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The role of morality in Foreign Policy

Photo by flickr user MrJoro

Photo by flickr user MrJoro

I’m writing an essay for my course at the moment on the role of morality in US Foreign policy.  The articles we’ve had to read posture foreign policy in the space between self-interest and morality: finding the proportion of each is the difficulty.  Both assigned articles err toward the self-interest side.  As one who believes strongly in international humanitarian effort, I think there is a case for a moral imperative to act in certain circumstances (insert the g-word here).

But how do you argue the case?  How do you say that sometimes, the interests of humanity trump the interests of nations?  How do you justify politicians devoting resources to issues that do not, in any way, effect their constituents?  Even the very best essays I’ve read on the subject ultimately use self-interest as a motivation: a stable world is good for everyone, stopping this action will stop it happening again in the future, etc.

What if there is actually no benefit?  Is there a time when nations ought to be compelled to act to prevent atrocities?  Is that not the point of the Genocide convention?

What concerns me is that we always frame things in terms of our own interest.  We won’t act against climate change unless it starts to affect us.  And we only intervene in international emergencies when it serves our own best interest.  Even when moral action is an imperative, we frame it in terms of our own interests (long term stability et al).

Trying to grapple with it, I’ve read some things Samantha Power has written, and I think she has some excellent points, but I’ve not read enough of her writing to accurately recount her arguments- though I certainly plan to get her first book from the library tonight- not to inform the 1000-word essay I’m writing, but just to learn more about it.

What is a politician’s duty, though?  Is it to serve the best interests of the constituency that elected him/her?  Or is it to act in best judgment of the right thing to do.

Oh, these matters are so tricky!  Certainly too tricky for a 1000 word essay.

One thought on “The role of morality in Foreign Policy

  1. If you consider US foreign policy throughout the years there has been very little morality as compared to the self interest involved.The US had and has covert programs to destabilise elected governments in countries it considers as a hindrance to its objectives.The US has and is trying to bring down several south American governments.The best example is Cuba.As far as supporting democracy is consider it has shamelessly supported one dictator after another on Pakistan.And as far as sweeping winds of change under Obama are considered I personally think he is still supporting the covert American program to overthrow the elected Iranian government.All this is not to say I don’t like the US.I think this is the kind of policy which has kept them at the top of the world order so many years.
    But if I am to draw some conclusions from game theory and economics,it has been shown that everyone for himself doesn’t always give the best results.So I hope future American policy drafters take this into account while creating policies which affect millions of lives across the globe.

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