Is There a Philosophy of International World Order?

  • October 9, 2013 · 7:00 PM

While the impetus to undertake this exploration has roots elsewhere, this topic is designed as a continuation of the last discussion on secular morality. In a sense the last discussion represented the “revolution” to call into question the existing order. This discussion is to explore the possibility of a new order.

I. The Prologue

The impetus for this topic came from personal frustration of listening to the power and morality rhetoric of recent discussions of American foreign policy and a continuing sense of “American exceptionalism.”  This prologue (rant, if you prefer) is not meant to serve as the centerpiece of this discussion, only a suggestion that morality rhetoric is being misused as a tool to justify a range of behaviors and has little to do with an underlying morality.  There is certainly no demand that this characterization represents some well established “truth,” and readers should substitute their own understanding as they see fit.  This prologue is not crucial to the discussion so participants may wish just to skip the prologue and go directly to the Road Map for Discussion.

Power Image

At the beginning of the Obama presidency, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton indicated the administration’s desire to employ a foreign policy concept titled “smart power.”  This concept had been described by Joseph Nye, a professor who has authored nine editions of a popular textbook titled Understanding Global Conflict, and a couple other books describing “soft power.”  Not surprisingly, the administration felt it prudent to relabel the concept “smart” for obvious political reasons.  Dr. Nye, with hands-on experience in government foreign policy and national security positions, appended the title in the last couple versions to include “and Cooperation.”  While giving lip service to the idea of “smart power” based on incentives and avoidance of exercising American military power, the administration was soon back to continuing the advocacy, or at least threatening, the use of military power to achieve foreign policy and national security interests employed in previous administrations.  Sanction are usually included in this smart power arsenal, however see discussion under “redefining war terms” below.

As the discourse on Syria progressed over the last few weeks there seemed to be a resurrection of morality issues to bolster the need for intervention and the need to attend to image and reputation, saving face, reaffirmation and demonstration of will, and backfilling to reestablish our role as the only real leader when other countries’ initiatives seem to up-stage us.  When the Russian initiative to put the Syrian chemical weapons under world supervision came to light we were indignantly writing in new demands and representing the rambling contemplations of Secretary Carey as the real source of the initiative.

Even now on the Iranian overtures to discuss the nuclear issue we are immediately demanding concrete actions and dismissing any talks with a newly elected moderate because his political situation is “too complicated.”  No exploration of the possibility of some conciliatory rhetoric on our part that might help the moderate navigate through some of the challenges to his “brave” stand.  Isn’t reinforcing situations when our “beloved democracy” moves toward a desired goal just as important as pulling the rug out from under the winners when it results in twists we didn’t want, nor even anticipated.

Historically (Balkans, Iranian nuclear issue, Israeli-Palestine negotiations, Somalia, Africa, Afghaniatan, Iraq, et al) the U.S. intercedes as a negotiator by choosing a winner laying down demands bordering on terms of unconditional surrender, and setting preconditions of agreement to those terms before any real discussions will be allowed to begin.  This certainly establishes dominance but hardly sounds like a negotiation between equals.

On the international scene the U.S. numerous times advocated positions and institutions designed to effect cooperative action, only to refuse to submit our authority to a higher body.  Two prominent examples are the UN Security Council veto and refusal to submit to World Court, while at the same time never hesitating to lead attempts to place others under its jurisdiction.

Is the image as the dominant world force more important than any real improvement of world order?

Language of warfare

Cookbook for taking a nation to war, or at least to justify military action:  Demonize and dehumanize the enemy on moral grounds to illicit moral outrage from the populace.  This also can work to motivate small groups to action/activism.  Conspiracy theories are also employed to evoke the same emotional reaction in general political speech.

Arms race:  Declare a group of new weapons as immoral in an effort to develop support from potential allies in denying the weapons to a less militarily powerful entity and thwart their efforts for parity and balance of power.  This is an especially important factor when the new weapons can be manufactured cheaply. Catapults, gunpowder, cannons, and grapeshot went through this thousands of years ago.  When you add up the numbers for the destructive power of a couple hundred sorties by bomb carrying drones, aren’t they weapons of mass destruction, too?

Unconventional warfare:  Labels of cowardice can be employed to dehumanize actors when certain unconventional tactics are used by less powerful groups (Indians “hiding” behind trees, terrorists, combatants intermingling with civilians (rather than standing in an open field signaling, “Here I am!”).  This name-calling game had a short life in the Balkans as it was noted that the brave pilots bombing unprotected areas from their cockpits at 10,000 feet weren’t facing a lot of risk.  The cowardice label was employed in the early years of the growth of terrorism (also a recently coined term) until it was pointed out that risking one’s life usually was commonly portrayed as a brave act.

Redefining war terms:  Sanctions are employed in a number of forms as smart power to effect behavioral changes, usually with claims that these only target misbehaving governments and not the people of the country.  But sanctions is just a euphemism for age-old siege warfare.  However described, the sanctions impede the flow of goods to a geographically constrained group of people. In this complex non-agrarian world the impact isn’t as discernable as limiting access to food and water, but still greatly affects one's efforts to sustain life.  Those implementing sanctions are eager to assure you that there are no restrictions on food and “humanitarian aid” (Ah, such a comforting term.).  However, there is no mention of the fact that imports of consumer and industrial goods are no longer available to carry on retail and manufacturing operations that provide employment to earn money to buy the allowed goods.  One can easily imagine the state of construction employment in Palestine as the Israelis deny entry of construction materials because of the possible use to build fortifications.  And, there are the pictures of business class Iraqis during the inter-war period on the street corners selling thousand year old family heirlooms in order to buy food.  Critics of government-rendered violence are quick to note the refugees fleeing the violence, but don’t bother to determine how many of those fleeing are really economic refugees who could not sustain themselves under the conditions at home.  [Update Iran:  After years of telling us that the sanctions against Iran carefully targeted just the Iranian leadership and not the people the story has suddenly changed.  The foreign policy establishment eager to show American power by declaring how American lead sanctions have put the Iranian economy in dire straights, created major unemployment, and caused the suffering citizenry to force their leaders to the negotiating table.]

Genocide is another one of those modern demonizing terms that lets the speaker focus world attention on a recent event and proceed to enlist support to get the offender punished.  Typically this middle (upper?) class wine party term fails to take into account the long-standing cycles of violence that spawned the event/action or to chaotic conditions in the region that preclude any orderly implementation of traditional rule of law procedures.

Punishment:  Most of the punishment talk sounds like parent talk (paternalism?), but if that’s a stretch, like domestic legal and law enforcement system discourse.  Unfortunately, at the international level this isn’t a little corporal punishment meted out with minimal risk to the enforcer, nor to bystanders subject to collateral damage.

Does moral rhetoric for whatever purposes constitute a legitimate moral regime?


Hopefully, this vituperative exposition leaves you with the question of whether there is in fact an underlying moral structure that transcends this superficial instrumental use of the morality vocabulary.

II. Road Map for Discussion

Please note this is about the PHILOSOPHY of a new order, and as such, involves ontological issues (objects, such as principles, relationships, maybe institutions, or other specifications of content, and what do mean by an order); metaphysical issues (possibility of existence, reasons for existence); and, epistemological issues (knowledge required, how to assemble and disseminate that knowledge).

1.  Would a set of moral principles be of value in establishing a moral world order?  Is a moral system necessary to achieve a desired order?  Particularists are likely to resoundingly reject this?

2.  How might this set of principles be defined?  Constructed?  Marks' Code of Conduct?

From The Ethics Toolkit, J. Baggini and P. Fosl…The Grounds for Ethics:  aesthetics, agency, authority, autonomy, care, character, conscience, evolution, finitude, flourishing, harmony, interest, intuition, merit, natural law, need, pain & pleasure, revelation, rights, sympathy, tradition and history,

3.  Is a super-national entity/institution (a “Commander”) required to implement the set of principles?

4.  Charter options:

.  a. Federalism – a territorially sovereign state is the relevant moral unit.

.  b. Cosmopolitanism – view individuals, not sovereign states, as relevant moral unit.

.  c. Multiculturalism – national sub-cultures/pluralist groups/warlords, transnational cultural groups/religions/religious sects, movements. [Suggest we save general discussion of multiculturalism this for a separate discussion.]

5.  Authority/Powers

.  a.  Source of normativity, legitimacy?

.  b. Epistemological issues?  Education?

.  c.  Enforcement?

.  d.  Punishment?

6.  Search for a “Commander”?

.  a.  Philosopher-king

.  b.  World-wide assembly (UN, EU, regional groups)

.  c.  Representative body/elected council (UN Security Council)

.  d.  Self-appointed leader (most powerful)

.  e.  Recruited leader

III. Some Background  and Theory

Greeks – While much of Athenian governmental was constrained by random selection of leaders and limited periods of serving, the military leaders were under a much more stable regime of careful selection on merit and long terms.  While the Athenian years of philosophy and democracy are viewed as golden years, these were followed by an Imperial Age of world-wide (known world) colonization and extraction of resources from controlled territories.  There is also the fact that Aristotle was involved in the education of Alexander the Great.

Kantian Ethics -  There is the moral question that arises when one chooses to single out one offender for punishment to be the example (poster child) to send a message to future potential offenders.  This call for sacrifice represents using someone as a means to effect some desired end…a Kantian violation.  As noted, demonic labeling helps one to slide by this difficulty.

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  • Joel B.

    WOW!! "Would a set of moral principles be of value in establishing a moral world order? Is a moral system necessary to achieve a desired order?" My answer: a set of moral principles does in fact underlie our current world order. It is "take care first of descendents, then nuclear family, then clan, then tribe, etc etc." This underlies all morality on earth and is the basic reason why we don't care much about Syrians Bosnians etc. Some of the inner circles have been broadening recently, through globalization, but it will take a long time before all Earthlings are united against the Klingons, and still more till we trust Lt Warf with our photon torpedoes

    October 3, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Does this meeting take the place of the discussion about which religious philosophy should be true if I had the power to make it true? I must have missed something. I feel confused. Sorry.

    September 30, 2013

  • Paula L.

    Prior commitment

    September 30, 2013

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