International Ethics

Topics Covered

  • What Is International Ethics?
  • Power And International Ethics
  • Philosophical Approaches To International Ethics
  • Some Ethical Issues In International Affairs
  • Ethics Can Meet The Challenges Of Diplomacy In 21st Century
  • Constrained Choices And International Ethics
  • International Ethics Must Be Pursued To Compete Ecological System
  • Interdependence, Cooperation And Collaboration Must Be Judged
  • Diplomatic Relations And Understanding Is Also Major Drivers
  • Defence and Military Enterprise
  • The Poverty and Wealth of Nations
  • The Inequality of Nations
  • International Ethics With Respect To Economic, Social And Environmental Frameworks
  • Conclusion


What Is International Ethics?

  • It is the study of how members of bounded communities, mostly national states, ought to treat outsiders.
  • Enables one to participate in shaping good international community. E.g. various agencies of the UN promote universal principles.
  • Moral standing of the sovereign state is one of the major topics discussed by international theory. – Chris Brown
  • Mervyn Frost identifies election of questions like when is intervention by one state in the domestic affairs of another state justified? When may states justifiably go to war?

Power and International Ethics

  • It is generally observed that the world attention, gets itself focused on the most powerful nation, both domestically and internationally, a nation that is willing to force its powerful will on the world, taking into task any nation that challenged its authority and its interests.
  • Many wars and conflicts are certainly caused by the unilateral moves of dominant nations against other nations that endangered its global interests.
  • International ethics is influenced by different philosophies of international and national power and the way this power play its role.
  • There are beliefs that power does not follow any rules and this reasoning and is extended to apply to international spaces and relations. In its so called “chaos” nature, this belief in power, particularly power not following any rules slants the global balance in favour of dominant nations and entities and is unfavourable to weak or developing nations and entities. It is true that the anarchy of a dominant power imposes its will on other nations and entities.
  • Under such conventions, justice follows national boundaries without any space for international or global justice.
  • In contradiction of “anarchy” nature of power, that is, power which does not follow any rules, there is another belief that international power follows certain rules which provide an international order which is qualitatively different from the previous case of anarchy.
  • Power that follows rules of international order is better than power that does not.

Philosophical Approaches To International Ethics

The major ethical dilemma while selecting a philosophical approach is to choose between the ‘national interest’ and ‘global interest’. Some approaches are discussed:

  • Realism (Realpolitik)
    • In international ethics, one thing that really matters is power, nothing else does.
    • Realism denies any role for shared ethics. It creates an ethically neutral or ethics free zone. There are no rules and “anarchy” prevails.
    • Chinese attitude over South China Sea and One Belt One Road, 9’ line etc.
  • Idealism
    • Focuses on common interests between nations, and not necessarily at the power.
    • Driven by ethics, morality, laws, legal systems, international institutions etc.
    • Indian foreign policy, WTO etc.
  • Constructivism
    • In the present scenario, there is increase of identity politics. Idealism allows for influence of national identities.
    • Nations resist any threat to their identities, nationalism, and sovereignty.
    • It focuses on foreign policy, diplomatic initiatives etc. to shape international relations where a country has credible influence.
    • The focus is on domestic politics and how it shapes foreign policy.
  • Cosmopolitanism
    • It empowers international ethics and the development of global values and ethics.
    • It argues for following morally lawful behavior; behave as you want others to behave.
    • Where rules and laws do not exist, all should come together to negotiate the rules and laws that are ethical. E.g. Environmental negotiations.
  • Equality of Life
    • No preference is given to the welfare of citizens of own country only.
    • It is the global interest that counts as much as domestic interest.
    • refugee crisis.

Some Ethical Issues In International Affairs

Major ethical dilemma is to choose between the ‘national interest’ and ‘global interest’. It has been observed that most of the times, countries went on to pursue their national interest. Some examples are discussed:

  • Humanitarian interventions: Western countries have intervened in the internal affairs of other countries on this ground. Though apparently bona-fide, but sometimes these were encouraged by geo-strategic
  • Disarmament: It is being promoted by those countries that have massive reserves of nuclear armaments, missiles and nuclear powered submarines. E.g. USA sanctions on Iran.
  • IPR (Intellectual Property Rights): Developed countries are depriving the poor ones from accessing new technologies e.g. life-saving medicines.
  • Trade Negotiations (WTO): Developed countries want to deny level playing field for developing and poor ones. E.g. Doha Round.
  • Climate change: Countries are divided on the issue of CBDR (common but differential responsibilities), on technology transfer and on funding arrangements.
  • Global Commons: The domains that lie outside the political reach of one single state. For example: (a) Strategic importance, commercial use and role of UNCLOS in high seas, (b) Global warning, (c) Antarctica, (d) Outer space.

Ethics can meet the challenges of diplomacy in 21st century in the following ways:

  • Moral Diplomacy:
    • In the present-day context, moral diplomacy in international relations has a role for everyone including the state officials and citizens who care about human rights, human dignity, liberty, and justice and is therefore of crucial importance to a civil servant’s conduct, especially in foreign policy which deals with multilateral and bilateral contexts.
    • Example: Gujral Doctrine towards India’s smaller neighbour is based on it, Panchsheel principle with China is also a result of moral diplomacy.
  • Soft Power:
    • It is persuasive approach to international relations majorly using economic and cultural influences. Such influences are not possible until and unless the international actors at least appears to be ethical in their stands.
    • Examples: There are many protests against Chinese investments in countries by the masses because their investment and project practices appear unethical and exploitative
    • Assistance to Nepal during the earthquake in2015
    • Blue economy investments in Seychelles, Madagascar, other island countries.
  • Public or Citizen’s diplomacy:
    • Track II, III and other track diplomacies need ethical and moral engagement. People to people contact is not possible without it.
    • Initiatives like Amanki Asha, Nimrana dialogue etc.
  • In Governance Of Global Commons:
    • International community has to share the global commons, and protect and preserve the same. It cannot be done through brute force E.g. Intended determined national targets can neither be fulfilled, nor the climate change governance successfully implemented until international players show any ethical conducts.
    • International Cooperation on social malaises like Terrorism, colonialism, dealing with cross border epidemics like Ebola, disasters like earthquakes etc which create destruction beyond borders need ethical commitment of nation states.

Constrained Choices and International Ethics

  • International ethics also control choices of nation in the international sphere, but evidently choices are constrained rather than free. The choices may be constrained by the necessity of pleasing the domestic political support. The choices may be inhibited by the identity politics. The choices may be constrained by power equations and balances.
  • Several practical restraints may also be present, assuredly economic constraints and national interest constraint will not be missing when choices have to be made.
  • No preference is given by governments or by anybody else to the welfare of citizens of that country. There are no differentiating factors acknowledged by such governments that distinguish between the welfare of its citizens and those belonging to another country.
  • Everyone has equal rights. Everyone is treated equally in equal respects.
  • In such cases, it becomes meaningful to make sacrifices for others. It is generally observed that people hardly sacrifice themselves for even their close ones in present scenario.
  • But people sacrificing themselves for others in the international space are truly worthy. Respect for life should guide international ethics.

International Ethics Must Be Pursued To Compete Ecological System

  • Nations are competing for ecological system advantages to help the environment to preserve its natural capacity and vitality.
  • This will secure for nations an ecological and economic advantage.
  • At the same time, they are not ready to bear much burden for the climate change action which can impede economic progression in short term. Ethical reflection on the natural environment has actually become international and global phenomena.
  • Various perceptions are available from each of these fields for critical reflection on harms that human beings pose through daily activities.
  • Currently, all nations have made vision plans for long term future foreseeing the changes necessary say for 2020, which have domestic and international implications and effects. All such vision plans by several countries are drivers of international ethics. These promises to be realized and fulfilled.

Interdependence, Cooperation And Collaboration Must Be Judged To Maintain International Ethics

  • In the obscurities of dominant countries, other countries have evolved certain international cooperation and collaboration treaties for several reasons.
  • It is well recognized that one country emerged as a super power and have a dominant role in international relations between nations.
  • International cooperation and collaboration are a measure of countries interdependence with other nations. Such international cooperation provides a measure of international order between them. International ethics in the framework of cooperation and collaboration are based on recognition of their mutual interests with each other.
  • There may be several fields in which international cooperation has worked well and thus provides the basis for further cooperation and collaboration. Interdependence between nations through cooperation and teamwork, can provide the basis for a “law of peace” to be established for relations between people.

Diplomatic Relations And Understanding Is Also Major Drivers Of International Ethics

  • Diplomatic initiatives are always available for nations to resolve their differences and make agreements that ensure peace and security and also to further their rights and interests and to share duties and responsibilities.
  • The movement of people can be eased by the diplomatic presence and provides another driver for international relations and international ethics which guides it.
  • Each country may have its own interests in another country and or in promoting ties with other countries. In each country recognizing the other, there is the “international law of peace”, even though it may not resolve all conflicts between nations.
  • A rule of reason can triumph under such circumstances.

Defence and Military Enterprise

  • Each nation use the power to achieve its global interests.
  • International ethics can also be considered as the use of power by one country against another country to accomplish its international goals and protecting its national interests.
  • International conflict and wars are still a probability and it may even be impacted by the defence related establishments which have international reach and influence.
  • International conventions on “international law of war” may be binding only when international community analyses and insists on it.

The Poverty and Wealth of Nations

  • Nations who want to become wealthy, have to reckon with poverty which hampers them from being active and responsible international actors involved and partaking in emergent international issues. Poverty may be a national issue.
  • Lessening poverty is major issue at international level.
  • “International law of justice” may be invoked to have nations pledge to reduce and eradicate poverty wherever it is found, through responsible joint actions.
  • The UN framework on Millennium Development Goals calls on nations to reduce poverty to half and continue to decrease poverty around the world.
  • Poverty measures, poverty indices, are available to guide policy.
  • Several international NGOs involved in this field to eliminate poverty have frameworks to make decisions and choices which offers other field of international ethics and can drive the values of global solidarity and justice.

The Inequality of Nations

  • Inequalities lead to certain conflicts which may be domestic in origin or international, but they are indicators of troubling trends.
  • In an unequal world, expectations of equity, international equity are high.
  • Any international action must be aimed at benefiting the least advantaged nations more than that would be expected for a most advantaged nation.
  • Otherwise, there would not be an incentive for less advantaged or least advantaged nations to participate in international actions.
  • In cases of such failures, only those international actions which are driven by prevailing nations will be carried through creating and endorsing a more divided world with even a greater possibility of future conflict.

International Ethics With Respect To Economic, Social And Environmental Frameworks

  • There are a number of frameworks available for making decisions concerning international actions which have economic, social, and environmental consequences and impact over future generations. There is a gap between any system of global and international values and international ethics on the ground. This is because of the broadening gap in ground realities between nations and international organizations due to levels of difficult conflict. The frameworks are evolved to provide a way to resolve the conflict and they are useful to deal with numerous conflicting ideas on international ethics.
  • For instance, the framework provided under UN agencies, the framework of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the framework of Universal Declaration of Human Genome and Human Rights, the various international declarations and conventions which offer the necessary framework for supportive and collaborative international action to resolve international issues.
  • There are several global institutions concerned with the global economic order, others with the global information order, still others with the global environmental regimes or order. Each of them provides frameworks within which its members are expected to take decisions that are respected and supported by virtue of the frameworks agreed upon.


  • To summarize, there is vast literature that demonstrates ethics as an important determinant for good understanding of international relations.
  • International relations must forestall serious and sometimes dangerous conflicts between nations or groups. Ethnic and ideological differences can explode into major conflicts.
  • The threatening complexity of competing narratives distinguishing national and non-state actors alike disrupts the relative tranquillity of formal dialogue on ideological differences.
  • Cycles of ethnic conflict, civil war shape clashes in ways where formal dialogue may never progress or deter.
  • Many professionals have stated that matters of equity and justice, of human dignity in the face of adversity and terror, are to be judged morally and not merely administratively (Bietz (1979). It is significant that moral issues in international relations must be shown.