Monday, January 30, 2006

Ethics and International Security

The New York Times ran an interesting piece this weekend about a conference concerning the ethics of spying, dealing with such issues as torture, assassination, how many civilian casualties are acceptable in a strike to kill a terrorist, and domestic surveillance. The question of ethics in international security is an exceedingly interesting and complicated one; even more so when dealing with the domestic front, as in the war on terror. These are some of the more difficult problems that my students wrestle with in my courses on terrorism, foreign policy, and international security.

I find it difficult to talk of moral obligations between one state and another, or even between one state and the citizens of another. A state represents a pooling of collected sovereignty and self-interest; citizens give up rights and freedoms in order to live in a society that in turn is entrusted with pursuing the best interests of those citizens and protecting them. The laws of domestic society are what allow citizens to live together; without the protection of the rule of law, societies as we know them could not exist. But in international politics, there is no real law. Of course, international law exists, but it has no power of enforcement. States are only punished for breaking the law when it is of concern to other powerful states, and powerful states can rarely be forced to obey. This international anarchy means that international society does not represent a collected sovereignty above that of the state, and that moral obligations do not transcend state borders. Of course, domestic law must still apply, but domestic law often has little to say about the actions of a state internationally.

But, the absence of moral obligation does not mean that states should not behave morally towards one another. There are lots of reasons that states should observe rules, norms, and standards of behavior in their international dealings. First is the question of legitimacy. States that adhere to internationally accepted moral codes obtain a cloak of legitimacy, which makes other states more likely to cooperate and view an action favorably. This is one of main consequences of Bush's decision to invade Iraq without authorization from the United Nations.

Second is the question of institutional restraint. As I argue in my article Institutional Signaling and the Origins of the Cold War (the link is to the article in the journal Security Studies, RR; if you can't access it and would like to read it, email me and I'll be happy to send it to you) and as Professor G. John Ikenberry does in his book After Victory, states can signal benign intentions to other states by virtue of restraining their behavior in international institutions. In essence, institutions become a soft replacement for law; a state that is seen to adhere to institutional obligations and accepted international norms is perceived by other states to be status quo and potentially cooperative.

So, in my analysis, the question as to whether states should behave morally has less to do with a sense of moral duty or obligation and more with questions of utility. The decision of whether to behave morally must be properly understood as having impacts above and beyond the specific policy question at hand. Sometimes states will decide that pursuit of their national interest requires the violation of international law or moral codes, as when the US bombs a Pakistani village in hopes of killing high-ranking al-Qaeda members. But, when couched in the proper framework, taking into account the points mentioned above, states should often restrain themselves so as to achieve larger policy goals. Too many violations of international law and morality will make it much more difficult for the US to realize its other goals and to maintain its hegemonic control of the international system.

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