Morality Comes to IR: Ethical Approaches to the Discipline

by Howard Fienberg

for Professor Mark Neufeld, March 7, 1996

The overriding concerns of international relations in the modern era have tended to be states, and matters of war and peace. This has been due to the predominance of the realist paradigm within the discipline. Certain tasks are thus required in the face of this difficulty. First, one must explore moralistic and ethical apparatus to international relations. Then must one investigate how different approaches deal with the concepts of the state as well as the use of international force, and international justice. As a springboard for the discussion on force and justice, one can utilize Steven Lee's article, "Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Entitlement." Chris Brown's International Relations: New Normative Approaches will prove useful as a basis for the overall discussion, and as a subject of general critique.


Ethical traditions in international relations are consistently at loggerheads over a base concept of the modern international realm, that of state autonomy. Cosmopolitans reject it, while communitarians embrace it.

Cosmopolitanism involves a universal morality, one which exists regardless of social circumstances. Humanity on a global scale is subject to one justice. Inference from that leads them to emphasize the individual as the most important in the international scene. Communitarianism, in contrast, delineates the international scene into localities, or communities. It is these communities which formulate the individual's morality, in a social rather than natal context. Communitarianism proposes that there is no international or universal standard. This means that there exists internationally an absolute moral relativity, where morality is only applicable within its own context (i.e.. within its own community). As such, communitarians like Beitz and Singer will accept the state only so far as it furthers the individual and communitarians will accept the state, provided it is the community.

Communitarians, once this has been accepted, will countenance the morality of state autonomy. A prime example of this view is Machiavelli, who declared in his republicanism that service to the state is the highest moral duty, more so than to the individual. Cosmopolitans reject such declarations, and tend to ignore the state, something which causes much difficulty in a world seemingly dominated by the state.

Much of this debate is grounded in the conflicting paradigms of the discipline of international relations. Communitarianism would seem to be based on a realist account of the world: an anarchic system of independent states. Cosmopolitanism seems rather idealist in its conception, with the emphasis laid on the individual, and the state seen as merely an association of certain individuals.

Defenses of cosmopolitanism, such as Beitz's, highlight that the development of international norms and organizations, as well as the advent of economic interdependence, have sufficiently constrained state action to the point that it now not only lacks the moral impetus to exist, but the practical as well. Communitarianism weathers such comments easily, since it conceives of the state as "a manifestation of the community." (Brown 117) If the state possesses moral value, empirical data showing how state autonomy is constricted dilutes none of the basic argument.

Intervention in other states' affairs shows up the difficulties in these positions. Humanitarian intervention is quite simply arrived at under the cosmopolitan model, while the communitarian tends to reject it out of hand. At face value, the argument proceeds with the cosmopolitan advocating intervention to restore the universal morality at any costs [the crusading idealist] in opposition to the communitarian insistence that what different states do is their own business, because morality is relevant only within one's own state [the isolationist realist]. However, communitarianism could also mean that one must work to change the other community's morality, which could require intervention, and the bypassing of another state's autonomy, and thus its moral being.

Both traditions fail to come to grips with Marvin Frost's two types of sovereignty, positive and negative. The negative is inherent in communitarianism, that being the right of a state to conduct its own affairs without external interference. The positive is more important to cosmopolitanism, that being the capacity to act internationally. In either case, autonomy is to be valued only in so far as one accepts that the diversity of the state system is not only a fact, but morally worthwhile.

The fact that a situation exists fails to make it moral or legal; this is a concept that realists tend to ignore. Realism accepts the international system as it stands, making it in essence a moral good in and of itself. The realm of recurrence and repetition is not only unchangeable, but it would be essentially immoral to do so. Realists will accept international norms and conventions as moral in so far as they are truly a product of state behavior.

If what happens is not necessarily moral, one must ask if legality is equivalent with morality. Certainly, one can conceive of law as being an outgrowth of morality and ethics, but this ignores the striving for order which is inherent in much law as well. If what is legal is moral, then order has the capacity to be an ethical end, allowing any means necessary.

International law can be seen as embodying both order and morality. The morality it tends to engage is that of order, but there still exist laws that address morality beyond the order among states, such as conventions on human rights. Communitarianism allows for individual rights only as dictated by their citizenship of a particular state. This is reflected in laws and conventions on extradition and asylum. Other facets of international law provide a cosmopolitan view, offering a more universal approach to individual rights. Some international treaties support individual rights as more important than state sovereignty, and this is what leads to backing for humanitarian intervention.

The current conflict between Cuba and the US would prove a useful illustration here. The US has been operating a cosmopolitan policy towards Cuba since Castro's revolution. It has determined his government to be authoritarian and repressive, and decided that it must oppose it, and attempt to displace Castro. The US has destabilized the regime, enacted economic sanctions, aided uprisings, distributed propaganda, and nearly gone to nuclear war [Cuban Missile Crisis], all to deal with what it deems an affront to universal rights. The most recent confrontation occurred when two civilian planes were shot down, in or near Cuba's airspace.

The US has responded with a tightening of its embargo, and has attempted to force other states to cooperate with it. The US claimed that Cuba had violated not only its own citizen's rights, but those of the American citizens in the plane. Most international legal precepts would support the Cuban claim that they were justified in the downing of the planes, since they were violating Cuba's air space, which is an extension of territorial sovereignty straight up. Thus is Cuba's right to sovereignty pitted against its citizens' human rights.


A subject which encompasses both the ethics of force, and international justice is that of nuclear weapons. What one must do is look beyond the usual concerns of international security, and focus on the morality of nuclear weapons: their usage, the threat of such usage, and their proliferation. Steven Lee, in his article "Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Entitlement," addresses such concerns. He examines nuclear weapons in general, and their proliferation in particular, from the standpoints of both morality and prudence. As such, he looks at both the pragmatic realist case, as well as the idealist's ethical case. His conclusions are that both prudence and morality demands more than simple anti-proliferation; what is needed is the establishment of a non nuclear norm.

The first question faced is the morality of possessing nuclear weaponry. This is best approached through theories on just war. According to established legalism, primarily the jus in bello embodied in such documents as the Geneva Convention, in war one can only attack and/or harm combatants. Civilians must not be harmed. Nuclear weapons are almost by their very nature, undiscriminating in their use of force, harming both combatants and civilians. It is in this frame of reasoning which many have made the case that nuclear weapons are unethical. Some have taken aim as well at their legality in international law by taking a case to the International Court of Justice, in hopes of having nuclear weapons ruled illegal by that body.

So usage of nuclear weapons is immoral. The next step is to determine whether or not there is a moral correlation between usage and threatening that usage. It has been moralized that even threatening to use nuclear weaponry is wrong as well. With the threat deemed immoral, then deterrence becomes likewise immoral.

For the minimalist, nuclear weapons are part of a simple causality in state relations. If one state uses, so will its adversary; the employment of the Biblical 'eye for an eye' approach. It captured the innovative "impetus" of a force whose primary function was not to be used "actively in the course of an ongoing battle," than to ensure that there would be no winner in the conflict. Minimalism was the outlook taken by Robert McNamara when he implemented what was called a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). (Klein 312)

Depending on how one perceives this stance, it may be more moral than the maximalist position. The maximalist ignores much of Clausewitz's classical teachings in On War. Clausewitz believed a defensive war to be always easier than an offensive one. While this was proved differently in wars following his time, nuclear war changed the situation yet again. It became equally dangerous, whether the force is defensive or offensive, precisely because of MAD. Maximalists sought to overcome the limitations of MAD; they wanted more flexibility and the possibility for their force to have the initiative. They created a ladder of escalation in order to delegitimate the concept of vulnerability as a virtue.

Neither stance is moral, when one knows nuclear deterrence to be immoral. However, to what degree they are immoral is debatable. Minimalism offers a situation where either war will be waged or not, all or nothing. Either there will be peace, or something akin to Clausewitz's 'absolute war.' Russia invades Turkey, the US nukes Russia, they nuke us, everybody is dead.

A maximalist finds fault in this position in that it limits state behavior in a manner which produces a no-win scenario both prudentially and morally. The maximalist might defend their morality from the perspective of utilitarianism: the least unhappiness for the least amount of people. By providing for flexibility, maximalism allows more opportunity for states to back down, and for diplomacy to work. The means of both styles of deterrence are immoral, but their ends are more open to debate.

What derives from this argument, and from the wider one of proliferation, is a test of morality itself. Morality requires that a state defend its citizens, but at the same time morality dictates that the means to defend those citizens must be just, something nuclear weapons simply are not, even if they satisfy the needs of proportionality in the response to aggression. The difficulty is that the only known counter to nuclear weapons is the threat of other nuclear weapons. There is no defense against them, only a possible counter-offense.

Lee outlines three different manners for antiproliferation, after possession of nuclear weapons has been deemed immoral. These are denial, coercive, and cooperative. The first, denial, involves attempting to keep the 'genie in the bottle'; preventing the secrets of the bomb from reaching other parties. From a moral standpoint, this makes sense, in order to limit the breach of ethics. However, distributive justice reckons that the hoarding of resources (in this case technological) is immoral. Reality has shown this to be ineffectual, as various factors have displayed that "proliferation cannot be stopped solely by an attempt to restrict technological access." (Lee 118)

The second, coercive, raises the morality of intervention, because it runs the gambit from economic sanctions, to military force. In such a case, it is a moral dilemma whether or not it is both ethical and legal to use force to counter another possible force. When Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, the world community condemned their breach of international law. The Israelis replied that it was an act of self-defense, as well as a blow in favor of global morality and legality.

The final, cooperative antiproliferation, attempts to prevent states from seeking nuclear weaponry "by the carrot, rather than the stick of coercion." (Lee 120) This tends to mean the offering of positive security guarantees to the would-be nuclear proliferator. The extension of the American defense umbrella over NATO signatories was such a guarantee. This prevents the would-be nuclear power from practicing nuclear deterrence, which is unethical, but they are in fact only displacing the moral wrong of nuclear weapons, enlarging it for the guarantor. "Extended deterrence is morally equivalent to nuclear proliferation." (Lee 123)

All three alternatives have been shown to be essentially unethical, and even unworkable; he advocates nuclear disarmament across the board, and the establishment of a non nuclear norm. Robert Goodin argues that the solution to the immorality of nuclear weapons is their abandonment; he advocates unilateral disarmament. (Brown 149) However, total unilateral disarmament would be unethical as well, eliminating the capacity for defense. Brown himself supports partial disarmament from all parties, in order to at limit the danger. Lee finds this pointless, and focuses on a possibility of total disarmament.

His non nuclear norm is a moral convention which would "delegitimate nuclear weapons" and make their possession unacceptable in a general regard. His precedent is the NonProliferation Treaty, which established a nonproliferation norm. What has hindered the NPT has been the ignoring of some of its principles on the part of the 'big five' nuclear powers [China, Russia, France, Britain, and the US]. Article VI requires signatories to work towards disarmament; when this is taken into account, the NPT appears to be distributively just, allowing the legitimation of the nuclear possessors only so long as it takes them to disarm. The other precedent is the "tradition of non-use" in the international community since the end of World War II. Since nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented, Lee's non nuclear norm is morally superior to mere anti-proliferation, and he suggests that it is also more prudential.


Chris Brown's work deserves a particular critique. While it is useful in displaying many of the most prevalent theories on ethics in international relations, it is still severely limited. Brown fails to address feminism at all. In his discussions of legal and moral overlaps, there is not one mention of such points as CEDAW, which is, in essence, an international bill of rights for women. Nor is there a mention of non-Western traditions or approaches.

He explains these omissions by accepting that he is what he is: a white, Western male. Such a statement does not excuse the omission, for his being does not exclude his capacity for understanding or accepting different ideas. He is limited only by ignorance, and this he essentially admits. It is true that he was limited in space, so much so that he seemed to fail to offer any standpoint of his own. What does appear as his own view is that there is a reasonable place for ethics in IR, an essentially idealist approach, but he fails to take it further into a more radical scheme. By accepting that there can be both normative and positive theory, he disallows the radical approach, which claims that normative is all that exists. What is claimed as positive is deemed by radicals as a wolf in sheep's clothing, a normative theory which fails to recognize its own bias.

Morality is a difficult concept in relation to the discipline of international relations. As long as realism rejects morality, and remains as well the dominant approach to international relations, little progress will be made in the implementation of any morality on a global scale.


Works Cited

Brown, Chris. International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches . New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Klein, Bradely S. "What Nuclear Revolution?" in the reprotext (301-326)

Lee, Steven. "Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Entitlement." Ethics and International Affairs . Vol. 9, 1995. (101-131)


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