March 19, 2005

Power and Morals

Owen Harries has a thoughtful essay in Britain's Prospect Magazine this month, on the uses of morality in foreign policy. The conclusion sounds a bit humdrum (obviously you have to read the whole essay to get more detail), but I don't think it would hurt anyone to ponder it over for awhile:
The characteristic fault of realism is that it believes the application of a morality to foreign policy to be negligible, if not entirely irrelevant. The characteristic fault of liberalism is that it considers the application of morality to foreign policy to be easy. In fact it is both necessary and difficult. And as the balance shifts between a world vertically divided into sovereign states and a world horizontally connected by interdependence, it is likely to become even more necessary and more difficult.
And Harries channels Isaiah Berlin nicely: "There is no contradiction involved in, on the one hand, holding firm beliefs concerning what constitutes the good and, on the other, believing that promoting what is good may require patience and compromise in dealing with those who have different views." Exactly. And most people, I think, get this. it would be good to note that the big foreign policy debates going on in the United States today really take place on a somewhat narrow spectrum, not between pure "realists" and pure "idealists" (though there's some of that), but over empirical claims about where and when patience and compromise is necessary.

Sadly the latter gets lost in all the pomp and rhetoric, so we see a lot of ink wasted over "grand visions for the Middle East" and whatnot when we're really just arguing about, and we may as well be talking about, the structure of civil society in Egypt, or how readily the Revolutionary Guard will defend the regime in Tehran from student protestors, or how benignly America can exercise its military might, both now and in the future, and what sort of backlash we might cause. In an ideal, rational country that would be the more productive debate to have. Ah, but that's the rub...
-- Brad Plumer 5:23 PM || ||