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George Bush's Iraq adventure is rich in dangerous precedents

By Owen Harries - posted Wednesday, 2 March 2005

Judgement is needed in foreign policy decisions, not just principles.

To a remarkable degree, the debate over Iraq has been conducted in moral terms. President Bush has justified his policies in terms of implementing God's will, of "freedom on the march" and conferring the gift of democracy on those unable to achieve it for themselves. His liberal critics have condemned him for, among other things, flouting the alleged moral authority of the United Nations and "the international community", the improper pre-emptive use of force and deliberately lying about the evidence used to justify going to war.

All this raises an important and difficult question: What is - what can be - the role of morality in international politics? Over the years there have been two diametrically opposed views on the subject. Each has a long and distinguished intellectual pedigree, but simpler versions of both can be heard in any bar, common room, board room or at any dinner party.


The first holds that in the realm of international politics, power and self-interest must prevail, and all the rest is decoration. "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must", wrote Thucydides 2,500 years ago, and given the state of anarchy, distrust and chronic insecurity in which states continue to exist, that remains true today. At best, there is only room for a little altruism and disinterestedness at the margins.

The second view, usually associated with liberalism, is that there is not, or need not be, any problem in applying moral criteria to the conduct of foreign policy. As John Bright, the great 19th century English radical, put it, "the moral law was not written for men alone in their individual character ... it was written as well for nations". That this truth is not understood and acted upon is due to ignorance, and the influence exerted by special interests of a selfish and bellicose kind. A combination of education, democracy, the spread of commerce and the creation of international institutions can, however, remove these impediments. This view was propagated vigorously by Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States.

Both these positions seem - to me - to be seriously flawed. The first - which usually invites the cynical conclusion that "they're all the same" - is wrong because, even though all states do pursue their own interests, the nature and quality of those interests differ greatly, often in morally significant ways. Britain and Germany were both selfishly pursuing their own interests in World War II, and both did terrible things in the process, but it did not follow that it was a matter of moral indifference who won the war - democratic Britain or Nazi Germany. The same was true of the Cold War.

As for the second position, I believe it is profoundly mistaken in its belief that states can realistically be held to the same moral standards as individuals. Individuals, if they choose, can be as self-sacrificing, generous and compassionate as they like, even to the point of self-destruction. They can be saints or martyrs, putting virtue before everything, even survival. States, and those who act in their name, cannot properly be nor do any of those things.

Where then, does this leave the matter? I am not a believer that the truth is usually or always somewhere in the middle, but in this instance I think it is. Moral standards can and should be applied to foreign policy.  But the morality that is appropriate to, and can be sustained in, the soiled, selfish and dangerous world of power politics is a modest one. Its goal is not perfection - not utopian bliss - but decency. It is, more often than not, a morality of the lesser evil, of prudence.

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, a prudent morality requires modesty - modesty of ends, of means, and not least of rhetoric.


A prudential ethic places importance on those most mundane of virtues - order and stability. These do not, of course, constitute a sufficient condition for anything. But they are a necessary condition for everything whose achievement and smooth functioning require a degree of predictability and continuity, for example: a system of justice, or genuine democracy, or sustainable commercial relations.

Prudence requires a willingness to settle for half a loaf, rather than making the best the enemy of the good. Compromise is usually an intellectual vice - muddle masquerading as tolerance, except, however, in the most extreme cases of dealing with outright and threatening evil, where it is a political necessity and virtue - especially in conditions in which the alternative is usually a resort to force.

Prudence requires doing everything possible to anticipate the possibility of unintended consequences. It requires care in the setting of precedents that may come home to roost, and an appreciation of why some rules and conventions that may seem redundant have withstood the test of time so well.

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Article edited by Leah Wedmore.
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This article was first published in The Age  on February 21, 2005.

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About the Author

Owen Harries is a Visiting Fellow of the Lowy Institute and was Editor-in-Chief of the Washington-based, foreign policy journal, The National Interest from 1985-2001.

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