6 - Morality and foreign policy  pp. 161-192

Morality and foreign policy

By Jack Donnelly

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Although motivation, anarchy, structure, and international institutions have dominated recent academic discussions of realism, the exclusion of morality from foreign policy is a no less important feature of realism both in the popular understanding and in the work of many earlier realists. “Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (Morgenthau 1954: 9). “The process of government … is a practical exercise and not a moral one” (Kennan 1954: 48). “The search for power is not made for the achievement of moral values; moral values are used to facilitate the attainment of power” (Spykman 1942: 18). The problem of morality in international relations also flows naturally from the discussion of norms in the preceding chapter and relates directly to our earlier discussions of state motives and the national interest.

Human nature and international anarchy

Realists often appeal to “the limitations which the sordid and selfish aspects of human nature place on the conduct of diplomacy” (Thompson 1985: 20). “The ultimate sources of social conflicts and injustices are to be found in the ignorance and selfishness of men” (Niebuhr 1932: 23). “Man cannot achieve [justice,] for reasons that are inherent in his nature. The reasons are three: man is too ignorant, man is too selfish, and man is too poor” (Morgenthau 1970: 63). To act on moral concerns in the face of pervasive human evil, realists argue, would be foolish, even fatal.

But human nature is not only selfish and evil. Most realists allow that “men are motivated by other desires than the urge for power and that power is not the only aspect of international relations” (Spykman 1942: 7).