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9.3 The Problem of Morality

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section you will learn:

  1. The difficulty of basing foreign policy on moral standards.

Another conundrum of international relations is that private moralityThe idea that there are standards of behavior that apply to all persons and should be practiced by all persons. and the morality of public policy may not always coincide. On a personal level, most of us wouldn’t kill somebody. But with the state’s exclusive legal franchise on violence, states do send their soldiers off to kill other people, without penalty back home. Rightly or wrongly, states view that use of force as serving a higher purpose—preserving the state—that outweighs the personal rejection of murder as a tool of policy.

Some would argue that public morality—how states behave—should match how people expect to behave all the time. So a state is never justified in supporting tyranny in another state just to serve its own interests, nor should it commit acts overseas that it would never tolerate at home. Others argue that since a state must provide security to its citizens, it may be compelled to take extraordinary actions to preserve that security.

Sometimes the morality question appears to be 50 shades of gray. In the early 1980s, U.S. policy toward El Salvador was a subject of much debate inside the United States. Vietnam was still fresh in people’s minds, so it was a period when we were less likely to send in the Marines to try to clean things up. Nonetheless, the Cold WarThe general conflict between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies, roughly 1947–1991, for dominance in the post-World War II world. Called a cold war because it didn’t involve military conflict between the two superpowers, as opposed to a hot or shooting war. between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was still smoldering, and the U.S. found itself supporting a right-wing government that wasn’t noted for its respect for human rights and liberties. The opposition appeared to have Marxist leanings, so the U.S. government presumed they would support the Soviet agenda and export revolution to other non-communist states in Central and South America. The Salvadoran government, meanwhile, allowed if not encouraged right-wing paramilitary “death squads” to chase after the left-wing revolutionaries who opposed the government. So the U.S. found itself in the morally ambiguous position of supporting a government whose practices ran counter to much of what the United States says about itself.

A leftist professor at a seminar at the time emphatically declared that “A just person does justice,” implying that a good person would oppose the U.S. position and thereby support the rebels. But if you were to look carefully at the situation, may not have been as black-and-white as that professor tried to paint it. How does a just person do justice when justice in general appears to be in short supply?

In the case of El Salvador, it might have been possible for U.S. leaders to make other choices. The Salvadoran civil war, as it became to be known, was driven by poverty and extreme inequality of wealth. When civil unrest over extreme poverty and lack of economic opportunity grew, the government responded by violently cracking down on protests. The war lasted from roughly 1979 to 1992, with at least 70,000 people killed. Military successes by the rebels eventually led to peace negotiations and the rebel groups have since been allowed to participate in the political process.

From the U.S. point of view, the Carter and Reagan administrations saw evidence of the threat of Soviet and Cuban influence among the rebels. Now that the fog of the Cold War has cleared somewhat, that assessment may have been exaggerated; other accounts say that the main rebel groups were not interested in Soviet-style communism. The other issue for the U.S., operating from a realist perspective, was that failing to support the Salvadoran government would send the wrong message to both allies and to states on the fence amid the Cold War. A liberalist or constructivist approach to the problem, however, might have counseled putting pressure on the Salvadoran government to positively address the issues that were driving the rebellion in the first place.

The same ambiguity confronted U.S. citizens who opposed or supported U.S. efforts in Vietnam. While it was one thing to protest, say, the Vietnam War, it was quite another to argue that the Vietnamese communists were simply good-hearted revolutionaries along the lines of the American Founding Fathers. This was perhaps as nearsighted as blind support for the South Vietnamese government, which was also not a shining example of classical liberalism. But in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of opponents of the war tried to paint the Viet Cong as simple revolutionaries fighting to free their homeland. In fact, the war was as much about North Vietnam’s desire to reunite the country as it was about communism, and the north quickly marginalized the Viet Cong when they succeeded in defeating the south in 1975. The communist rulers of the reunited Vietnam proceeded to kill a lot of people, and sent a lot of people to camps for “re-education,” and generally curtailed civil and economic liberties. Unless you were a diehard Marxist, these were not the good guys any more than the South Vietnamese government had been the good guys. Since then, while Vietnam’s economy has since been liberalized, its political system has not. For example, journalists in Vietnam still get thrown for writing stories that are critical of the government.

Contrast El Salvador with Nicaragua, where at about the same time the U.S. pulled the plug on an oppressive, anti-communist dictator only to see a Marxist government take over and oppress different groups of people. This time the U.S. found itself supporting the rebels, while the new Nicaraguan government sought to limit civil and economic liberties of its citizens. One could argue that this was the right thing for them to do, or not. In any case, the resulting war eventually led to elections, and the somewhat Marxist Sandinistas were peacefully removed from power. an war; any close examination of the situation should have revealed a decided lack of white hats and good guys on either side. Again, the U.S. in this instance took a realist view of the situation and looked out for its own interests first. This happened even after Congress barred U.S. funding for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua; the Reagan administration began to secretly sell weapons to Iran, using the profits to fund the Contras. The U.S. ultimately got what it wanted—a non-Marxist government in Nicaragua—at a significant cost in human lives there.

The question remains, however, of how a “just person does justice” when justice is in short supply. So it can be a bit of a challenge to argue that foreign policy should be absolutely moral, because human beings can justify almost anything as moral. Any war probably looks like a just war to the people who are waging it. Granted, there is a line that we shouldn’t cross. No sane person argues that something like the Holocaust is moral, and the assumptions that underlie arguments for “a just war” may be absurd. But what is unconscionable in one setting may appear necessary in another.

These are the kinds of choices policymakers face, although that doesn’t mean that morality can’t enter into their decisions. During the Bush administration, U.S. officials, working overseas in places such as the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, used what amounted to torture to extract information from suspected terrorists being held there. International law forbids torture under any circumstances; Bush administration officials said it was justified so as to prevent further terrorist attacks on the U.S. In retrospect, many of the hundreds of detainees apparently were not terrorists, and the information gained from various forms of what amounted to torture was of questionable value. Bush administration officials argued otherwise, though the bulk of the evidence appears to be side with critics of the Guantanamo operation. It did put the U.S. the awkward position of appearing to ignore treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions, which protects the rights of war prisoners, to which the U.S. is a signee.

Key Takeaway

  • Morality is not entirely absent as a concern in foreign policy, but can be difficult to define and apply.


  1. What do you think is justified in terms of foreign policy behavior? Are there situations where a state would be justified in taking extraordinary measures to protect its citizens?
  2. To what extent should a powerful state such as the U.S. look out for itself first? Is that simply a wise policy, or simply a too-narrow definition of what U.S. interests are?