Ethics and International Relations

THE situation that exists among nations in their relations to one another is such that it tempts even those who ordinarily come far short of cynicism to say that there is no connection between ethics and international relations. The title is also a temptation to indulge in a drastic attack upon present international relations as inherently immoral. One might make out a case for the proposition that they are ruled by force, fraud and secret intrigue, and that whenever moral considerations come into conflict with national ambitions and nationalistic ideas they go by the board. Or, identifying the moral with that which ought to be, whether it is or not, one might appeal to some ideal of what ought to be and point out the discrepancies that are found between this ideal of what should be and what actually is. The latter method naturally terminates in exhortation, in appeal to the moral consciousness of mankind.

These considerations are not adduced in order to develop them, but to suggest the extraordinary confusion that is found in current moral ideas as they are reflected in the ethics of international relations. I do not intend, then, to discuss international relations from the moral point of view, but rather to discuss the uncertain estate, the almost chaotic condition, of moral conceptions and beliefs as that condition bears upon the international situation. Why is it that men's morals have so little effect in regulating the attitude of nations to one another? Even the most cynical would hesitate to declare that the habits, to say nothing of the ideals, of the average decent man and woman in their ordinary affairs were adequately embodied in the existing reign of hatred, suspicion, fear and secrecy in international politics. The truth seems to be rather that man's morals are paralyzed when it comes to international conduct; that they are swept away and rendered impotent by larger forces that go their own way irrespective of the morals that are employed in everyday matters.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis