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Owen Harries: Morality In Foreign Policy

The Centre for Independent Studies
Media Release
Wednesday 16 February 2005

Owen Harries: Morality in Foreign Policy

The intense debate over the war in Iraq and American foreign policy has raised age-old questions about the rights and wrongs of intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, the pre-emptive use of force and the 'export' of democracy, but there has been little attempt to acknowledge and confront the special difficulties of discussing moral issues in the peculiar conditions and circumstances of international politics.

In a paper to be released on Wednesday 16 February, titled Morality and Foreign Policy, Owen Harries explores the intellectual heritage of two opposing positions on morality and foreign policy: the minimalist approach of the realist school, resigned to the amorality of power politics, and the hands-on idealism of liberal internationalists (and confident nationalists) determined to apply a universal moral code to which all states should conform.

Harries considers both positions seriously flawed, with realists dismissing the application of morality to foreign policy as at best marginal, or even completely irrelevant, while idealists do not see it as presenting any serious problem.

'The danger implicit in an approach to foreign policy based on the "ethic of ultimate ends", one which insists on the existence of only one valid and universal moral code which must always be adhered to, is that, by ruling out compromise and flexibility, it will either immobilise, or, if an actor feels powerful enough, lead to a messianic, crusading policy to ensure that one true good prevails.'

Harries instead looks to the middle ground and argues that: 'The morality that is appropriate to, and that can be sustained in, the soiled, selfish and dangerous world of power politics is a modest one, whose goal is not perfection - not utopian bliss - but decency' - and whose guiding principle is prudence.

'Prudence does not mean timidity. But in a system composed of a large number of independent and conflicting wills, uncertain intelligence, deadly weapons, different cultures and no universally recognised and enforceable authority, it does require modesty: modesty of ends, of means, and - not least - of rhetoric'.

'Prudence requires resisting the impulse to claim the right to double standards-one for other people, a different and more permissive one for oneself, usually on the grounds that one represents higher values or has special responsibilities.'

'To insist on the right to double standards or to operate blatantly in terms of them, is to undermine one's own moral position and to store up trouble in the form of culminating resentment and lack of credibility.'

It is also to establish precedence that may come home to haunt us.

Owen Harries is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and was Editor-in-Chief of the Washington-based, foreign policy journal, The National Interest from 1985-2001.

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