Should there be morality in International Affairs?

01 Sep

Should there be morality in International Affairs?

One of the valuable lessons we can learn from Confucius is that the study of politics, including international politics, must involve morality as well as power.  Politics is not just about acquiring and holding on to power; it is how we use power, and to what ends, we use power, and what example we set for others.

Sometimes it looks as if there is no morality in today’s international affairs.  There is hardly any debate on the issue in the media. Perhaps this is because the subject embarrasses us.  When some states try to discuss morality in foreign policy, they usually do so indirectly and with some awkwardness. 

Confucius teaches us, morality is a serious subject that should be studied intensively.  In this respect, Confucius was both an idealist and a realist.  He combined the two schools we tend to separate.

Today power and politics appear to have come together in a wrong manner; it is now “power politics”.

A former diplomat once remarked, “Power and morality are two good things. Mixing them will spoil both”.


This leads to another question. Are there different standards of morality set for the individuals and the State?

There is a view that even when the concerns or interests of the individual and the State are same, each tends to view the events surrounding them differently. They may even be divergent. I am not sure how valid this line of thinking is; yet look at it for arguments sake. To keep it short, let us look at few areas of concern.

:- At micro (family/individual) level, it is good to be cautious; to not over spend but to put away a good portion of ones income in savings.

The State on the other hand would be interested in larger volume of public spending. Because a higher volume of spending accelerates the wheels of production which leads to creation of more jobs which in turn generates another spiral of spending which again leads to more production and more jobs ;   and so on. It is necessary to be charge and recharge the economy to keep it chugging on. This is particularly true in case of an open economy where the State intervention is minimal. You may perhaps recall, in the aftermath of 9/11 when the US economy froze a bit, the US President called upon his people to go out and spend more.

:- It is not good for an individual to appear aggressive and threatening, all the while, to his neighbors. It is not a welcome sign.

The state on the other hand strains to look aggressive and menacing to keep at bay even a harmless intruder or its neighbors let alone its enemies. It is a legitimate “make up” of the State too.

:- For a State, an individual is dispensable; whereas for a family each one of its member is indispensable.

:- It is wrong for an individual to kill another (even an intruder). He would be hauled up by the Law and punished. The reason for this, perhaps, is that the Society’s foremost concern is its self-preservation. If it allows its constituents to kill each other freely there would no society left in the end.

The State on the other hand prides it self over its ability to throw out or kill the intruders. The men who do this job and sacrifice them selves while doing so are the heroes of the State and its people, very rightly so.

The State even expends enormous amounts of money and other resources to gain the ability to kill as many as possible in a single assault . And, such killing efficiency is said to mark the strength of a Nation.


One concern that is of primary interest; and, is common to the individual and to the State , is Self-preservation and Self-perpetuation. These interests often override the concerns about morality; this is particularly true in the case of the State.

Was the diplomat wrong when he quipped, “Power and morality are two good things. Mixing them would spoil both”?

I do not know.

What do you think of these?

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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in General Interest



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