The moral dilemma of International Politics

The current crisis in Ukraine and the dispute over the Crimean peninsula has sparked an emotional debate on the legitimacy of Russia’s intervention that has eventually led to the Crimean parliament declaring itself independent from Ukraine to join the Russian Federation. Behind the strong words and propaganda narratives that are issued from both sides, ranging from crude conspiracy theories to direct threats, a much larger problem has begun to reveal itself.

Vladimir Putin’s policy is basically from the Cold War textbook, following the logic of power competition that has been described by realist theorists from Carl von Clausewitz to Kenneth Waltz. During the past twenty years, realism has not received much attention, the civil wars between ethnic groups and religious or ideological radicals shifted the focus of policy makers and scholars more towards liberal or constructivist approaches that are more capable of explaining violence among non-state actors.

Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only actor that had been capable of challenging the USA and NATO on a global level, it seemed convincing that new concepts and approaches for the 21st century security had to be developed. The brutal wars after Yugoslavia’s demise and ethnic cleansings committed by Serbian nationalists, the slaughter in Rwanda and especially the new threat of global terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq suggested that the power competition between states had come to an end.

Unatoned atrocities

As has been made obvious through Putin’s actions in Crimea, that assumption was premature and a closer look at the major conflicts with Western involvement in the past twenty years suggests that realism has actually never been dead. However current US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, wrote a rather drastic analysis of genocidal conflicts and wars with severe human rights violations and made it clear that humanitarian motives have actually never been a driving motive for military interventions, even if it has been stated otherwise.

The likelihood of an intervention to take place can be determined by realist theory rather well until today, if one takes a closer look at the underlying conflicts of interest for the actors involved. Gadaffi has been a liability since a long time, but how can any politician explain to the public why one would want to wage a war against him? But after the Arab Spring and the obvious massacres committed on his orders, it became relatively easy to justify a military campaign to end his regime – although justified under the responsibility to protect, the actual UN mandate never covered a regime change. Nevertheless, who was there to judge? Neither Russia nor China had any interest in Libya, so there was no need to challenge Sarkozy’s determination.

By contrast, although the death toll in Syria’s civil war has reached 150.000 victims, no military intervention on behalf of protecting human rights has even been considered. After the reports of chemical weapons use could no longer be denied, Barack Obama, who had previously drawn a “red line” and thus came under pressure, issued a few half-hearted threats against the Assad regime, but it remained obvious that any possible reaction would not exceed limited retaliatory strikes. With the eventual agreement on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons that has been negotiated through the crucial conciliation of Vladimir Putin, the Civil War with its humanitarian disaster suddenly vanished from the political agenda.

While Obama has received a lot of criticism for backing down so easily in the domestic political competition, it hasn’t so far sparked any considerable pressure on politicians in the West to actually do something about it. Most of the critics focused on the weakening of perception of the USA as determined actor on the global stage by any autocracies and dictatorial regimes around the world.

R2P – responsibility or vague recommendation?

But Obama’s reluctance to deal with Assad has revealed another problem in the West that has now encouraged Russia to seize its chance. Declaring moral values as guiding principles for foreign policy bears significant risks. Although the legally non-binding R2P norm sounds convincing, it contains serious obstacles when it comes to implementation. Since a states right to sovereignty is guaranteed under Article 2 of the UN Charter, any military intervention without a previous direct attack is a violation of international law. Thus the obligation to enforce compliance concerning the respect of human rights can only be executed to the extent where peaceful measures such as sanctions or political pressure apply.

Obviously that is often not the case, creating a conflict between basic human rights and international law – a conflict that in another way seems sensible to protect state sovereignty from being violated under false accusations. A look at the member states in the UN and their relation to human rights issues explains the necessity of such a safeguard, since even two of the veto powers on the Security Council have a difficult stance towards the issue of their own.

Thus the UN cannot act as an independent guardian over human rights protection, leaving the implementation of any moral issues to those states who have the will and the means to do so. And it has no means to sanction violations or abuses of power if there is no competing actor to enforce them. With that lack of enforcement capabilities all comes back to realism. Sovereign states can decide if they want to act, where to do so and what kinds of means they intend to use.

Making moral aspects the guiding principle of foreign policy requires acting in accordance to them. But acting only in cases where human rights issues coincide with political interests reduces moral values to subordinate justifications or – even worse – to excuses for power politics. Syria is the example where Russian interests collided with human rights issues and although Assad’s armed forces repeatedly even violated Turkish territory, no NATO state was willing to interfere since Syria belongs to the Russian sphere of influence and is of little strategic value to the West.

But if strategic interests are concerned, the West has shown little reluctance to ignore the concept of state sovereignty. Most notably, this has been the case in Iraq, but also in Libya or in Kosovo. Although the two latter examples included severe atrocities, a mandate to protect human rights never included the option to interfere in a process of secession. Hardly anyone would argue that Kosovo’s independence would have been possible without European support, which has opened the case for Moscow’s own excuse to intervene on Crimea.

Public support

Putting realism aside for a moment, it seems also enlightening to take a short look at the liberal approach to security issues. As has been described by Morawcsik, influential groups within a country are able to transport their own preferences into the agenda of policy makers in governments. This process can be shown best when it comes to preventing or ending military interventions. German chancellor Gerhard Schröder gained considerable sympathies during the election campaign in 2002 when he refused any German participation in the looming war against Iraq, public pressure also lead the member states of the multi-national forces in Afghanistan to withdraw their troops even though the initially proclaimed goals have never been reached.

It is crucial to keep public opinion in mind when formulating foreign policy goals, since the political costs of confrontations or military interventions can be very high. Especially in Europe, the public is reluctant to participate in any war and the preference for neutrality in armed conflicts is high. For Germany particularly, the vulnerability is very high as the economy strongly depends on exports and any disturbance on the world markets can easily lead to recession.

Following these findings, any moral approach to foreign policy will have to answer the question of consistency. Employing realist policies, but masking them with sound legitimizations will eventually harm the moral cause, since it is very easy to dismantle any claims of following higher values when governments are looking away in cases like Syria.

On the other hand, playing openly the realist card is an option for Vladimir Putin, but would do serious damage to any politician in the West. The combined effort of condemning Russia but actually not doing anything that will harm yourself might be morally questionable, but is politically sound. However, it would be dangerous and careless to ignore realism – and that implies that Russia’s actions cannot be just ignored.

What about Russia?

Of course Putin doesn’t want to play by European rules – and vice versa. In the current debate, it is popular to accuse the opponent of “justifying” Russia or even being in league with Putin, which is ridiculous, because any judgement by itself is a moral act and thus irrelevant since Moscow doesn’t share the European interpretation of moral. Russia accepted Crimea into the Federation because it could, like the US-led coalition attacked Iraq because there was no actor that was willing or capable to do something about it.

Thus the question is not if Europe likes what Putin is doing, the question is what it is willing to pay to assert its demands. Moscow has made more than clear that it is not taking the risk of relying on the Wests reassurances – since many commentators are drawing comparisons to World War II, one thing should be kept in mind: treaties can be broken and Russia learned that the hard way.


One thought on “The moral dilemma of International Politics

  1. Pingback: The moral dilemma of International Politics | Kenneth T. Gund

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