Morality and realism

During our group’s discussion about realism’s political morality, the selective interventions by Western powers in Libya and Kosovo but not Syria and Rwanda were raised as instances where state interests could be said to have trumped moral choices.

Each of these countries have their own particular geopolitical circumstances but the international community chose (or in Syria’s case, is choosing) to respond to (broadly) comparable and demonstrable ‘evils’ – ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and Rwanda and despotic regimes in Libya and Syria in quite different ways. If international politics is really constrained by morality then wouldn’t the ‘moral’ course of action in each case be intervention aimed at stopping the atrocities/deposing the dictators (subject to a UN Security Council resolution)?

Or when looking at these four examples, does the realist argument (advanced in various forms by the likes of Machiavelli, Morgenthau and Kennan among others) that moral considerations are subordinate to a state’s overriding preoccupation with interest and power have some substance?

Kuperus  examines ‘selective intervention’ in Kosovo and Rwanda and contends that:

The West’s response to humanitarian concerns in Kosovo were reinforced by strategic interests in Europe’s future and the NATO alliance. If the West were truly committed to the creation of a world system where respect for humanity was of the highest order, we would take notice of other regions of the world where regimes have engaged in heinous crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the West has ignored many of these cases.

Kuperus contrasts this to the Rwandan situation where it took over a year for President Clinton to acknowledge that genocide had occurred and claims that non-intervention stemmed from the African country’s status as ‘non-vital’ to American national interests.

While many observers have pointed out that Syria is not conducive to Libyan-style intervention (and indeed any Western military action may provoke Tehran), the international community’s response to Assad’s violence has been limited when compared to the efforts to topple Gaddafi. And while the world watches, civilian casualties continue to mount in Homs and other Syrian cities. Kofi Annan may yet have averted the need for direct intervention if the April 10 troop withdrawal is  adhered to but could the crisis have been ended earlier? Or do states need different interests (eg. access to energy resources like oil) to be threatened to stir them into action?

None of these scenarios are black and white, so maybe the actual state of play when assessing the actions of states is as Miller says: “Great powers behave inconsistently, sometimes hypocritically. Their power and size have given them that luxury and latitude — it’s part of their job description”.

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One comment on “Morality and realism

  1. frassminggi says:

    Rob, I agree with your opinion. The problem of selective morality is seen in many non-Western countries as a double standards. The problems of so-called “Great Powers” are they incapable of trusting anyone at all. They have demonstrated record of hoodwinking, double standards, deceit, and deception in the conduct of their relations with the non-Western countries. They give their word but they don’t have to keep it.

    So, every problem of humanitarian intervention need to ask whether this is trustful conduct based on substantial moral value or vested interested based on wicked megalomania? But these will raise another question, how the UN, as the global governance, respond to humanitarian crisis? Why states are willing to act in some areas of conflict but not in others? In my humble opinion, we must have universal moral ethics that we share together and set a high standard regulating our behaviors. My top ten ethical values will be honesty, trustful, fairness, freedom, responsibility, respect, compassionate, diligent, good heart, and endurance. If I can squeeze it, I will choose honesty and fairness as my yardstick to construct measure of code of ethics in international relations.

    With these code of ethics then we can measure any breach on it. In the name of security, development, or human rights, we just cannot take unilateral action to come to our neighborhood and grab him. We can only telling him, give advice, and enjoin him to do the right things. If he rejected then that’s fine as long as he don’t make any serious disturbances and breach against principle of ethics that we have been agreed. If he still insisted, then we must change it. With this also we must keep in mind that any politicization, selectivity, and double standard is unacceptable.

    Last but not least, “great powers” is quick to response in Kosovo and Libya because they only face small opponent there. But in Syria, the battleground is different. There is Russia there. Russia has an interest in Syria since Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet is located in the Syrian port of Tartus. This is Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union and any act of intervention will face not only Syria but also Russia as act of solidarity. It seems to me, Russia’s deterrence petrifies NATO. The visible solutions for me is by diplomacy and make sure President Assad to resign peacefully guarantee by the Russian or like Hosni Mubarak. I think he will choose the first option.

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