Values/Ethics in International Affairs

Values and ethics, far from abstract notions suited for discussion only in the ivory towers of academe, permeate all aspects of contemporary international affairs.  This segment treats some of the complex dimensions raised by ethical analysis in world politics.

State Sovereignty

Discussion of values and ethics in international relations usually focuses on what states may or may not do, either internally or with regard to other nations.  Such considerations inevitably revolve around the concept of “state sovereignty.”

Should the principle of state sovereignty – a basic norm in the international system – command our respect at all?  One way to approach this question from an ethical perspective is to make the argument that the fundamental purpose of the state is to protect and enhance the lives, liberties and livelihoods of all its citizens – without thereby damaging those who live in other states.  In that light, the sovereignty of a state that fulfills this purpose would have moral justification.  But not all states live up to this behavioral ideal.  Indeed, some states constitute the chief threat to the lives and well-being of their own citizens or of persons and political communities beyond their borders.  Thus, thinking ethically about international relations means subjecting claims of “state sovereignty” to moral review – something we do all the time.  For example, in assessing an instance of a state using force, we think it matters whether that state is “committing aggression” or “acting in self-defense.”  No matter how complex and murky the preceding history, we believe we can and ought to distinguish between the two. 

While scholars and practitioners may disagree over the most persuasive “theory” of international relations, most agree there are some actions a state ought never to commit, no matter the circumstances or provocation.  In philosophical language, this means all states are bound by certain “negative” obligations – actions they ought never to take, even “in extremis.”  According to shared human conviction and specific interstate agreements, states are bound not to commit aggression, genocide, ethnic cleansing, ecocide or other actions that “shock the conscience of humankind.”  Nor may they enslave, starve, torture, expel, or massacre their own—or any—population.  Regardless of a state’s security concerns or pressing interests, its sovereignty is not a warrant to violate fundamental human rights and freedoms, either within or beyond its borders.  The sovereignty principle, in other words, is always subject to moral scrutiny.

However, advocates of this short-list of negative obligations binding on all states, even in a dangerous and anarchic system, may disagree over whether states also have “positive obligations.”  Are states obligated, for instance to reduce poverty in, or write down the debt of, other states?  Some contend states may not intervene in the domestic affairs of another sovereign state, even in the event of grievous human suffering.  Others contend such suffering may demand international response.  Once unraveled, this disagreement may center on the state’s “negative” obligation not to violate the sovereignty of another state versus a “positive” obligation to come to the aid of persons within the borders of another state when their lives are in grave jeopardy.  The vehemence of disagreement over any call for intervention is itself evidence of the ethical substructure of policy-making in international relations.  Although respect for state sovereignty remains a central principle in international relations, “sovereignty” is not paramount from the moral perspective.


Just War Theory

When the security of the state is as stake, we might assume a state would shove moral concerns aside.  Surprisingly, however, states have worked out a set of international moral principles that oblige them to act in certain ways, even when under attack.  “Just War Theory” – the oldest ethical tradition in international relations (dating at least to St. Augustine in the 4th Century) and the most developed – investigates the conditions that justify a state in resorting to force against another state (jus ad bellum) and delineates the constraints that nevertheless bind the state’s conduct in the course of conflict (jus in bello).
According to Just War Theory, the essential condition for resort to force is having “just cause.”  Over time human moral conviction has consistently moved in the direction of limiting acceptable justifications for war.  For example, insulting the king or defending God’s honor no longer qualifies.  Today, the United Nations Charter justifies the use of force only in self-defense or when the Security Council authorizes it in order to preserve or restore international peace and security.  During combat, states may not target noncombatants or civilian property.  They may use only force that is proportionate to the harm suffered and required by military necessity.  Over time, states codified the “Just War Tradition” in the “Laws of War,” in the Geneva Conventions and other key texts.

However, the Just War Tradition is not set in stone.  As policy makers and states confront new security threats, new forms of interstate and intrastate violence, new types of violent actors on the world stage, and new manifestations of human depravity, we, the human community, must constantly rethink, develop, deepen and qualify our understanding of moral limits and obligations regarding the use of force.  Some current ethical controversies in Just War debates include:

  • Applicability of Just War Theory to the use of force against a non-state actor, like al-Qaeda
  • The permissibility or impermissibility of targeting civilian (but “dual use”) infrastructure – e.g., electrical and transportation grids
  • The permissibility or impermissibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction either in conflict or as a deterrent– e.g., the Cold War threat of “mutually assured destruction”
  • Obligations of states toward terrorists and other combatants who are not members of regular armies and who do not subscribe to the laws of war
  • Obligations of states in the aftermath of conflict (jus post bellum), including provision for “transitional justice”  

One contemporary debate in Just War ethical discourse involves “pre-entive war.”  Is it ever justified to strike a state before it poses an immediate threat?  Another debate asks whether acts of ecological despoliation (e.g., poisoning the seas or destroying petroleum reserves) would justify resort to force.


Human Rights

In contrast to centuries of ethical reflection on Just War, the human community has only been delineating the moral implications of international human rights since the end of World War II.  Following passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, states, intergovernmental organizations, regional associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious leaders, corporations, and other international actors have worked resourcefully, and often against great odds, to establish conditions on the ground that would accomplish Article 28, which states: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”  Although skeptics question the power of such idealistic, even pious, language, the Universal Declaration has provided the ethical foundation for such movements as the struggle against apartheid, promotion of the rights of women and children, alleviation of poverty, improvements in health, repair of the ecosystem (e.g., control of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs), provision for refugees and internally displaced persons, and advocacy on behalf of “prisoners of conscience” (a term created by Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International).  

If all human beings have the basic rights of life (including the rights to security and subsistence) and liberty, then these rights generate obligations.  As Henry Shue argues, these obligations have three components: (1) not violating the rights of others, (2) protecting persons from rights violation, (3) and aiding those whose rights are violated. 

When another state commits egregious human rights violations, are the United States and other nations obligated to act?  If so, what are the sources, content, limits and extent of this obligation?  How should a policy maker weigh competing priorities?   Suppose the home state is not the perpetrator, but is nonetheless unable to act because it is poor (in resources or capacity), incompetent, failing or “failed”?   When the survival of a population is at stake, because of starvation, natural disaster, pervasive violence or ecological collapse, to what extent is international society obliged to step in?  

One way to think through international moral obligation regarding human rights is to try to identify which international actors are best positioned to carry out various dimensions of those obligations.  Consider, for example, the plight of the refugee, a person wo has fled his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (the 1951 Refugee Convention).  Which particular international actors should come to the aid of refugees?  Which other international actors should we assign to prevent additional abuse and refugee outflows?  Human Rights discourse insists on international obligations to defend the human rights of refugees and to ensure that they are not forcibly repatriated to the country from which they fled.  That much is clear.  But how best to do that is the stuff of politics and diplomacy.  In a sense, calling on states to sort out such issues for the benefit of humankind is the “revolutionary demand” we find articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other major Human Rights texts. 


Humanitarian Intervention

In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture three months after September 11, 2001, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recalled how the human community had entered “the third millennium through a gate of fire.”  In the face of grave new threats we face in the 21st century, concerted international efforts to redress destitution, inequality, migrant flows; environmental harm, and weapons proliferation are more urgent than ever. 

Though the Convention on Genocide came into force in 1951 and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court entered into force in 2002, states have not yet devised effective institutions for stopping genocide and ethnic cleansing.  However, a growing consensus holds that when a state slaughters its own population, such action justifies the right of other states to use force in carrying out a “humanitarian intervention.”  Nevertheless, states have not resolved the exceedingly difficult problem of exactly which actors have “The Responsibility to Protect” (the title of a 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty).   Should the job devolve on powerful states, regional organizations or some yet-to-be created United Nations Special Force?   If not, how could the task best be approached?

In addition to genocide, other issues of a “humanitarian” nature, for example the AIDS pandemic or global climate change, clamor for attention, perhaps intrusive, in a world that is increasingly “globalized.” 

By understanding the moral dimensions of critical issues on the global agenda, diplomats will be better able to contribute to compassionate, creative policies that not only serve their country’s immediate interests, but also address the essential human challenges of ensuring fundamental rights, development, poverty alleviation and environmental protection.  Promoting the full meaning of human rights has become a fundamental purpose of foreign policy.  This conviction may supply the diplomat a moral orientation and a compass.


Ethical Analysis in International Relations

  • Nardin, Terry and David Mapel, eds.  Traditions of International Ethics.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Ethics & International Affairs, Journal of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
  • Frost, Mervyn.  Ethics in International Relations:  A Constitutive Theory.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 
  • Amstutz, Mark  International Ethics:  Concepts, Theories, and Cases in Global Politics.  Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2nd Edition, 2005.

Just War Theory

  • Walzer, Michael.  Just and Unjust Wars.  New York: Basic Books, 4th Edition, 2006.
  • Johnson, James Turner,  Morality and Contemporary Warfare.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Human Rights

  • Shue, Henry.  Basic Rights.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2nd Edition, 1996.
  • Donnelly, Jack.  Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice.  Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002. 
  • Forsythe, David.  Human Rights in International Relations.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  

Humanitarian Intervention

  • Power, Samantha.  “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide.  New York: Harper, 2003.
  • Holzgrefe, J.L. and Robert Keohane, eds.  Humanitarian Intervention:  Ethical, Legal, and Political Dilemmas.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.   

Development, International Inequality and Poverty Alleviation

  • Sen, Amartya.  Development as Freedom.  New York: Anchor Books, 2000. 
  • Pogge, Thomas.  World Poverty and Human Rights:  Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms.  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002.  


  • Loescher, Gil.  Beyond Charity:  International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 


  • Agenda 21:  Earth Summit:  United Nations Program of Action from Rio.  New York: UN Publications, 1992. 


Text provided by Professor Marilyn McMorrow, RSCJ, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University 

Updated by ADST 2009