States of morality

If there is one question which haunts the hearts of those of us on the left with an interest in international relations it is this: is there a place in foreign affairs for morality? In a field where Bismarkian realpolitik has long reigned supreme, where anarchy and the infamous security dilemma are the ground states of being, does morality matter?

The language of morality is everywhere in politics, including in foreign affairs. Even Islamic State, in a sick, twisted, utterly perverted manner, justify their actions by reference to a sense of morality. Vladimir Putin too, defends his actions in Ukraine in terms of the defence of a persecuted minority, a moral crusade to protect his kinsmen. Here in the UK we no longer have a Ministry of War, we have a Ministry of Defence, a name now so commonplace its truly Orwellian reality is barely noticed. This plethora of moral justifications and phrasing is there not merely present as a way to help political actors sleep at night, but because acting (or at least being perceived to act) in a moral manner increases the ability of those political actors to achieve their goals.

The academic John Kane has coined the phrase ‘Moral Capital’ to describe this. Kane’s argument is, essentially, that in the modern world with its instantaneous communication people are no longer followers who can be driven but rather constituents who must be persuaded. Leaders are obliged to act in a moral fashion in order to better persuade their populations to follow them, by ‘earning’ moral capital in order to then expend it to achieve their aims. The Arab spring and the protests on the Maidan show what happens when rulers pay insufficient attention to this and allow the bank to run dry.

In order to better apply this to the international sphere we need turn to Samuel Huntingdon and his Clash of Civilisations. The idea that there are a clutch of civilisations in a newly multipolar world is the most accurate paradigm we have in the modern world. It also allows us to see where Kane’s theory of moral capital fits into the international sphere, predominantly in intra-civilisational encounters such as EU treaty negotiations. France and Germany, under the auspices of Article 2 Paragraph 1 of the 1963 Élysée treaty, will meet beforehand and attempt to negotiate a common position as de facto heads of coalitions of like-minded states. These states are, of course, constituents who must be persuaded. It only works because those states recognise that France and Germany have a moral legitimacy to make decisions on their behalf.

It also works because it is intra-civilisational. One of, perhaps even the, defining characteristic of a civilisation is a shared sense of morality, of the right way to live. Differing civilisations, it follows, have different moral codes. Whilst we therefore dismiss Putin’s justification of the seizure of the Crimea as mere lip-service or propaganda, we cannot discount the possibility that it may be worse than that. He may actually believe what he is saying. Another way of referring to the clash of civilisations could be the clash of moral codes. Only one of those codes, ours, is based on the Western experience of the renaissance, the reformation and the enlightenment. Why should we expect the traditions of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Confucianism or Hinduism to lead to the same moral code, beyond the lowest common denominators of 'thou shalt not kill' and 'thou shalt not steal'? So the issue is not that there is no sense of morality in the international sphere, morality is ubiquitous in foreign affairs. It’s just not necessarily our morality.

Luke J. Davies BSc MA is Chair of the Young Fabians International Network.

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