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  • Ethics in a Shifting International LandscapeThe SAIS Review Editorial Board
  • The Editorial Board

The distinction between what is and what ought to be is a powerful one in international affairs. During much of the twentieth century, many scholars of international affairs decided to focus on the “is” instead of the “ought to be,” and the realist notion of a “national interest” that supersedes almost all other ethical imperatives drove some policymakers to make what are now widely considered to be tragic decisions. It was Nixon and Kissinger’s notion of the national interest that led to US military operations in Cambodia that carried a near-incalculable human cost. A similar adherence to the national interest caused the Clinton administration to turn its back on the genocide in Rwanda, and the second Bush administration to begin two wars that still cost the lives of US soldiers today. In each of these cases, there was a clear distinction between what leaders believed the situation was and what they thought it ought to be, and the imperative to protect the national interest above all else drove them to focus on what was. Kissinger would later write in Foreign Affairs, “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”1

Yet ethics are still widely considered to be an important force in international relations. The formation of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice after World War II was a commitment by the international community to never again perpetrate or tolerate the atrocities they had just experienced. International trade and security agreements proliferated to form a system of common values that now govern commercial and political conduct worldwide. Policymakers began to see “universal” ethical imperatives not as sources of friction to be avoided in pursuit of the national interest, but as sources of national strength. Speaking a decade after Kissinger penned his Foreign Affairs article, Ted Sorensen made the case for ethics as a pillar of American foreign policy, proclaiming that “our greatest strength has long been not merely our military might but our moral authority. Our surest protection against assault from abroad has been not all our guards, gates, and guns or even our two oceans, but our essential goodness as a people.”2

The difficulty of moral reasoning in the realm of international affairs rests in the speed at which conditions change. Both Kissinger’s and Sorensen’s views of the role of ethics in foreign policy are being challenged today. US [End Page 1] policymakers face increasing pressure to confront autocratic regimes in Russia, China, and Syria that are actively imprisoning, torturing, and killing their citizens to protect what their leaders consider their national interests. At the same time, the Trump administration and many of its supporters seem to no longer consider the ethical values that underpin historically US-led institutions to be worth American blood and treasure. The sudden shift in favor of a realpolitik view of the national interest has had consequences: several career policymakers, veteran diplomats, and decorated soldiers have resigned from the Trump administration citing moral objections to the administration’s broad policy of global retrenchment. Others see the shift as a return to what should be the highest imperative of those in office: protecting the national interest, even at the expense of allies and innocents. The normative frameworks that govern global institutions, human rights, and national security are changing, and the ethical considerations that guide policymakers are likely to change with them.

Volume 39, Issue 1 of the SAIS Review considers how moral values shape the interactions of nations and leaders in today’s international system and explores the interaction between personal ethical imperatives and institutional demands that shape the environment in which foreign policy decisions are made. This volume spans the boundary between scholarly inquiry and practical experience and features writing from leading scholars of ethics and international affairs who study this interaction, practitioners who experienced it firsthand, and aspiring policymakers who will contend with it in the future.

Amitav Acharya, Distinguished Professor of International Relations and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at American University, begins the issue with a hopeful...


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