Moralizing International Politics

BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Dec 2017

Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

This article makes an appeal to bridge the chasm between the practice of international politics and the universal moral principles. Violation of moral principles has emerged a norm than exception in international politics. States and global institutions have proved ineffective to checkmate violent conflicts and wanton killings as in Syria. It is not they are incapable or lack resources. The problem lies elsewhere. Ego is a major cause behind much of the hazards in international politics. The article problematizes ego and calls for a broader thinking in international politics.  

Ban Ki-moon, the former head of the United Nations, expressed the frustration of our age. He lamented: “It should shame us all…the suffering of the Syrian people continues to plumb new depths … The international community, and in particular the Security Council, cannot afford to waste any further time in ending the cycle of violence… it is time to find an exit from this madness” (The United Nations 2015). Syria provides a stark example before us how states and global institutions have proved ineffective to ensure international peace and security. Within a span of six years since the crisis erupted, more than 400,000 people lost lives and unaccountable others uprooted. The powerful states in the United Nations flexed muscles over means to realize peace. Peace remained elusive.

One of the factors that contribute to the ineffectiveness of the international community and its leaders is the technological-moral chasm. There has been rapid growth in technology, particularly the communication technology, but the thinking pattern has not witnessed parallel growth. The old primordial way of thinking has not changed. The archetypal thinking in terms of binaries – mine vs thine, us vs them, my group vs rival group – has not evolved over centuries though major changes appeared in the structure and organization of human living. This thinking has produced a paradox. In the midst of developed technology, globalization and discourses of a flat and borderless world, the states are engaged in re-bordering practices. Technology has been used to rigidify barriers – us vs them – through narrow visions of security. Both hard power and soft power are used to strengthen these binaries in thinking and practice.

Does seclusion/isolation help? Is an isolated state immune from insecurity beyond its borders? In this age of globalization, how would states ensure safety at home when there is violence outside? The global concerns such as terrorism, religious extremism and climate change transcend state borders. Isolation as a foreign policy strategy might have worked in the past, but in the contemporary world isolation implies invitation to more problems. A small happening in a small part of the globe can shape international developments. How would erecting barriers ensure security of one state while other states undergo violent crises? Does eerie calm imply peace? When minds are disturbed, security is fragile, peace is uneasy, when we have blatantly messed up with Nature, how would we ensure the survival of human race in the decades and centuries to come?

The states spend billions of dollars in building weapons, while vouching disarmament. States spent around 1686 billion US dollars on defense in 2016. Contrast this figure with another figure: from 2014 to 2016, about 795 million people in the world suffered from chronic undernourishment. Is it not a violation of human moral principle to invest billions in weapons to secure people and borders while people remain hungry?

Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo argued, like individuals, states have egos– amplified through national habits, prejudices and idiosyncrasies (Sri Aurobindo 1962). When applied to international politics, they lead to jingoism, exploitation and wars, leading to practices like colonialism and imperialism. Colonialism and imperialism, one of the worst forms of exploitation, have ended. However, they were only manifestation of an exploitative substructure. The root, the ego, is intact, and its manifestation has acquired new shapes. The Indian philosopher argued that state ego could evolve when state leaders think in terms of larger human unity and harmony. The establishment of the United Nations, after the failure of the League of Nations, was hailed as a right step in this direction. The UN was established with a promise to ensure dignity and equality to all states. Has this happened?

If the ultimate goal of human life is peace and security, then the theories of international politics have not fared well. Grand theorizing might provide a big picture and offer plausible explanations of developments, but they largely fail to account small developments at small places with big implications. Should not theories suggest ways to address state egos and its various avatars? Explaining developments in retrospect maybe useful as it offers insights for future action, but unless there is an active agenda to realize global peace, the theories would be limiting in their usefulness. Social science theories, dealing with human beings and their behaviors, stand in contrast to physical science theories, which deal with matter, mostly insentient. The post-behavioralism trend in political science that emerged in late 1960s due to ‘deep dissatisfaction in political research and teaching’ called for ‘new strategies in science’. David Easton in his presidential address at American Political Science Association in 1969 called for “the development of new norm of behavior” as the post-behavioral trend “sees policy engagement as a social responsibility of the intellectual…” He further agued, “Someday it may also require the release of the social scientist from bondage to the unique needs and objectives of his own national political system” (Easton 1969, 1061). The trend, however, petered out quickly. Now is the time to revive this trend.

Some theories suggest that the world has become a better place to live since inter-state wars have declined. Are we living in a more secure and peaceful world? What about wars within communities and states and their international ramifications? How does one define conflict in Syria – intrastate, interstate or both, or a more dangerous face of traditional rivalries? Thousands of fault lines along regions, religions, races, ethnicities have emerged. Even the threat of interstate wars with a nuclear angle cannot be undermined. The present crisis can be compared to a can of worms, with worms – multiple conflicts at various levels – continuously crawl out, in all shapes, sizes and colors and challenge individuals and states alike.

The dilemma over pleasure, happiness and peace was well depicted in the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. The philosopher asked the Emperor Alexander, who offered him all comforts of life, not to block sun light and that was all what he needed from him. With a lantern in his hand, Diogenes searched for an honest man. This act may defy rational understanding, but it contains a deeper message, which can help salvage humanity from the multiple crises. Pretensions, subterfuges, and other instruments meant for tangential gains bring hazards in its trail and harm the perpetrator. Gandhi’s caution rings true: “For one man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department. Life is one indivisible whole” (Gandhi 1969, 571).

A report titled, “Welcome to Miami, Massachusetts” claimed that if the greenhouse gas emission continues at the current rate, “… by 2100 Boston’s average summer-high temperatures will likely be more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they are now, ‘making it feel as steamy as North Miami Beach is today’” (Annear 2014). A large iceberg of the size of Delaware broke off from an ice shelf in Antarctica in July 2017. According to a report, “global warming has pushed temperatures up to 5 degrees higher in the region since the 1950s and could increase up to 7 degrees more by the end of the century, putting more stress on the ice” (Rice 2017). Tony de Brum, the former Marshall Islands Foreign Minister, nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for his role in Paris Climate agreement, died recently at the age of 72. Brum witnessed the ‘Bravo shot,’ the thermonuclear test at Bikini Atoll when he was 9 years old. He became a champion of nuclear disarmament and environment protection. Brum, whose island home went under waters due to rising ocean, argued, “The thought of evacuation is repulsive to us…We think that the more reasonable thing to do is to seek to end this madness, this climate madness, where people think that smaller, vulnerable countries are expendable and therefore they can continue to do business as usual” (The Guardian 2017). Gandhi’s ‘Nature has for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed’ provides a powerful message. Unless the very basic thinking of states and their leaders change, it will be difficult to moralize international politics.

Plato devised a scheme of governance in which the king, the modern equivalent of president/prime minister, must be a philosopher. The king must undergo decades of education to govern the state. The king and his class must rise above the notions of mine and thine, live a communal life, eat in common kitchen, transcend boundaries of family and group, and become free to dedicate his life to state. Applying the Platonic yardstick to modern day kings, leaders of modern states, may appear farfetched, but it provides a vision how a leader should govern a state.

For moralizing international politics, one state does not have to dominate or be dominated. Morality requires collective conscience and action. The states, through their leaders, need to develop an integral moral psychology that informs social, economic and political worlds as they interact and shape each other. Powerful states may provide leadership in this direction.

References:

Annear, Steve (2014) Welcome to Miami, Massachusetts. Boston Daily, July 11, http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2014/07/11/climate-central-map-heat-boston-miami/, accessed 4 July 2017.

Easton, David (1969) The New Revolution in Political Science. The American Political Science Review; 63 (4):1051-1061.

Gandhi, Mahatma (1969) The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. 32. New Delhi: The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Rice, Doyle (2017) Massive iceberg nearly the size of Delaware breaks off Antarctica. USA Today, 12 July, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/sciencefair/2017/07/12/massive-iceberg-breaks-off-antarctica/102637874/, accessed 4 July 2017.

Sri Aurobindo (1962) Human Cycle, the Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

The Guardian (2017) Tony de Brum, champion of Paris climate agreement, dies aged 72, 23 August, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/23/tony-de-brum-champion-of-paris-climate-agreement-dies-aged-72, accessed 24 August 2017.

The United Nations (2015) Statement by the Secretary-General on the Third Anniversary of the Geneva Communique on Syria.  30 June, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/06/30/world/middleeast/ap-un-united-nations-syria.html, accessed 5 August 2017.

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Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Non-Violence, Human Rights and World Peace at Hindu University of America in Florida, and a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston. He is an Indian commentator and his areas of interest include conflict transformation and peacebuilding in South and Central Asia. His edited book Conflict and Peace in Eurasia was published by Routledge in 2013.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Dec 2017.

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