Sara Arrow and Alexi Shaw


On April 14, 2009, The Current sat down with Joel Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. Dr. Rosenthal is editor–in–chief of the journal Ethics & International Affairs and the author of Righteous Realists. He shared with us thoughts on the new administration, the future of realism, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy.

The Current: What does it mean for the Carnegie Council to be “the voice for ethics in international policy”?

Joel Rosenthal: This organization is unique in trying to link the concept of ethics to public policy at the international level. We’re traditional in our approach. We start with Socrates and the question of how should one live, the “ought” question”—what is the ideal? The second move would be to think of ethics in terms of what choices and values are at stake, what standards do you use. I would submit my challenge to the realists that it’s not just about power or interests, because if you look at a concept like power, power to what end? Power is a means—it’s an insufficient tool; so is the concept of interests. Interests aren’t self–evident or self–executing, they are what we decide them to be. My point would be that there are ethical components to understanding power and interests.

The Council was founded by Andrew Carnegie in order to promote the basic principle of peace as one of his original peace endowments. There are three principles we take most seriously in terms of how we take this ethics approach—one is the principle of pluralism, the second is that of rights, and the third is the principle of fairness. We look at those as universal.

The Current: Your stated goal is to promote ethical leadership. Is that an indirect way to promote peace?

JR: Yes, the fact is our modality, the way we work, is as an educational institution. At the end of the day that’s what we do. We reflect on these issues, bring together the voices for ethics, and so you’re right, the end of the goal is to promote a more peaceful world.

The Current: What has changed since Carnegie found this organization? Looking forward, what new challenges do we face?

JR: Before the first World War there was great optimism about this project. The world was becoming more interdependent but more civilized. It was a whole social Darwinist, [Herbet] Spencer idea that the world was improving in a certain way. If we could just build these institutions, then the kind of war we saw in the American Civil War or the horrible industrial wars of Europe were going to be a thing of the past—that they just didn’t make any sense. There was a lot of optimism that that was yesterday, that the twentieth century would be much more peaceful. But you know the history of the twentieth century is not good in this way. Carnegie didn’t see that coming, so yes, we see ourselves at the beginning of the twenty–first century with a pretty frightening experience in the twentieth century in terms of war and the use of force. And so that’s an open question—what have we learned from the twentieth century? How do we apply these lessons if any to the twenty–first century?

The Current: On its website, the Carnegie Council describes itself as nonpartisan. Is that what distinguishes the Council from other think tanks that deal with international affairs?

JR: Yes, I think that’s an important point. A large part of what we do is to create a space where you can have a genuine exchange of views and experience a range of views. We can invite people to participate in this dialogue, and that’s where we leave it. Our feeling is there’s lots of advocacy and ideological commitment out there in the world, and we define ourselves as against that.

The Current: What distinguishes ethics from ideology?

JR: That can be difficult to draw. For me, ethics is the process of moral argument. As Isaiah Berlin puts it, when I see one truth, I immediately look for a competing truth. Ethics is all about the process of making choices between competing moral claims. Ideology—in the hands of ideologists!—frequently asserts doctrine (and sometimes dogma). This is fine as far as it goes, but for me, this is where the process of ethics begins.

The Current: Any specific examples of how your nonpartisan status affects what your organization can do?

JR: That’s a great question. I’ll give you a positive example. We held a forum on the issue of human rights in China, and it was directly targeted to the Olympics in Beijing last year. We approached the forum in a nonpartisan and non–ideological way, assembling an eclectic group of people. We had the Chinese ambassador to the UN, as well as a journalist; we had a representative from GE, who was one of the largest corporate sponsors of the games; and we had a representative of Human Rights Watch. From a rights perspective, an ethics perspective, we were able to have a group discussion in a neutral space with a common vocabulary about what are some of the ethical issues and what are the responsibilities from the corporate, government, advocacy, or journalism perspectives.

The Current: In a case such as China, or another authoritarian state like Russia, how does the Council avoid adopting a finger–wagging stance, or provoking another tired argument about political versus economic rights?

JR: Only through open debate, just like in the example I just gave. It’s hard not to preach when speaking to defenders of authoritarian policies. The answer is open moral argument. Our best tool is the example of self–criticism. When we criticize ourselves for our shortcomings, whether they be in civil rights, poverty, the treatment of detainees, or our ethical failures in business such as the Enron debacle or the current economic crisis. And from the Russian or Chinese perspective, they want to come and defend themselves. The funny thing about ethics is that everyone thinks he is ethical—which makes room for limitless discussion.

The Current: The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently issued an arrest warrant for President al–Bashir of Sudan for war crimes committed in Darfur. What ethical challenges does this situation raise?

JR: The arrest warrant for President al–Bashir of Sudan demonstrates the power of ethical argument in the realist world of international relations. World leaders recognize the moral seriousness of the situation in Sudan, and they recognize that failure to act is an act in itself. Mass killing is happening on their—and on our—watch.

The ethical problem is one of responsibility and collective action. If this is everyone’s problem, then it’s no one’s. I think the key to solving the problem is to find ways to assign responsibilities, and to distribute the burdens to actors who see an interest in helping to resolve the problem.

In an ideal world it would be helpful if the ICC could play this role. But I am a realist and I have doubts. The sovereign states will need to organize amongst themselves to see it in their interests to act. These interests can be “ethical” interests by the way. Who wants to live in a world where genocide happens?

The Current: How does an ethical framework get translated or actualized in our foreign policy or in international affairs?

JR: First thing I would do is expand the notion of international affairs beyond states and official policy. You have actors in the corporate sector, private sector, media sector, that are powerful actors in international affairs. As an example, the idea of corporate social responsibility—these are indicators of the importance of ethics. In the way we look at the world, there are issues of global concern or global scope that have an obvious ethical component to them—climate change, financial systems, economic arrangements, issues of labor, human rights, migration. We could go on and you could fill in the blank.

The Current: This issue of The Current contains an article on shifts in realism over time, authored by Nick Serpe. Do you think there will be a shift toward realism in U.S. foreign policy?

JR: I think we’re already seeing it, for sure. I would define realism as being less ideological than what we’ve seen. Some of it was rhetorical and some of substantive, but clearly there was an ideological thread that did run through the Bush administration and I do see Obama distancing himself from that.

The language and the intent of the freedom agenda—this strong Wilsonian trend was at the level of belief for the Bush administration. Now we see a pivot toward realism in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Obama is turning away from the very concept of a war on terror and trying to break it down to its component parts. And there seems to be a major change in the approach to so–called rogue or axis–of–evil states. Openness to a more prudential, horsetrading approach with Iran, Cuba, and Russia with the idea of the reset button. The idea is that foreign policy won’t hang on an ideological conviction on the promotion of certain values, such as the freedom agenda.

Again, it’s very early. Right now the Obama administration is testing what’s possible and some people are concerned that those changes may in fact be quite limited when tested against reality. We’ll see.

The Current: Do you think it’s important for Obama, or any leader, to articulate an overarching vision for his foreign policy? If he were to do so, what might it look like?

JR: It has been said that there are two kinds of Secretary of State: architects and bricklayers. Architects lay out principles and think mostly about big structures and institutional designs. Bricklayers tend to take things on a case by case basis. For bricklayers, policy emerges out of experience in an iterative and cumulative process. Ideally, one would like to combine these approaches under the leadership of the president and his foreign policy team. The Obama administration is just getting started so it is unclear how all of this will play out.

I think the Obama administration has the opportunity to articulate a strategy of ethical realism that is interest–based and consistent with a historical tradition of U.S. foreign policy. You can see elements of it in FDR’s style and approach, where many tradeoffs made, some of which were quite painful indeed. Yet FDR always came back to central ethical principles articulated in the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms. The Charter and the Freedoms were deeply ethical and normative but they remained general frameworks and long term goals – not triumphal or too narrow in policy terms.

The Current: Are there intellectual forebears you think Obama is drawing on as his framework for a foreign policy?

JR: Absolutely. On the philosophical side, and I was glad to see this, one of his points of reference for foreign policy was Reinhold Niebuhr, and Niebuhr would have described himself as a realist—an ethical realist. Niebuhr’s view was that there’s evil in the world and evil needs to be confronted but the wrong approach is a self–righteous approach, and we ought to confront evil but in a humble way that recognizes our own limits. This is a difficult point but I think it’s one Obama does get: we’re not pure. The quest for purity is a dangerous business and we should understand the imperfection and impurity of our own actions even when we act for good. The obvious example would be the second World War which was a “good” war which ended in the use of the atomic weapon—let’s not be so triumphal about our goodness; it was a tragedy.


SARA ARROW is a junior majoring in political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Features Editor of The Current. She can be reached at sa2423@barnard.edu.

ALEXI SHAW is a senior majoring in Russian literature & culture.


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