International affairs and ethical matters

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


December 10, 2022

International affairs and ethical matters

M Ali Siddiqi discusses a subject that is considered crucial

The lack of scruples exhibited both by the Israeli and Indian authorities in Palestine and Indian-occupied Kashmir respectively while violently suppressing genuine demand for freedom has since long raised questions about the absence of ethics in International affairs and ethical matters. While conceding that international affairs are complicated in nature entailing sheaths of planning and profound strategic thinking yet the importance of keeping the moral compass in its right place is always imperative. It must also be kept in view that the recent shift in the perception of international affairs has also complicated the matters further as the traditional divide between domestic and international spheres has become a problematic turf. This tussle is becoming quite valid now as is evident from the fact that until the late 1980s almost every text book on the subject took for granted the separation between the international and the domestic realms. While ethics and moral values were held to play a central role in domestic politics, power and strategic interests were assumed to be at the heart of international questions. With the internalisation of international issues the oft-ignored requirement of practicing international affairs according to strong tenets of morality and ethics has gained crucial ground.

It is now recognised that the realist assumption of the permanence of the institution of state sovereignty has been treated to wide ranging sociological and historical critiques which have suggested the transient and contingent nature of the sovereign state system. The practice of international relations during the Cold War and the lessons drawn thereof point out that during that era the structural limitations of the international environment prevented the realisation of normative visions of radical change. This is noted as the reason responsible for placing much less emphasis on normative and ethical values than attached to these considerations by the present day global civil society. It is getting obvious now that power relations should place more emphasis on ethical considerations than before.

The current exposition of international affairs has given voice to the perception that Cold War international relations practice was an odious example of amorality of Cold War and many experts now condemn it as nothing more than the pursuance of interests of power. The apologists of the practice adhered to during the Cold War try to justify that policy on the pretext that instead of stressing the importance of power and self-interest as the single guide to action, international affairs practitioners were largely preoccupied with the problem of war between two substantially well-equipped and influential power blocs. They also argue that in the wake of two world wars which were waged under the banner of universal principles, rather than national interests, as long as the world remained geo-politically divided, universal ethics were to be cautioned against as potentially destabilising and dangerous. But in the changed perceptive drive of the current era strongly based upon advocacy of peaceful co-existence, traditional international affairs are portrayed as if they were advocates of power, injustice and war.

The ethical dimension is now at loggerheads with the portrayal of international relations in traditional terms when universal moral claims reflected an increasingly divided world, where ethics were used to justify and further the particular interests of powerful states. The ethical point of view also disputes the conventional justification that practice of international affairs in the past was not against the existence of ethics and morality but advocated that power could never be taken out of the equation when dealing with international politics, and that vast power inequalities even more starkly undermined any harmony of collective interests in the international sphere than in the domestic arena. The traditional perceptions also pointed out that rather than the conflict between European powers being constrained by shared moral beliefs and common values, the two World Wars had revealed the dangers of competing ethical systems in a divided world. It was mentioned that whether war was pursued under the banner of democratic crusade or universal aspirations, claims to global moral principles were a barrier to peaceful co-existence.

The ethical angle deplores the concentration of the past practices on tactical interest and feels that more elements are needed to be brought into the analysis in order to understand growing forms of post-war international cooperation and the development of international norms reflecting and reinforcing this. It also criticises the notion that the self-interest of states was still the primary concern and there was no conception of ethically critiquing state practice as morally unconstrained.

The proponents of ethical concept emphasise the importance of ethical and moral considerations in international relations. They base their belief on the fact that international society was seen as neither a sphere of self-interest and anarchy nor as one of shared interests. The result is that there is a new consensus that the realm of morality has expanded and the old distinctions between the domestic and the international no longer apply. This shift in thinking has resulted in a growing attention to the prioritisation of ethical or moral approaches in international relations.

It is now mentioned that the old practice of international relations was based on dubious practices overriding presence of general moral duty by raison d’état dubbed as a paradoxical morality of immorality. This privileging of power politics over morality meant that international relations tended to be innately conservative and circulated around a calculated negation of a long tradition which conceived of values that transcend the power of even the holders of the highest forms of social power. The ideas of justice and natural law giving way to good life are transcendental and aspirational and critical in character. It is emphasised that ethical premise is manifestation of an ideal which could not be overridden or even abridged by the merely actual. The ideal makes possible a morality of society. In contrast to the traditional concepts of international relations that have been accused of justifying the status quo, the ethical advocates of global civil society set out a radical agenda asserting that the narrow focus on the political sphere of state interests and inter-state rivalry in international relations had become a barrier to pursuance of ethical principles.

What is needed must have moral at its centre because the fundamental questions of how human race can live together concern values, not instrumental rationality. It is fervently argued that the twenty-first will be the century of ethics and global ethics at that. It is emphasised that international relations needs to develop a bolder moral standpoint aimed at reorienting inquiry into the character of world politics, injecting moral purpose at the centre of evaluative procedures. This requirement has become imperative because international affairs are a social construction and its normative emptiness is not a necessity. This is precisely the framework global society operates in detailing and describing empirical change in the international sphere and the pursuit of a normative project of political change, through the promotion of global civil society norms, values and practices. It must be recognised that despite the ambiguities involved in the concept of global civil society, all versions are aimed at organising a political project having a direct bearing on international affairs. It is now realised that emphasis on ethics is the contemporary version of global emancipation and it will soon come into decisive play in the practice of international affairs. TW


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