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Foreign policy Human Rights

Integrity and Voodoo

Switzerland: The Disneyland of liberty? Photo: Loren Javier/flickr

Freedom House has long held the view that there is a correlation between human trafficking and despotic political regimes. If you read the latest world trafficking report by the US State Department and compare it with Freedom House’s most recent list, you’ll see what I mean.

The State Department’s report looks at the type and extent of trafficking activity, as well as the government response, in order to assess a country’s commitment to protecting human rights.

So, which country might we expect to be the most vigilant in ending modern day slavery?

Given the general relationship between regime type and human rights record, one would expect Switzerland, which has the highest score in political rights and civil liberties, to lead the field in the fight against this egregious human rights violation.

But ironically for a country so often represented as a Disneyland of liberty and whose influence in the world depends on this conception, Switzlerand is the only Western democracy (other than Iceland) that turns in a second-tier performance in the State Department’s rankings.

Which brings us to the question of  integrity in foreign policy. This year’s report by the Obama administration is, among other things, part of an attempt to recover the lost integrity of US foreign policy. It is the first report to assess US anti-trafficking efforts alongside those of other countries.

If there is an Obama Doctrine, this is it. As the President laid out in the 2010 National Security Strategy:

“Our moral leadership is grounded principally in the power of our example, not through an effort to impose our system on other peoples. Yet over the years, some methods employed in pursuit of our security have compromised our fidelity to the values that we promote, and our leadership on their behalf.”

The message here is that a lack of fidelity to fundamental values– in other words, a lack of integrity — as in the more muscular liberalism of previous administrations, can undercut the effectiveness of a foreign policy. Integrity seems to resonate with the Obama administration.  While integrity is, in the first place, a relationship to oneself, it is also inescapably social. What one ‘is’ — and thus what it means to be faithful to oneself and one’s values — lies just as much in the eyes of others as one’s own.

A foreign policy which holds integrity as its first virtue is always conducive to the national interest, as it respects the self, the other, and the common. Call it practicing ‘statesmanship,’ or acting with ‘ethical competence.’ In Clinton’s words, looking inwards and correcting one’s own peccancies strengthens one’s diplomatic position.

There is no low-hanging fruit in international politics. So, if they want to do themselves a favor, Swiss foreign policy mandarins should spend less of their time wondering whether Voodoo rituals are used to control trafficking victims, as one of their reports has it, and more on how to give their foreign policy some backbone.

4 replies on “Integrity and Voodoo”

Thank you for your comment! What you highlight is the traditional concern in ethical foreign policy: that of reconciling one’s moral compass (‘ethically correct behavior’) with protecting and enhancing the national interest. If one skim through the classical IR literature and conventional narrative used by foreign policy makers it almost seems that the two are incompatible, rival concepts that essentially pull in different directions. I, for one, reject this postulation.

I agree with Chris Brown’s argument on ‘pop-realism’. With this concept Brown argues that the assumption that ethics and national interests are two dichotomous doctrines of foreign policy thinking is by and large only ‘populist thinking’.

There are several nuanced realist views which believe that morals have a place in international politics, as long as they don’t conflict with the interests of power. This is what Terry Nardin and David Mapel calls ‘hedged realism’, that morals are “operative but not controlling.”

One can even argue that Hobbes adopts a moral standpoint in his argument on the ‘morality of states’. However, on this view only a social contract can make moral action possible; and social contracts only exist at the state level the rest is, as we know, ‘anarchy’.

Why I bring up Hobbes is to show that however we like it, morality and ethical language is in the fabric of international politics. Of course I, and many others, don’t agree with Hobbes’s position because it is essentially self-contradictory as he invokes moral language to refute the idea of morals in foreign policy. What is interesting, and what I believe is mainly a product of a maturing international society, is that states today are actively seeking to solve the puzzle of reconciling ethics with national interests.

My suggestion is that this can be done by holding integrity as the first virtue in foreign policy. This is because integrity is, as I outlined in my initial blog-post, itself a morally loaded concept compatible with the existing system of sovereign states and, as such, a state’s national interest (again, see Mervyn Frosts’s article).

Another way to go about this which, I guess, addresses your question in a more direct way is the idea of “good international citizenship”. To get your head around this concept I recommend reading Tim Dunne and Nicholas Wheeler’s article on UK Foreign Policy during the “Third Way” thinking in British politics.

“…good international citizenship departs from the traditional realist approach to foreign policy because it rejects the assumption that the national interest always pulls in the opposite direction to the promotion of human rights. Moreover, in contrast to idealism, which sees an underlying harmony of moral principles, advocates of good international citizenship recognize that ‘terrible moral choices have sometimes to be made’. The belief that it is possible to transcend the traditional rival doctrines is entirely consistent with the philosophy of the third way. To this end, we contend that good international citizenship is the appropriate strategy for a foreign minister negotiating the third way in the world.”

The message here is essentially one of defeat. There cannot be an ethical foreign policy that doesn’t involve ‘dirty hands’; there are always terrible choices to be made. Robin Cook (the late British Foreign Minister under the Blair administration and a self-proclaimed champion of ‘good international citizenship’) himself experienced one such terrible choice when he choose to go ahead with arms sales to some suppressive regimes (in this case helicopters to Indonesia). The point with good international citizenship is that one (the state) keeps trying to be a good citizen in an international society and that one stays true to oneself. So in this way good international citizenship also falls within foreign policy integrity.

I noted with great interest the theme about the increased relevance that the agreed ethical language are have gained lately.
Besides the competition of the moral upperhand the use of the a certain ethical language, it can also serve for the purpose of undermining the foundation of the international laws and norms, and thus alter them as the basis to being critized upon.
As the abovementioned example of Russia and Georgia, the usage of terms of sovereignty contrasted with the case of Kosovo provides an example on how the usage of the same terminology is being employed to undermine the legitimacy of the actors critisised Russia for violating sovereignity of the state. Do this constitute a problem to the foundation of the agreed ethical language or is a logical effect since the interaction takes place within this context? I would be thrilled to hear your view

First of all, thank you for the comment. I will take this opportunity to follow up with a justification for what I assert as a very important virtue in foreign policy. I think the response to the “integrity…so what?” objection is best refuted by, first, looking back to Bush and Blair’s global governance philosophy in the ‘war on terror’, and, secondly, by reflecting a few moments on Adm. Michael Mullen’s view on strategic communication in contemporary US foreign policy.

So first up, George Bush famously stated in the 2002 NSS that “Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world…as the greatest power on earth we have an obligation to help spread freedom”. As a method to fulfill this obligation and ‘win’ the war on terror the President, together with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, adopted a governance philosophy that would accelerate the historical trajectory Francis Fukuyama championed in the End of History. Namely, democracy and free market economy. This policy rested on the belief that these liberal institutions really had global resonance.

With risk of oversimplification, this logic vindicated the President and the Prime Minister’s policy to redirect governance structures from the political (as the domain of contestation), to the (more efficient, and morally superlative) market. The ‘end of history’ argument also justified their desire to escape the pulling and hauling at the UNSC, to instead pursue foreign policy goals through a ‘coalition of the wiling’ that acted on behalf of the ‘international community’.

However, by taking on the role as history’s actors and pursuing policies which were largely based on self-legitimization, Bush and Blair imputed immutable ends to essentially normative affairs and, by so doing, undermined the democratic virtues they were supposed to uphold. Not only did this undercut their legitimacy, these policies also undermined their credibility and integrity as moral actors.

The repercussions were expressed most vehemently by what Chalmers Johnson called the “blowback” of terrorism. Rather than firing magic bullets the coercive and transcendental nature of the ‘war on terror’ threw poison darts and promoted the cause of militant Islamic fundamentalism that, ultimately, undermined both homeland and international security. Bush and Blair’s governance policy were undone by its own instruments.

The point is that their foreign policy suffered dramatically from a lack of integrity. By acting as history’s actors the President and the Prime Minister’s words didn’t align with their deeds.

Why is acting with ethical competence, or “statesmanship,” becoming more relevant today than before? First of all, the premise of this question is not entirely true. Statesmanship has always been a desired virtue in foreign policy makers. The difference is that in the last decade or two international society has grown to include more actors and has reached a level of fundamental agreement on certain ethical language. This is what makes it more relevant than before.

As Mervyn Frost observes: “More often than not, rival parties formulate their analyses and policy choices in language that appeals to a common set of value commitments.” We see this in the conflict between Russia and Georgia who both resort to language of sovereign equality, sanctity of state borders, and the right of a state to pursue their self-interest and self-defense etc…

What the common ethical language point to is that international interaction is becoming a struggle for the ethical upper hand in a way that hasn’t been witnessed before. In an age were soft power supplants hard power actors are more vulnerable to ethical assessments and insights by other parties.

Now, I’d like to contend that what constitutes the ‘ethical upper hand’ is obviously complying with international norms and law, but also minimizing discrepancies between words and deeds to avoid negative ethical criticism and the loss of standing that goes with it.

Why do foreign policy makers do best in acting with ethical competence? There are three reasons. First of all, the constitutive nature of international politics requires it. Mutual recognition is the prerequisite for participating in norm-creation in international politics. The level of compliance with international norms profess the health of a foreign policy as norms are themselves (if the social constructivist argument holds true) what constitute us as who we value ourselves to be.

But there is also a purely tactical point to be made as well. As Mike Mullen argued in a newsarticle, in this day and age the US’s biggest problem isn’t terrorists hiding in caves, it is it the credibility of US foreign policy. Mullen proposed that US ‘strategic communication’ strategy lacked credibility because it underperformed in building relationships and trust. CFR expert on US foreign policy James Lindsay reached pretty much the same conclusion in his latest article on US foreign policy.

Mullen argued that a strat comm policy is on the wrong foot when it becomes a “thing instead of a process”, or, if you like, when we become consequentialists instead of deontologists. His message was that communication does not operate under the same cause-effect logic as firing rockets and missiles. If we get too preoccupied with the end product we run the risk of forgetting the importance of the journey. As the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There needs to be a balance between strategy and statesmanship where operational context decides which of the two should take priority. I highly recommend reading the fascinating article by Robert Kagan on how the Cold War was won on the moments where statesmanship took precedence over strategy.

Mullen seems to echo this belief:

“The voyage of the Great White Fleet told the world that the United States was no longer a second-rate nation. The Marshall Plan made it clear that our strength was only as good as it was shared. The policy of containment let it be known we wouldn’t stand for the spread of communism. And relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters all over the world said calmly and clearly: we will help you through this.”

These are no startling news: a foreign policy that appreciates the virtue of integrity functions on its own moral attractiveness. The Marshall Plan didn’t have a strat comm plan per se, nor does one underpin foreign aid policy. Mullen believes that the essence of good communication is “having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.” This can, of course, not be done if one has dirty hands.

The third reason for paying due attention to foreign policy integrity is what Gillian Youngs argue as the ‘new home front’. Cover ups and charades are becoming increasingly hard to pull off as the distinction between ‘over there’ and ‘in here’ blurs, and the level of transparency social media and instant communication increase. When words don’t align with actions defamers are ruthless in pointing this out. This is also partly why Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, writes on ‘brining US foreign policy home’.

The argument for foreign policy integrity is therefore maybe best understood as a natural response to the changing dynamics of foreign affairs. Foreign policy has become too complex to separate strategic, tactic and operational from each other. Put simply, by making integrity the first virtue in foreign policy the statesman reduces the risk for letting what Norbert Elias argued a “civilising process degenerate into a decivilizing process.” In other words, where good intentions backfire because of the agent’s lack of legitimacy in pursuing the specific goal. (For a good application of Elias’s thought consult Andrew Linklater’s latest article.) In a day and age where foreign policy increasingly strives to make the world a better place, I believe this observation answer some of the criticism from the “integrity…so what?” position.

Interesting, but I am missing the ‘so what?’ justification, why does this matter. I would be interested in your view.

Secondly, Obama can make an attempt of doing better than previous Presidents in his rhetoric and policy but Presidents work in 4-year cycles, the rest of the world doesn’t – their memory is longer. People across the world may have a favourable view of Obama’s policy, but not of America’s. They know that America’s ‘integrity’ level changes every four (or eight) years.

Countries like Switzerland should have an easier time putting some backbone to their foreign policy because they are more homogenous than the divisive politicking of America. Consistency in policy = predictability and stability, that should be good for most countries and their foreign policy integrity. But would it be good for the US, would they be world leaders if the were predictable?

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