Ethics and International Relations: Interrelated?

By: Maggie Winding

Ethical questions are fundamental to the study of international relations as it is a field concerned with issues of war and peace, trade and development, global economics, interdependency, and human rights. Despite this, moral and ethical values have been relegated almost exclusively to the division of international law, or otherwise, the field that deals with the way things should be, rather than the way things are. With ethical considerations increasingly at odds with cooperation deals among nations, the question then becomes does there remain a place for ethics in international relations? Or rather, is there a way to unite the contrasting ideals of ethics and cooperation so as to create an exchange where no party is forced to sacrifice their beliefs on what is fundamentally right? Many political scientists would assert the answer is no, arguing that integrating ethics into the field of international relations would be profoundly irrational and inevitably result in global chaos. In contrast, I contend that the unification of these two fields is imperative to the successes of both international partnership and global interdependency.

Our current geopolitical climate hangs precariously in limbo between international desire for economic and political stability and pageantries of strength. On the one hand, it is extremely advantageous for nations to cooperate with one another for the inevitable monetary benefit that results from the expanded global market, among other benefits.  On the other hand, however, there still exist discrepancies as countries are seemingly equally eager to be seen as an entity to be feared rather than trusted. The logic seems counterintuitive and is certainly not conducive to a harmonious exchange between nations. If global commerce is to continue, there must be a cessation of intimidation tactics and shows of power. To do this, ethical and moral considerations need to be involved in the cooperation agreements of international politics.

A relevant example of this can be found in a brief analysis of national weapons proliferation. Worldwide, countries are increasing their weapons stores and advancing their armament technologies. Nations are not necessarily doing this of their own volition. It is A more likely scenario is that one country increases its weapons stores to show strength, which results in others feeling forced to do the same or otherwise appear weak or targetable. In political science game theory, this concept is called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In the game, two prisoners who worked together on a heist are arrested and interrogated in separate rooms, completely unaware of what the other has or will reveal. Each prisoner has two options: confess to the crime or deny involvement. Both prisoners would be better off denying the crime because they will each receive the least possible sentencing. However, if one prisoner confesses and the other denies, then the prisoner who confessed could receive no sentence while the other is burdened with the full sentence. Both prisoners know the best option is for neither of them to say anything, but, because the best option for each individual taken independently would be to confess and avoid any sentence, cooperation to deny will never come to pass. Whereas it is a very Hobbesian “state of nature” point of view, it’s true that actors, prisoners, or national leaders will always act out of their own self-interest. People are inherently more likely to choose the best option for themselves, fearing the worst from their partner in the decision and precluding the opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation.  

Applying the principles of The Prisoner’s Dilemma to weapons proliferation, countries are faced with two options: build up weapons or stop. Similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is better for both actors to stop building up their weapons because it provides the greatest benefit for both in the long run by minimizing the threat of danger. However, since the option exists for one country to hold an advantage over another or to appear more strong or powerful, each country will always choose to continue to build up their weapons. The reintroduction of ethics and morals, specifically trust in this scenario, into the realm of international politics and diplomacy is not about leaders holding hands and skipping through a meadow. Instead, it involves using trust as a powerful tool to help decision-makers realize the consequences of their actions beyond the immediate future and see that, despite the risk, cooperation is the best choice. By choosing trust over intimidation, nations create the opportunity to further economic development and economic success.

The concept exists in economics as well, and is explained through a theory called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Coined by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, the theory is illustrated through an example of cattle overgrazing. In a small village, there is a large field for the villagers’ cattle to graze. Each villager is only allowed to put one of their cows in the field, otherwise the field will be overgrazed, and there will be no grass for anyone’s cow. Each villager initially follows the rules but sees the grass is plentiful in the field and believes he/she could add one more cow to the field, increasing their individual utility, and no one would be the wiser. When every villager adds another cow, however, the field quickly becomes overgrazed and all villagers suffer the consequences. As Hardin explains, “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” Had the villagers been able to see beyond their immediate needs, they would have been able to realize the repercussions of their actions would lead to a barren field. They would have chosen to make different decisions because their choice to add another cow to the field resulted in their own destruction. Likewise, it is important for world leaders to look ahead and see that “the field is limited,” so to speak. Initially, different political arenas may look limitless, but it is a true leader who has the ability to look ahead and exercise restraint. Thus, the resource may provide the greatest benefit for the longest period of time for the maximum number of people. This is the choice we now face in international politics: cooperation, or self-interest?

The question is being considered in a myriad of national and international situations. Most saliently, it applies to the Paris Climate Agreement – the international accord reached to address climate change. In the case of climate change, the planet’s environmental health can be seen as the “pasture” that each nation, or “villager” shares. The problem of grass overgrazing is replaced by global pollution, and each nation must do their part to maintain the planet so we all may receive the greatest benefit. Countries are tempted to disregard the regulations for national pollution levels to increase individual commercial or industrial benefit because the pasture looks “limitless.” Nevertheless, they must realize the pasture is, in fact, “limited,” and exercise restraint in their emissions. Ethically and morally, nations have a responsibility to each other to follow the regulations put forth, so all may prosper and continue to survive. The Paris Agreement was drafted in an attempt to regulate international pollution so that each country may enjoy the existence of our planet for the longest period of time. Should one country break trust and stray from the regulations, other countries will feel inclined to do the same and the “pasture” will disappear sooner than anyone expects. Cooperation is the key to both success and survival. For the agreement to be effective, trust has to be involved.

In conclusion, our world has become increasingly interdependent: economically, politically, and socially. The benefits of our interdependence are vast, but continued cooperation between nations is necessary for the system to endure and for nations to continue to continue to expand economically. To do so, I believe reintroducing the concepts of ethics and morals via cooperation as a means of helping leaders to see the long-term consequences of present decisions is imperative. Ethics and morals are broad words, but to me they mean reconnecting with humanity, and choosing to trust and cooperate with others in an effort for everyone to receive the most benefit for the longest amount of time, as seen in both the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons. These concepts exist because we are aware of the problem; now, it is just a matter of whether we choose to act or not and in what capacity.

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