Ideals And International Relations
Vincent Ferraro, Mount Holyoke College
A Talk to the Antioch New England Graduate School
Keene, New Hampshire
3 March 2003

For a Swedish Translation of the Speech courtesy of Daniela Milton, click here.

In 1984, Marshall Cohen observed that:

[T]o an alarming degree, the history of international relations is a history of selfishness and brutality. It is a story in which spying, deceit, bribery, disloyalty, ingratitude, betrayal, exploitation, plunder, repression, subjection, and genocide are all too conspicuous. And it is a history that may well culminate in the moral catastrophe of nuclear war. 1

In the year 2003, viewed from the perspective of recent events in Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, East Timor, and the World Trade Center, one may reasonably assert that Professor Cohen was too charitable in his characterization of international relations. Indeed, the future seems only to hold out the near certainties of war in the Middle East and horrific acts of terrorism.

Is there a place for ideals in such a world? Or is the world stage a space reserved only for struggle for power with morality nothing more than the interest of the strongest disguised by soothing and fulsome rhetoric?

At the end of this speech I will argue that the dichotomy I have just constructed is misleading. But to get to that point, I will first use the dichotomy as an analytic tool.

Do ideals and interests genuinely conflict?

One of the time-honored traditions in the study of international relations is political realism and this perspective most emphatically denies any important role to
ideals. 2 Perhaps the classic statement of political realism was offered by Thucydides in his interpretation of the negotiations between Athens and the people of the island of Melos. In demanding the surrender of the Melians, the Athenians rebuffed the assertion that their actions were unjust or unfair:

Then we on our side will use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us--a great mass of words that nobody would believe….Instead we recommend that you should try to get what is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept. 3

Many voices have been added to the chorus of political realists since that time: Heraclitus, Thrasymachus, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Croce, Bismarck, Nietzsche, Carr, Aron, Kennan, Morgenthau, and Kissinger. The variety of thought articulated by these intellectuals is astonishing, but all of them shared, to a greater or lesser extent, the belief that ideals and interests exist in separate universes, and that the universe of interests was decisive in defining morality.

In order to maintain this position and still remain moral men (and they were all men), these analysts found it necessary to separate the affairs of state from the affairs of normal humanity. In the latter universe, morality could be critically important and could be formulated and defended in a variety of different ways. But in affairs of state, there was no natural law, no code other than expediency and power, and no universal standard of right. For Croce, in the realm of international politics, lies were not lies, nor were murders, murders. 4

It is on this separation of private from public morality that political realists justified their actions. The State was to defend the ideals of the Nation, but to do this the state had to survive first. The sine qua non of statehood was political autonomy and territorial integrity-without these attributes there could be no citizens, and, thus, no ideals to defend. In order to preserve the state, its defenders must have more power relative to other states. Therefore, the primary interest of the state was to accumulate power, and any action that secured that objective was morally justifiable. More importantly, any statesperson who refused, on grounds of personal morality, to take actions necessary to defend the state was morally derelict. 5

Interpreting this imperative is difficult: the objective of accumulating power depends upon the particular circumstances of a state, and power itself is extraordinarily difficult to define as it depends not only upon the capability to exercise it but also the will to use it. Hans Morgenthau offered the following elements of power: geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, the quality of diplomacy, the quality of government. 6 Many of these elements are concrete and tangible and there is little doubt that most realists prefer to articulate a state's interests in such terms.

If, however, the citizens of a state demanded that those interests be articulated in moral terms, the realist would oblige the charade. As the French Foreign Minister Walewski told Bismarck in 1857: "it was the business of a diplomat to cloak the interests of this country in the language of universal justice." 7 The willingness of realists to disguise their pursuit of interests as the pursuit of ideals often makes it difficult to discern their true objectives. In these situations, one must be prepared to test the rhetoric against probable outcomes and consistency of action in similar situations in order to parse out the true objectives of a state.

The world of the political realist, therefore, is one of constant conflict. All states engage in a process of testing the balance of power, and this process ultimately determines the most powerful states. The internal morality of the "winners" then becomes the standard for the entire system. From this perspective, morality is an outcome of a political struggle; it is not a legitimate basis for the struggle. Nonetheless, the interests of a state cannot be defined without explicit reference to the ideal of state survival, and, if that objective seems secure, to other ideals espoused by the state.

But note that this perspective is only valid if one assumes that states have mutually exclusive interests and, where they do conflict, that a peaceful resolution is not likely. There is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that these assumptions are plausible, and, generally speaking, realists are well-informed about the historical record. But this perspective is not only contestable (one merely needs to think about the US-Canadian relationship), it also leads one into uncomfortable positions. Listen to Carr's logic about how power determines morality:

If Wat Tyler's rebellion had succeeded, he would be an English national hero. If the American War of Independence had ended in disaster, the Founding Fathers of the United States would be briefly recorded in history as a gang of turbulent and unscrupulous fanatics…The popular paraphrase "Might is Right" is misleading only if we attach too restricted a meaning to the world "Might".… Hitler believed in the historical mission of the German people. 8

Our sensibilities recoil at these assertions, particularly at the suggestive but incomplete reference to Hitler. Surely, even if the Nazis had won, their policies would still have been morally reprehensible.

Those who oppose the political realists are often termed idealists, but it must be noted that the term is often used by realists as a pejorative, conjuring up a fuzzy-headed belief in the goodness of humanity. True idealists are far from fuzzy-headed, and their primary spokesman, Immanuel Kant, was clinically rational in his defense of idealism.

Kant had no illusions about human nature; indeed, he was quick to point out that the natural state of humanity was a state of war. 9 Kant firmly believed, however, that war only served the rational interests of a small group of individuals within a state--those who benefited from conflict in either political or economic terms. He believed that war did not serve the rational interests of the ordinary citizens of a state who were called upon to finance the war, die in the war, or repair the damage from war. Thus, the solution to the problem of war was to give a political voice to ordinary citizens. As the number of states with republican constitutions increased, then the incidence of war would decline and a state of perpetual peace would be achieved.

These views were echoed a century later by the archetypical American idealist, Woodrow Wilson. In his message to the Congress requesting a declaration of war Wilson not only identified the true enemy, but also articulated his vision of the ultimate harmony of interests of democratic states:

We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellowmen as pawns and tools.

A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honor, a partnership of opinion. Intrigue would eat its vitals away; the plottings of inner circles who could plan what they would and render account to no one would be a corruption seated at its very heart. Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own. 10

Properly understood, idealism in these terms is not wishful thinking, nor does it posit a utopian future; it is an assessment of how rational people would interpret their "interests" if they were allowed both to understand and act upon those interests freely. 11

The situation becomes more complicated, however, if one adds more ideals to the mix. Peace is a relatively straightforward ideal unless one also desires simultaneously to realize other ideals, such as justice. Does one go to war to protect human life? To redistribute wealth? To protect the environment? To end all wars? Moreover, how does one gauge the success of a war to realize an ideal? Does a war to install a democratic political system end when people have the nominal right to vote, or does it end with the creation of a viable, self-sustaining civic culture? Is there any way to calibrate an idealistic impulse to justifiable or sustainable costs or do we simply say fiat justitia, pereat mundus?

We have uncovered a paradox: realist action has no meaning unless there are ideals to be defended; idealist action has no hope for success without reference to the interests of a people. Is the distinction between interests and ideals spurious?

Whose Interests? Whose Ideals?

I believe that the distinction is spurious, and that what determines its political potency really rests upon one's frame of reference. 12 Neither a realist nor an idealist would deny the singular importance of defending one's own state's internal interests or ideals-presumably in a well-ordered state interests and ideals would be compatible and self-reinforcing, or, if not, then at least procedures for ironing out the discrepancies would be in place. In the United States, for example, the primary value of personal freedom is completely congruent with the institutions of representative democracy and market capitalism. Problems would arise, particularly with market capitalism, if the primary value in the United States were defined as equality of circumstance, or justice broadly defined.

If one changes the frame of reference to ask whether interests or ideals should be pursued outside the boundaries of the state, then this initial agreement between realists and idealists begins to break down. 13 There are issues upon which realists and idealists would agree: self-defense against an armed attack would likely be supported by both perspectives, even if the act of self-defense were to somehow change the character of the attacking country. Beyond the issue of self-defense, however, the consensus erodes.

Past the water's edge, realists ask only the question: "Will this course of action enhance the interests of my state?" If the answer is yes, then the realist is prepared to pay less attention to the ideals or interests of others, even if the acts required to achieve that objective violate personal prohibitions against lying, cheating, killing, and other proscribed behavior. If the answer is no, then the realist is not prepared to take action, even if non-action leads to demonstratively immoral acts committed by others.

Idealists ask a slightly different question: "Will this course of action enhance the interests of not only the members of my society but which are also common to all humanity?" If the answer is yes, then the idealist will support the action as long as the conduct of the action does not violate those common interests and ideals. If the answer is no, then the idealist will not support the action, even if the action overwhelming favors the selfish interests of the state.

Thus, the difference between realists and idealists is not a question over whether interests or ideals should motivate state behavior, but rather over whose interests and ideals should be defended. The frame of reference--whether the ideals are exclusive or inclusive--is the crucial difference between realists and idealists.

Are there Ideals Common to All Humanity?

As noted previously, realists do not regard this question as a serious one. Ideals are hashed out through a process of struggle and if, at some point in the future, there is a common morality it will merely reflect the morality of the "winning" power. In the meantime, realists are content to defend the ideals of their own state in the hope that their state will prevail or to prevent another state from imposing its morality on their society. For realists, there is no natural law other than the condition of struggle, and it is bootless to even engage in discussions on universal morality.

There is an additional question raised by realists: "If there is a universal morality, how could we recognize it?" States and societies spend a great deal of time developing internal consistency on issues of both interests and ideals. The agreement ultimately reached on what constitutes "the good" is self-referenced and thus the use of that agreement to assess the good of non-citizens is unlikely to produce an unbiased result. Henry Kissinger was acutely aware of this problem:

The whole domestic effort of a people exhibits an effort to transform force into obligation by means of a consensus on the nature of justice. The more spontaneous the pattern of obligation, the more "natural" and universal" will social values appear….A nation will evaluate a policy in terms of its domestic legitimization, because it has no other standard of judgment….If a society legitimizes itself by a principle which claims both universality and exclusiveness, if its concept of "justice", in short, does not include the existence of different principles of legitimacy, relations between it and other societies will come to be based on force. 14

Because agreement on moral standards can never be reached, realists would prefer that moral claims never enter into discussions on policy because historically wars over morality have been more open-ended and devastating than the more restricted wars over interests.

Idealists respond to these questions by asserting that there are moral principles common to all humanity even though the state system itself obscures that common moral framework. The position resonates strongly with what most people tend to believe; thus, for example, most people recoil at the idea that even a successful Nazi regime would now be considered a good thing. Even after the repeated attempted genocides of the 20th century, suggesting that genocide is a policy actually pursued by groups or states, it is impossible to find credible people who would argue that genocide is a desirable policy. In short, most people believe that morality is not simply the outcome of a struggle, but rather something deeper and more transcendent.

The idealists, however, have not been able to identify what that universal framework might be, although there have been many candidates throughout history. The res publica christiana of medieval Europe was one attempt to organize a group of nations ruled by a single moral framework-in this case, Christianity. Similarly, the world communist movement was inspired by a belief in a the universality of Marxist thought. All attempted empires were and are founded on the pretense that the morality of the dominant state is transferable to and reproducible in others.

The key to understanding idealism is accepting that its distinctiveness rests not on its moral content, but rather on the claim of universality. As we have seen, realists defend a moral position--the survival of the state--as well, but make no claims about universality. Rather, their moral framework is exclusive and idiosyncratic. Idealists make moral claims and assert that those claims are inclusive and generic. The divergence between the two perspectives stems not from actual moral principles, but from notions of how generalized that morality actually is or can be. For example, a realist could assert that freedom is the highest moral principle for members of his state; an idealist could assert that freedom is the highest moral principle for humanity. They can both agree on moral content, but disagree on its applicability.

Does a Universal Moral Framework Now Exist?

With the collapse of Soviet communism, many analysts began to speculate on the extent to which the world had become a single economic, political, and moral
unit. 15 Economic globalization was uniting markets at what seemed to be an increasingly rapid pace, and in 2003 almost the entire world--with the seeming exceptions of Cuba and North Korea--was interacting with the single economic framework of market capitalism. Similarly, the defeats of totalitarian regimes of both the right and left throughout the twentieth century left many believing that the principles of liberal democracy had finally emerged as a universal political framework.

This is not the place or the time to discuss whether this assessment of purported global unity is in fact accurate. It is probably accurate to say that the most powerful states in the global system agree that adherence to liberal rules is a good thing. Whether this agreement is due to coercive power (imperialism, the Cold War) or to the application of rational thought is also beyond the purpose of this talk. Both realists and idealists could make claims on the success of their perspective in yielding this Great Power agreement.

Throughout the 20th century, the United States has articulated the liberal vision in international politics, and the continuity of this vision is rather extraordinary. Compare, for example, excerpts from speeches delivered by two American Presidents, ones not typically grouped together. The first is from Woodrow Wilson's "Peace Without Victory" speech before the US Senate in 1917:

These are American principles, American policies. We could stand for no others. And they are also the principles and policies of forward looking men and women everywhere, of every modern nation, of every enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind and must prevail. 16

Note the similarity in language in President Bush's State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002

America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.

No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance. 17

President Wilson was an idealist, but President Bush would likely bristle at that description. His National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, is a self-described realist, and in his campaign of 2000, Mr. Bush explicitly distanced himself from the internationalist policies of the Clinton Administration (and of the 41st President, George Herbert Walker Bush). Nonetheless, there is little question that President Bush believes that American morality is genuinely universal. His statements on Iraq leave little doubt about he feels about the appropriateness of spreading those values, even through coercion:

There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq--with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people--is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.

It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world--or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim--is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror. 18

It may well be the case that these statements do not reflect the true policies of the Bush Administration, that they are just rhetoric designed to "cloak the interests of this country in the language of universal justice." That possibility cannot be discounted, but the degree to which President Bush's policies toward Iraq have been shaped by the need to build a coalition, the resort to a United Nations sanction, and the desire to appear sensitive to the aspirations of the populations of the Middle East is considerable. Even if the Bush Administration wished only to implement a purely realist policy toward Iraq, it has found it impossible to do so on its own terms.

The ultimate judgment on the true nature of the Bush policy will depend on the follow-through to the expected invasion of the country. If the US merely overthrows President Hussein and secures concrete objectives, such as control over the oil fields, and then leaves, then one can assume that the rhetoric was simply designed to obscure the true objectives of the policy. If, however, the US remains in Iraq and tries to transform the political culture of Iraq, then the idealist objectives of the policy will be apparent.

A Final Speculation

Throughout this talk, I have used the dichotomy of realism and idealism as an analytic tool. As I noted earlier, I do not believe that there is a sharp separation between the two. I cannot, in this day and age, conceive of policies that do not contain some elements of both. States are not structured to be altruistic, and the societies that support those states are not tolerant of the selfishness of realpolitik. Successful policies will always have elements of both perspectives.

The clearest example of this synthesis was the Marshall Plan in 1947. The US granted a considerable amount of money to rebuild the European economy after World War II. That the US had a strong self-interest in doing so is incontestable-the US needed a vibrant European economy for its own economic self-interest. Moreover, the US also believed that European recovery was the best defense against possible Soviet expansion into Western Europe. At the same time, however, the people of Western Europe benefited from the policy. It is not impossible to satisfy the national interest while simultaneously satisfying the interests of others. As argued by Josef Joffe:

So the best rule for an unchallenged No. 1 is this: Do good for the rest of the world in order to do well for yourself. This is not the counsel of woolly-headed sensitivity training, but of hard-nosed realism. Bismarck would undoubtedly approve. 19

Enlightened self-interest is difficult to define precisely, but states and nations should strive to realize that ideal.


1. Marshall Cohen, "Moral Skepticism and International Relations," in International Ethics edited by Charles R. Beitz, Marshall Cohen, Thomas Scanlon, and A. John Simmons (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 3

2. There is an extraordinary vitality and diversity within the pool of realist thinkers which I am obliged to obscure in this talk. My characterization of "realists" here rests largely on what are termed "classical" as opposed to "structural" realists. The central divergence between the two schools of thought stems from the degree of emphasis on human nature as the main source of realist behavior as opposed to the anarchical nature of the international system.

3. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (London: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 401-402.

4. As quoted by Cohen, p. 3.

5. George Kennan observed that the "primary obligation [of a government] is to the interests of the national society it represents, not to the moral impulses that individual elements of that society may experience." George F. Kennan, "Morality and Foreign Affairs," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 64, no. 2 (Winter 1985-86), p. 206

6. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 5th edition, revised (New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, 1978), Chapter 9, "The Elements of Power," pp. 117-155.

7. As quoted in E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis: 1919-1939 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), p. 72

8. Carr, p. 67. The first edition of Carr's book was published in 1939.

9. "The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state (status naturalis); the natural state is one of war." Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, edited, with an introduction by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1957), p. 10.

10. Woodrow Wilson, War Messages, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. Senate Doc. No. 5, Serial No. 7264, Washington, D.C., 1917

11. This position is held by those who believe that democracies rarely go to war with other democracies. See Debating the Democratic Peace edited by Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996)

12. Hans Morgenthau argued strenuously that realism was infused with moral purpose: "The contest between utopianism and realism is not tantamount to a contest between principle and expediency, morality and immorality . . . The contest is rather between one type of political morality and another type of political morality, one taking as its standard universal moral principles abstractly formulated, the other weighing these principles against the moral requirements of concrete political action." Hans J. Morgenthau, "Another 'Great Debate': The National Interest of the United States," American Political Science Review, Vol. 46, no. 4 (December 1952), p. 988.

13. Samuel Huntington raises a number of intriguing possibilities that arise when this question is asked. See his "American Ideals vs. American Institutions," in American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays, edited by G. John Ikenberry (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1989).

14. Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored (Peter Smith: Gloucester, MA: 1973) p. 328

15. Francis Fukyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest, Summer 1989.

16. Woodrow Wilson, "Peace Without Victory," January 22, 1917

17. President George W. Bush, "State of the Union Address," 29 January 2002

18. President George W. Bush, Speech Before the American Enterprise Institute, February 26, 2003

19. Josef Jofee, "Bismarck's Lessons for Bush," New York Times, 29 May 2002