy might have consequences for British prosperity. “Prosperity” and “mutual respect” in the Mission Statement are described as a product of national interests. This could bring to the result of a trade-off between the two benefits, in other words one benefit could be scarified in order to achieve the other. “Interests” is associated with “prosperity” and “ethics” with “mutual respect”. This is the reason why potential conflicts between an interest -based foreign policy and a ethically conducted one are caused. For a long time during his career as Foreign Secretary it was difficult to divert the closure that ethical discussions will be adapted only if they were cost free. Cook allowed arms deals to proceed , the sale of Hawk jets and armoured vehicles to Indonesia are an example that­ breached any possible notion of ethical exports and respect of human rights. In this case “Britain has failed to act as a good citizen because it has placed selfish economic advantage prior to human rights concerns” [15] . He did, eventually, resign over Iraq, but he never pointed to the ethical contradiction inherent in being prepared to attack another country on the pretext that it had acquired ‘weapons of mass destruction’ while his own country had them in abundance and was not honouring its NPT treaty obligations to get rid of them [16] . In the Blair government, militarism was the favoured mean of action and used as rhetoric of justification. The air attacks on Serbia and Kosovo and the international occupation of the latter were presented as an ethical intervention that are been morally justified. This ‘justification’ has been used as a reference point for the later justification of the bombardment, invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Tony Blair has argued that it is vital for Britain to have war fighting as part of its way of being in the world. ‘Peacekeeping’, he says, is not enough. War fighting is an important element in our diplomacy. But the tone of moral rectitude is ever present [17] . The word ‘foreign’ discourages an ethical approach and is inimical to it. For the British government necessity was the mother of morality. The use of the epithet “dimension” during the labour government was a wrong move as it has attracted public attention. Unlike previous governments the Labour government created the context for the development of human rights although it has failed in many occasions to live up with these, the labour government had the courage to attempt an “ethical dimension” to the foreign policy but failed to achieve this.


To conclude sovereignty is a value. As governments represent a hope and solution for citizens they should pursue an ethical foreign policy. This can aim at a moralizing state behaviour but cannot establish perfection because moral actions are obviously limited by the fear of war and economic collapse, these bring the sates to act in order to prevent threats considering less morality. Before undertaking any kind of actions government need to have a deep expertise of the case and to be morally aware. We can end agreeing with Hoffemann who stated that: ‘the ethical dimension cannot be taken into consideration as today’s states are not ready to commit Hara-kiri’.


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