Kaplan’s Primer on Ethics and IR

Why shouldn’t the US support the rebels of Syria? We get why the intellectually pure “realists” might apply their theory–but how should it work in the real world of give and take? Robert Kaplan does a fine job using 20th century history as a backdrop:

Morality is different for countries, he writes:

Thus, to raise morality as a sole arbiter is ultimately not to be serious about foreign policy. R2P must play as large a role as realistically possible in the affairs of state. But it cannot ultimately dominate. Syria is the current and best example of this. U.S. power is capable of many things, yet putting a complex and war-torn Islamic society’s house in order is not one of them.

So why isn’t supporting a rebel force against a tyrant both the “right thing” to do and the strategically advantageous approach?

Because the United States is a liberal power, its interests—even when they are not directly concerned with human rights—are generally moral. But they are only secondarily moral. For seeking to adjust the balance of power in one’s favor has been throughout history an amoral enterprise pursued by both liberal and illiberal powers. Nevertheless, when a liberal power like the United States pursues such a goal in the service of preventing war among major states, it is acting morally in the highest sense.

The article in The National Interest does a great job of explain how a pragmatic realist sees the world–and why this approach works.


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