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Ethics in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Ethics and foreign policy have long been considered different arenas, which can only be bridged with great analytical and practical difficulty. However, with the rise of post-positivist approaches to foreign policy, much greater attention has been paid to the way that ethical norms and moral values are embedded within the way states understand their own actions and interests, both enabling and constraining their behavior. Turning to these approaches raises a different question to whether ethics and foreign policy can mix, that of how best to understand, analyze, and critique the role that ethics inevitably play within foreign policy making? What are required are perspectives which, instead of constructing an ethical theory in the abstract and applying it to a concrete situation, start from the ethics of the foreign policy arena itself.

Two ways of looking at ethics are especially useful in this regard: a virtue-ethics approach and a relational-ethics approach. These can be best explored by observing how they work in a particular foreign policy context, such as the highly controversial U.K. decision to join the invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003. This was a policy where ethics came particularly to the fore in both the decision-making process and its justification. The case study can therefore help show the types of questions virtue and relational ethics ask, the way they work as analytical and critical frameworks, and the problems they raise for the role of ethics in foreign policy. They also point toward important future directions for research in the area.

Keywords: ethics, foreign policy, virtue, responsibility, relationality, Iraq


Ethics and foreign policy are often considered uncomfortable bedfellows. They are frequently assumed to be two separate spheres that do not properly belong together, divided by a gap which must be “bridged” (McElroy, 1992, p. 4), or “linked” in a way that creates a “practical and conceptual minefield” (Toje, 2002, p. 7). Ethics is commonly thought to be the area of philosophical inquiry concerned with right and wrong, good and bad, and how agents ought to live and behave (Singer, 1991). Foreign policy, in contrast, is the “sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations” (Hill, 2002, p. 3). Because those international relations lack an overarching sovereign to maintain order and enforce justice, foreign policy can easily be rendered a realm of necessity, where national self-interest is the only guide and the “preconditions for morality are absent” (Art & Waltz, 1983, p. 6). Should issues of “ought” be debated, this must be performed abstractly and then awkwardly applied to a peculiarly amoral realm. More recently, literature emerging from critical, constitutive, and constructivist perspectives has challenged this view, arguing that foreign policy is, like any other social practice, embedded with ethical principles, values, norms, and rules that both constrain and enable action (see Frost, 2001; Brown, 2002; Bulley, 2009; Gaskarth, 2011).

It is thus now widely acknowledged in the post-positivist literature that ethics play a central role in the decisions and practices of foreign policy. The more difficult issue is how best to analyze that role, draw it out, and critique it. The most common ways of exploring ethics in a social or political environment are through the application of deontological rules (in which the action is considered right in itself) or a form of consequentialism (in which the rightness of the action emerges from calculating its consequences). While such traditions are useful to moralists who primarily aim to judge the foreign policy actions of others, they do not help us to understand those actions, or what role ethics played within them. Foreign policy actors cannot simply apply rules or calculations—as a social practice there are too many competing demands within the arena. Two less common approaches are, however, gaining increasing attention in the literature—virtue ethics and relational ethics—and their insights can be explored through the United Kingdom’s controversial decision to join the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. This example is chosen due to the decision’s importance, the wealth of discussion surrounding the public inquiry into it (Iraq Inquiry, 2009–2016), and the overt role that ethics played within the policy.

An exploration of how the study of foreign policy has changed from a positivist side-lining of ethical issues upon the inception of foreign policy analysis in the 1950s, to the broader acceptance of their role today, is provided here. After that, the second section turns to how the moral values1 of foreign policy can best be understood, firstly introducing the issue of the United Kingdom’s decisions on Iraq. The following subsections then explore a virtue- ethics and a relational-ethics perspective on the United Kingdom’s decisions, focusing on the role of the prime minister, Tony Blair. The final part examines what future directions might be taken in the study of ethics in foreign policy, suggesting ways the field could be developed.

Ethics in Foreign Policy Analysis

To say that explicit discussion of ethics has played a peripheral role in the study of foreign policy, particularly in foreign policy analysis, would be to understate the extent of its marginalization. Beginning from a dissatisfaction with realism in the discipline of international relations, early foreign policy analysis embraced a positivist epistemology and a behavioralist methodology which assumed that foreign policy was a phenomenon common to all states, and that its behavior followed identifiable patterns that could be broadly compared, in order to draw out its influences and determinants (Hermann et al., 1987; Kegley, 1980; Rosenau, 1971; Smith, 1986). This acceptance of positivism necessitated the firm division of facts and values, focusing on what is rather than what ought to be, effectively relegating the role of ethics to an irrelevance. As long as theories of foreign policy sought to “make determinate predictions for dependent variable(s) that measure the behavior of individual states” (Elman, 1996, p. 12), the immeasurable ephemerality of ethics and morality meant they could be ignored.

Despite this, ethics continued to play an explicit role in the foreign policies of states, whether in U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s stress on human rights and a North-South dialogue in the late 1970s (Hoffman, 1996), the Ayatollah Khomeini’s religiously-inspired Iranian foreign policy of egalitarianism and ethics in the 1980s (Sariolghalam, 2009), or Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans’ notion of “good international citizenship” in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Linklater, 1992). A much wider discussion of ethics in foreign policy began with U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s “mission statement” upon taking office in 1997. This explicitly called for an “ethical dimension” to the new government’s foreign policy (Cook, 1997; see Brown, 2002; Bulley, 2009; Gaskarth, 2011, 2013; Wheeler & Dunne, 1998, 2004; Smith & Light, 2001). While this “ethical dimension” provoked a media storm, it was widely perceived to have created a rod for the government’s own back amid controversies over U.K. arms sales to less than reputable regimes. However, despite his initial skepticism, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s increasingly active role in foreign policy from 1999 to 2007 saw a sustained focus on doing the “right” thing, acting responsibly and morally in relation to international humanitarian crises (see Bulley, 2010).

However, what was most peculiar in these cases of U.S., Australian, Iranian, and U.K. foreign policy was not that ethics suddenly appeared to have a role in foreign policy, but that someone felt the need to state it explicitly. In areas of domestic policy making, such as health or transport, it is not necessary to claim that an “ethical dimension” will be included—this is simply assumed as the norm (Brown, 2002). To deliberately pursue an unethical health policy would appear nonsensical. For Mervyn Frost, this is equally the case in foreign policy: actors do not have a choice whether or not to include ethics in policy making, as they are ethically constrained in all their actions and practices (2001, p. 35). His constitutive theory suggests that the social practices which establish the role of international actors have ethical components embedded within them—ethics are fundamental to the rules of the game, “a precondition for participation.” This can be seen in the often unstated rules of diplomacy, statesmanship, security, and the national interest, but can also be observed in the quixotic conventions of not taking bribes, lying to Parliament, or inventing false intelligence as a basis for action. Questions of right, wrong, and what ought to be done impinge on the practices of foreign policy at every step.

These observations were perhaps best captured by the turn to constructivist and post-structuralist foreign policy analysis which gained prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their focus on ideas and identity politics (see Campbell, 1998; Doty, 1993; Guillaume, 2002; Kubalkova, 2001; Manners, 2007; Thomas, 2001; Tonra, 2003; Weldes, 1999). The rise of these approaches was aided by the decline of traditional foreign policy analysis, now questioned as a “discredited pseudo-science” (Smith, 1986, p. 13), with a steadily eroding field (Light, 1994, p. 100) and a highly questionable future (Beasley & Snarr, 2002, p. 345). The primary way in which constructivists have engaged ethics in foreign policy has been through the role of identities, values, and especially the norms that constitute the international foreign policy arena. An excellent example of the way a state’s identity, formed in opposition to a dangerous “other,” can restrict its foreign policy options is offered by Jutta Weldes’ (1999) analysis of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Although various policies were considered for removing the missiles through a covert attack, they were ultimately dismissed by President Kennedy as out of line with the traditions and character of the United States (slightly ironically, given the previous year’s Bay of Pigs invasion). Even thoroughly realist diplomats like George Kennan, in an article dismissing the role of morality in foreign policy, regretted U.S. moves toward “clandestine” operations after the Second World War in response to the Soviet Union adopting these tactics:

Operations of this nature are not in character for this country. They do not accord with its traditions or with its established procedures of government. The effort to conduct them involves dilemmas and situations of moral ambiguity in which the American statesman is deprived of principled guidance and loses a sense of what is fitting and what is not. Excessive secrecy, duplicity and clandestine skulduggery are simply not our dish … because such operations conflict with our own traditional standards and compromise our diplomacy in other areas.

(Kennan, 1985, p. 214)

Thus, while declaring the necessary absence of morality from foreign policy making, Kennan effectively describes the centrality of moral principles by arguing that foreign policy must adhere to the traditions, character, and identity—the ethos—of the state.

Identity also interacts with wider international norms according to constructivists, further constraining and enabling foreign policy. As the “standard[s] of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 891), norms both describe what is normal in foreign policy and what ought to be normal. They are both descriptive and prescriptive. Constructivists are not always clear on the relation between norms and ethics/morality (Bulley, 2014), but ethical norms are generally thought to offer a practical interpretation or translation of moral principles (Thomas, 2001, pp. 27–28). The focus on norms is especially helpful in revealing why the media and academia are often cynical with regard to the role of ethics. When norms become “internalized” by a foreign policy actor, their operation and impact on behavior becomes very difficult to see, as they achieve an unquestioned, “taken-for-granted quality” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 895). If states have internalized the norm against engaging in the slave trade or assassinating foreign leaders, we do not think of them as giving a prominent role to ethics in their foreign policies. Rather, they are just modern states. Equally, perhaps today we do not often enough consider the extensive activities of liberal states in public diplomacy, foreign aid, conflict resolution, democracy and human rights promotion as examples of an ethical dimension to external behavior.2 Constructivists have thus helped to show how many ethical judgements of appropriate behavior, far from being exceptional, are so imbued within foreign policy that they are difficult for us to even discern.

Where constructivist approaches have been less useful is in offering a critical evaluation of the norms and values that constitute the world of foreign policy making (Bulley, 2014). For the most part, they are content to show that the social world of foreign policy is suffused with values and norms. They offer little insight regarding what happens when these norms inevitably clash, or analysis of the value of these values themselves: who they work for and against in international society. This leaves their analyses open to the criticisms of a group of scholars Chris Brown (2002, p. 175) loosely calls “Chomskyan-realists,” social moralists who argue that ethics are being used as a thin veil to hide a pursuit of national and capitalist interests (Chomsky, 1999; Curtis, 2003). A more nuanced version of this critique, posed by David Chandler, finds that while formerly a smokescreen for national interest, ethics have become a way for Western states to deny the imperial forms of power they exercise in foreign policy, and evade accountability for its results (Chandler, 2003, 2006, pp. 71–95). Either way, ethics, values, and norms are not seen as genuine; they have certainly not achieved their supposed aim of extending a “sense of common humanity” (Heins & Chandler, 2007, pp. 12–13). Rather, they are narcissistic masks for power plays that serve either conventional interests or the more ephemeral goal of “cast[ing] foreign policy actors in a legitimate light” (Heins & Chandler, 2007, p. 12).

Both these critiques are, however, based in false dichotomies. Chomskyan-realists oppose ethics to interests in a deeply problematic manner. They appear to suggest that “to behave morally is to act without regard for one’s own interest, in accordance with some kind of generalized altruism. This is strange, because although there are many different kinds of ethical theory, none actually holds this position” (Brown, 2002, p. 180).3 If ethics does not demand self-abnegation in interpersonal relations, why should we suppose it is required in interstate relations? Rather, a sensible approach to the role played by ethics in foreign policy demands that it is seen as negotiated with, alongside, and as an aspect of a state’s interests (Hoffman, 1996). Chandler’s approach poses a different dichotomy, this time between ethics and power. But as has been argued elsewhere (Bulley, 2016), without the exercise of power, ethics could not operate: to do the “right” thing, just as to do the “wrong” thing, requires that power and agency be exercised. Ethics and power are always enmeshed and can never be otherwise. To dismiss ethics when it involves power relations is to dismiss ethics altogether.

What is required, then, are nuanced approaches to the role of ethics in foreign policy that can pay close attention to the messiness of individual political contexts, the clashing of values, and the interpenetration and inseparability of ethics and interests, morality and power. Ethical perspectives that seek to either guide decision-making or evaluate those decisions often ignore this messiness. They operate primarily as moralistic judgements, rather than attempts to understand the ethics of foreign policy practices themselves. For example, the use of force in foreign policy, particularly for humanitarian ends, has received a great deal of ethical attention in recent times. Most prominent have been the application of consequentialist principles (Shaw, 2016), deontological rules (Tesón, 2003, 2005), or reformulations of the natural law tradition (Nardin, 2002) to the case for humanitarian interventions. However, such moralist reasoning operates by devising abstract ethical principles, which are then applied to the problem of international intervention. They seek to offer “objective frameworks” of following deontological rules or the calculation of consequences, rather than exploring “the subjective experience of decisionmaking” (Gaskarth, 2011, p. 395). As such, they rarely engage with the realities of foreign policy per se, the values and principles which constrain and enable the everyday politics of foreign policy. Arguably, the world of policy making, foreign or otherwise, is much more grounded in negotiation, complexity, and “dirty hands” than these abstract formulations allow.

In this sense, the analysis of foreign policy requires an interpretive or political understanding of ethics. It needs perspectives that are sensitive to the difficulty, contestability, and negotiation of competing principles and interests that policy making involves. Many frameworks could be explored in this context, from a Habermas-inspired investigation using discourse ethics (Mattern, 2005), to a Chinese-Confucian orientation where the moral and the material carry equal weight (Qin, 2010), but two types of approaches are perhaps best suited to the chosen case study of Iraq. These are, first, those that theorize ethics on the basis of virtue, and second, those that explore ethics as relational. Because context is all important to both types of analysis, what follows is an outline of the foreign policy through which they will be drawn out: the U.K. decision to join the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003.

The U.K. Decision to Join the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq

The U.K. government’s decision to join its American ally in the war against Iraq was the most controversial of any U.K. foreign policy since the Suez debacle of 1956. Unlike Suez, however, the Iraq invasion came after six years of steadily escalating discussion of the government’s ethical responsibilities in relation to the rest of the world (see Bulley, 2009, 2010). The particular focus of these pronouncements had been the legitimacy of intervening in foreign conflicts on humanitarian or punitive grounds. This included U.K. involvement in Iraq in 1998, East Timor and Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000, and Afghanistan in 2001. The Iraq decision of 2003 was qualitatively different, however: it was the first time since the Second World War that the U.K. had taken part in a full-scale invasion and occupation of a sovereign state.

The subsequent controversy—particularly regarding Tony Blair’s motivations for supporting the war, the intelligence which had justified it, and the failed occupation and reconstruction of Iraq—led Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, to institute a broad-ranging public inquiry into the decision. Under the chairmanship of Sir John Chilcot, the Iraq Inquiry began its work in July 2009, hearing public testimony from nearly 100 expert witnesses—including Tony Blair, foreign secretary Jack Straw and key civil servants and armed forces personnel—until June 2011, finally publishing its report in July 2016. During this time, the Inquiry considered written evidence from 150,000 documents. The final report was 2.6 million words, spread across 12 volumes, with the Inquiry estimated to have cost over £13 million.4 As such, it constitutes a unique insight into a set of foreign policy decisions, unlike anything in the United Kingdom’s history, and will provide a major resource for foreign policy analysts for years to come. Analyzing the role ethics played in these decisions can, for heuristic reasons, concentrate on the role of Blair himself. This can also be justified by the way Blair made himself central to the entire debate (Gaskarth, 2011).

The particular role that ethics played in decisions on Iraq is confused by their intertwining with other justifications, particularly the enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the need for the United Kingdom to support its strongest ally (the United States) while guiding it toward multilateral action. At various times, Blair used both deontological and consequentialist arguments to support the invasion. For example, in April 2002, Blair noted that the U.K.’s interventions were attempts to promote the “values of freedom, democracy and justice” which is “not just right in itself but part of our long-term security and prosperity” (Blair, 2002a). Such a mixing of arguments following rules of essential rightness (deontology) and calculation of consequences (consequentialism) is not unique to Blair; it was also seen in the speeches of other foreign office ministers in the lead-up to the invasion (O’Brien, 2002; Straw, 2003), and it was continued right up to the invasion itself (Blair, 2003b). This makes it difficult to get a handle on the precise role that ethics—deontolgical or consequentialist—played in these decisions. In contrast, because virtue and relational perspectives are based in a reading of the context itself, they allow for much greater understanding of foreign policy as a type of social practice.

A Virtue Ethics Approach

Virtue-based standpoints hold an ambiguous place in international ethics. On the one hand, the virtues play a central role in the political ethics of a key thinker of the international, Hans J. Morgenthau (see Molloy, 2009). One the other hand, Nardin and Mapel’s (1990) edited survey of the field of international ethics contains no extended discussion of virtue ethics at all, ultimately boiling all approaches down to consequence-oriented and rule-oriented traditions.5 Nonetheless, emerging from readings of Aristotle’s (2009) Nichomachean Ethics, virtue theory has made a significant comeback in the philosophy of ethics, heralded in G. E. M. Anscombe’s essay (1958) on modern moral philosophy. This has extended through significant contributions from the likes of Foot (1978) and MacIntyre (1985), among others (for a summary, see Hursthouse, 1999).

A full discussion of virtue ethics, and its various forms and tensions, is beyond the scope of this article. Simply put, virtues are “dispositions to respond appropriately – in judgement, feeling, and action – to one’s situation” (Kamtekar, 2004, p. 477). As such, they are context-specific and require the “active involvement of the agent’s power of reasoning,” rather than their simple obedience to rules or consequences. For Aristotle, the virtues are always connected to a “practical wisdom,” an ability to “deliberate well about what conduces to the good life in general” (Kamtekar, 2004, p. 480). Virtues are therefore human dispositions to act in a manner that will realize one’s own and others’ good (Breen, 2012, p. 167). Virtues are not solely other-regarding—such as empathy and generosity—but include those tendencies that will also produce one’s own flourishing—such as self-respect and honor. The practices which cohere with these virtues are therefore those socially established forms which aim to achieve the goods and flourishing internal to that practice (MacIntyre, 1985, p. 187)—in this case, the practices of foreign policy.

Little work in foreign policy has considered virtue ethics explicitly. An exception is Jamie Gaskarth, who argues persuasively for the need to take it more seriously because, unlike deontological and consequentialist approaches, virtue ethics places the “actual experience” and practice of foreign policy decision making front and center (Gaskarth, 2011, p. 399). In this sense, virtue ethics could form a closer connection to the wider “practice turn” in international relations which, while focusing more on a reconceptualization of power in security negotiation and bargaining, is also concerned with ethical issues of intervention and diplomacy (Adler & Pouliot, 2011; Adler-Nissen & Pouliot, 2014; see Brown, 2012 on crucial differences). More explicit discussion of virtue ethics is central to the realist diplomatic tradition, especially that influenced by Niccolo Machiavelli, Max Weber, and Morgenthau (Lieven & Hulsman, 2006). For example, while Kennan claims that the necessities of national existence to which a foreign policy must be oriented have no moral character, he nonetheless sees them as “goods” which should be pursued by “right” action:

When it [a government] accepts the responsibilities of governing, implicit in that acceptance is the assumption that it is right that the state should be sovereign, that the integrity of its political life should be assured, that its people should enjoy the blessings of military security, material prosperity and a reasonable opportunity for … the pursuit of happiness.

(Kennan, 1985, p. 206)

For Kennan, then, foreign policy must be approached with the virtues that are likely to produce these goods, such as prudence and caution; the judging of each situation on its merits, with a wise understanding of our own limitations and resources; he also “see[s] virtue in our minding our own business wherever there is not some overwhelming reason for minding the business of others” (1985, p. 218). If these virtues and goods seem too self-regarding, more humanist realists such as Stanley Hoffmann add a wider “good”: namely, the need for one’s citizens to not only be safe from attack but also “morally at home” in the world through the pursuit of a more cooperative international environment which reflects their values (Hoffman, 1996, p. 173). Either way, what this approach to ethics in foreign policy offers is a way of drawing out the virtues—as commendable dispositions and character traits—that individuals and governments hold to be central to their foreign policy practices. The adherence to virtues can then be analyzed to assess how well individuals and their decisions lived up to those virtues, or we can assess whether the individuals judged correctly the virtues necessary to achieve the “goods” of that practice (Gaskarth, 2011).

Gaskarth’s (2011) exploration of the United Kingdom’s decisions regarding Iraq notes that Blair emphasized a set of idiosyncratic virtues in relation to foreign policy—political will, belief and foresight—which, incorrectly applied, generated the “policy misjudgement” of 2003 and beyond. In contrast, others have noted that Blair’s pronouncements on foreign policy throughout his premiership were quite consistent regarding the “good” to which he saw its practices as oriented: a secure United Kingdom which felt, to use Hoffmann’s language, “morally at home” within a cohesive, progressive international community (Bulley, 2009, 2010). This was first fully outlined in his famous Chicago speech on the “Doctrine of the International Community” (Blair, 1999). The virtue most central to this foreign policy good was responsibility. Presaging much of what would later appear in the “Responsibility to Protect,” Blair argued that the rights of a sovereign state—non-interference and territorial integrity—were dependent on their living up to both their domestic (good governance, protection of human rights, etc.) and international (obeying international law, not supporting terrorism, etc.) responsibilities.

For the United Kingdom, as a leader within this international community through its membership in the UNSC and other international organizations, this involved a special set of responsibilities. Primary among them was the clear-sighted analysis of risks the international environment posed to the “goods” of domestic security and international community. As he noted to the Iraq Inquiry, “when you are charged with the responsibility to protect your country—and that should be the job of the Prime Minister—you have to take an assessment of risk” (Blair, 2010, p. 31). This responsibility is only increased by his country’s leading role in ensuring regional and international security. Thus, as Blair stressed time and again in speeches and his evidence to the inquiry, 9/11 was so crucial because it changed the “balance,” or “calculus,” of risk associated with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction (Blair, 2004, 2010, pp. 7–12, 32, 83, 89–90, 130; 2011, pp. 5–8, 44–45). While before 9/11 a management and containment of that risk was the responsible action, after 9/11 the danger that these weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists became too great for a truly responsible politician to allow (Blair, 2010, p. 90). As the Inquiry’s final report summarized, responding to the “perception of a greater threat, governments felt a responsibility to act to anticipate and reduce risks before they turned into a threat” (Chilcot et al., 2016, p. 10). Asked about whether he should have given U.N. weapons inspectors and sanctions more time to work before invading, Blair argued that Saddam would not have changed: “he was a risk, and in which case if we are being in my view prudent and responsible about it, it is not a risk we should be running” (Blair, 2011, p. 116). In a more declaratory speech in 2002(b), Blair had argued that as the “world’s worst regime,” allowing Hussein to have weapons of mass destruction “would be an act of gross irresponsibility.”

Blair’s decisions therefore employed the foreign policy virtues of political will, belief, and foresight identified by Gaskarth (2011) in service of the more basic virtue of responsible leadership. Having invaded and overthrown the Iraqi regime, it would then have been irresponsible to simply leave without an occupation that built a state worthy of re-entering the international community. “We believed it was right to be there, for the reasons I have given, and we were prepared to accept the responsibility of then putting the country right … we could not walk away from our commitment to people in Iraq afterwards” (Blair, 2010, p. 175). The United Kingdom therefore became a joint-occupying force, with shared responsibility and a specific responsibility for the management of southern Iraq. Crucially, Blair does not see the United Kingdom as responsible for the deteriorating security situation in the country during the occupation which led to the deaths of around 150,000 civilians. And neither were Iraqis themselves responsible. In evidence to the inquiry this responsibility is placed firmly at the door of external forces—particularly Iranian interference and the infiltration of Al Qaeda through the north. The United Kingdom’s “responsibility was to stick in there and see it through” (Blair, 2010, p. 218).

The executive summary of the Iraq Inquiry’s final report can be seen as a highly critical assessment of the invasion and occupation as a set of irresponsible decisions and policies which displayed a flawed practical wisdom and judgement. The government failed to live up to its own virtues. In particular, Blair’s government is criticized for not considering the idea that Iraq had no serviceable weapons of mass destruction program, nor subjecting the intelligence to sufficient scrutiny (Chilcot et al., 2016, pp. 45–46, 76); for inadequate use of Cabinet and Cabinet Committees to discuss, challenge, and reflect upon policies (2016, pp. 57–59); for a consistent overstatement of the threat posed by the Iraqi regime and weapons of mass destruction (2016, pp. 73–75); with a misleading melding of genuine facts and mere beliefs regarding the threat (2016, pp. 131–132); and for persistent failures in the decision-making and planning for the post-conflict security situation in Iraq during the occupation (2016, pp. 80–81, 86). Perhaps most damning of all, given Blair’s recognition that the security of the United Kingdom was his greatest responsibility, is the charge that these policies substantially increased the threat to the United Kingdom from terrorism, despite warnings to this effect before the decisions were taken (2016, pp. 57–61). Furthermore, rather than promoting international unity, the United Kingdom’s decision to act without clear UN authorization split the international community and “undermined the authority of the Security Council” (2016, p. 63). Overall, the government is condemned for a series of misjudgments which meant it did not come close to achieving its objectives in Iraq (2016, pp. 109–110).

A virtue-ethics approach is therefore useful in helping us understand the role that ethics played in the U.K. government’s decisions, and how it failed to live up to its own understanding of a responsible foreign policy. Gaskarth (2011, p. 413) goes further and suggests that the progressive and optimistic “goods” Blair sought were actually contrary to those usually privileged as internal to foreign policy as a practice. These would include stability, order, mediation, and compromise, as well as an “acceptance of difference”—the kind of goods prized by Kennan. Blair’s brand of responsibility was therefore too cavalier, and insufficiently cautious and prudent. This brings us up against the limits of virtue as a way of critically assessing the ethics of foreign policy. By concentrating on what is “internal” to a practice and favoring what is usual or conventional, virtue ethics are inherently conservative. They militate against the favorable interpretation of emancipatory or transformational foreign policy actions; seeking such “goods” will rarely produce cautious or, perhaps, prudent practices. Instead, virtue ethics will inevitably incline toward the status quo, whomever it might privilege and work for.

Nonetheless, as Weber (1946, pp. 120–121) famously argued, unlike a deontological “ethic of ultimate ends,” a virtuous “ethic of responsibility” demands that one “give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.” If an action with good intent leads to bad results, an actor following ultimate ends will argue “not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men … is responsible for the evil.” He will feel responsible only for “seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched.” When charged by the Iraq Inquiry with the number of Iraqis that died as a result of the invasion and occupation, Blair’s response was that “the coalition forces weren’t doing the killing. The ones doing the killing were the terrorists, the sectarians” (Blair, 2011, p. 217). He therefore shifts the responsibility for Iraqi deaths onto unforeseen and unforeseeable “external” forces: Al Qaeda terrorists and Iranian infiltrators. Such factors were demonstrated by the Iraq Inquiry to be wholly foreseeable. This leaves Blair to retreat to the ethic of ultimate ends and away from that of responsibility. His response to the Inquiry’s report stressed that it had proven his decisions were “made in good faith” (Blair, 2016). His intentions were pure. He seeks refuge from the responsible, virtuous ethics he claimed in an entirely different ethic of ultimate ends.

A Relational Ethics Approach

The value of virtue ethics lies in the way it begins from the social practice of foreign policy itself, rather than abstract theorizing of rules or consequences. However, for relational approaches, the virtue ethics approach to foreign policy often assumes far too much about the practice and its constituent elements: it assumes the pre-existence of sovereign states and their identities before they come into contact with other actors; it assumes the pre-existence of rational statesmen, capable of determining virtuous dispositions that relate to already existing frameworks of the good. A relational approach to ethics—within which might be included many critical feminists, queer theorists, post-structuralists, and post/decolonialists (Barkawi & Laffey, 2006; Bulley, 2009; Campbell, 1998; Shilliam, 2015; Weber, 2010)—starts from a different position. Instead of assuming the pre-existence of these actors, it argues that all subjects, including states and statesmen, their identities and dispositions, are only formed in the encounter with difference and otherness (see Campbell & Shapiro, 1999; Connolly, 1991). Subjects are formed in relation; but neither identity nor difference, self nor other, existed as such prior to their encounter. The subject—whether an individual, community, or state—can give no account of its own existence which is not relational, as it comes into being through its interactions with other subjects and sets of social norms (Butler, 2005). We only form our idea of the sovereign state as the agent of foreign policy against other conceptions of political community, such as empires of the past or, more recently, against “failing” states and terrorist networks (Bulley, 2008).

Foreign policy is therefore a set of statist and territorial social performances that differentiate self and other, “constitut[ing] their object as ‘foreign’ in the process of dealing with them” (Campbell, 1998, pp. 68–69). Within this framing, ethics is reconceived on the basis not of judging right and wrong, but as an ethos—a manner, or way of being or living, in relation to one’s self and others (Foucault, 1984; Derrida, 2001). A relational approach argues that before we can consider how we ought to live or conduct foreign policy, we need to consider how we already do live, and how that way of being, its meanings, values, and dispositions, depends upon those others it has been generated with, against, and alongside. And crucially, it asks what responsibilities this originary relationality might impose (Groenhout, 2004, p. 27). Instead of being stimulated by abstract claims about rules or consequences, these perspectives are “motivated by the ethical relation in which our responsibility to the other is the basis for reflection. Eschewing hierarchical constructions of moral value, they focus instead on the always already ethical situation integral to the habitus of experience” (Campbell & Shapiro, 1999, p. x). Thus they ask different types of ethical questions, such as: how and on what basis is the self separated from others through foreign policy and its “values”? How is difference converted into danger and threat? How is that differentiation used to exclude others via constructs such as legitimate forms of violence, rightful presence within international community, and established norms of international law? And what kind of responsibilities and relations are ignored, denied, or erased by such violence?

A relational approach to ethics and foreign policy is crucial to understanding the changed “calculus of risk” which was so central to the United Kingdom’s decisions regarding Iraq after 9/11. After all, how could an attack on the United States by a transnational network generate an ethical requirement for the United Kingdom to invade and occupy a state which it acknowledged had no relation to Al Qaeda? This was performed through an interpretation of the 9/11 events as an attack by an amorphous evil not on the United States, but on a “way of life,” an ethos, common to the West. In making his case to Parliament before its final vote on the invasion, Blair (2003b) elaborates on this construction of separation and relation. Two “threats” are identified: “Tyrannical regimes with WMD and extreme terrorist groups.” They have “different motives and different origins but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life” (Blair, 2003b; see also Blair, 2010, p. 32). Iraq and Al Qaeda are therefore linked by their ethos, formed in complete opposition to “our way of life,” our own ethos. But this is obviously not a morally equal opposition: the West’s “freedom, democracy and tolerance” is considered infinitely superior to the tyranny and terror of its alternative.

This understanding creates a totalizing hierarchical separation, a mutual exclusion and denial of relation between the “West” and Iraq/Al Qaeda. The justification for invasion and occupation thereby replicates the Eurocentrism of much international-relations thought, which assumes that Europe and the West developed ethically and politically in superior isolation from the global South (Barkawi & Laffey, 2002). Maintaining this hierarchy requires an erasure, both of tyranny and mass slaughter within Europe (particularly the Holocaust), but also “the West’s” development through the encounters with (and domination and exploitation of) the South through colonialism (Barkawi & Laffey, 2006). Most pertinent to this case, it ignores the historical and contemporary relations between the United Kingdom/United States and Al Qaeda/Iraq that formed both, not as opposites, but as complex hybrids of East and West, South and North (Dodge, 2003; Barkawi & Laffey, 2006). This comprehensive writing-out of a violent history of co-constitution means that the United Kingdom can act as if its encounter with Iraq began in the 1990s. Thus, coming before Parliament to authorize the invasion, Blair offers a history of U.K.-Iraqi relations that begins in April 1991, when Iraq was given 15 days to declare its WMD program (Blair, 2003b). Even the “timeline of events” given by the Iraq Inquiry report begins in August 1990, with Iraq invading Kuwait (Chilcot et al., 2016, pp. 141–145). Much earlier origins could have been determined without even going beyond the twentieth century, such as the United Kingdom’s occupation and state-building in Iraq as a mandate territory from 1920, or its support of Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s.

The problem with this ethical picture—of two unequal and unconnected ways of life—then, is not just that it is “bad” or “wrong,” but that it is a heavily skewed representation which justifies further violence. Saddam Hussein as barbaric, evil, and murderous (Blair, 2002b, 2003b), directly opposed to “our” ethically pure democratic way of life, was what constituted the threat to U.K. and international security; misinterpreted and inaccurate intelligence on WMD merely made that threat more “real.” Even when it became clear that this was not real, the “intention” of Hussein to restart his WMD program was deemed sufficient to authorize the invasion in retrospect (Blair, 2010, pp. 104–111, 2011, pp. 88, 116). This authorized an unchallenging acceptance of intelligence reports and ignoring contrary evidence. The uncritical Orientalist assumption was that the United Kingdom knew Iraq, and it knew Saddam Hussein (Khalid, 2011). As became clear in the Iraq Inquiry, this left the foreign policy establishment genuinely bemused by Hussein’s noncompliance with weapons inspectors when it turned out he had no WMD. The assumption of knowledge was so thorough, no room was left for seeking understanding—understanding why the regime might not wish to reveal its lack of WMD or shed its dignity and sovereignty by complying with invasive inspections.

The hierarchical power relation between the diametrically opposed “ways of life” legitimized these knowledge claims; that knowledge then permitted the violence of intervention against the “regime.” But the claimed knowledge extended beyond the regime to the wider state and population. Blair is clear that he knows what the “Iraqi people” want and that their “only true hope of liberation lies with the removal of Saddam” (Blair, 2003b). They are like the other “people” the United Kingdom had been fighting for since 9/11, who appreciate the United Kingdom’s “fight for justice” which aims to “bring those … values of democracy and freedom to people around the world” (Blair, 2001). After all, these people are all just like “us.” The “values we stand for” are “all universal values. Given the chance, the world over, people want them” (Blair, 2003a). Once the occupation begins, the crucial thing is to “get on with the business of reconstructing Iraq for the Iraqi people” (2003c) and offering Iraqis what they want—the “universal values of the human spirit” which “anywhere, any time, ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same” (2003d). This follows a standard form of Eurocentric analysis where “various others are assumed to be just like us, only weaker” (Barkawi & Laffey, 2006, p. 346). No contradiction was perceived in not consulting the “Iraqi people” themselves on what they want; democracy would be “brought” to them undemocratically.

The difficulty with assuming knowledge rather than building relational understanding is that the former is either partial or wholly inaccurate. Blair refutes the suggestion that the United Kingdom had not planned sufficiently for the occupation or considered the potential for a domestic insurgency. The problem, for him, was that the United Kingdom had focused overwhelmingly on the humanitarian aspect of the occupation (Blair, 2010, pp. 170–171), assuming that the invasion and brutality of the regime would require significant relief and that “we would inherit a functioning Civil Service infrastructure” that could handle the day-to-day running of Iraq and its security (Blair, 2010, p. 180). Both assumptions were proven wrong, and the occupying powers were confronted by looting and a gradually building insurgency which they had not expected. Their Orientialist and Eurocentric assumptions of the people and state being “like us,” simply awaiting liberation from a brutal regime, meant that the responsibilities and obligations owed to the Iraqi people received insufficient attention—a point made strongly by the Iraq Inquiry’s final report (Chilcot et al., 2016, pp. 82, 123–124). The United Kingdom failed to even count the number of civilian deaths produced by its foreign policy, which Chilcot conservatively estimates at over 150,000 (Chilcot, 2016).

While a virtue ethics approach, as outlined, would condemn Blair’s retreat from an ethic of responsibility to one of ultimate ends when seeking to hold Al Qaeda and Iran accountable for these deaths, a relational ethics would note a more predictable shift. The United Kingdom’s construction of Iraq had always been twofold: a regime that was wholly contrary to our “way of life” and an Iraqi people that was just like “us.” The thousands of dead civilians could not be blamed on the “regime,” which no longer existed. But the United Kingdom’s representation could not sustain a domestic insurgency which demonstrated that Iraqis were certainly not all just like “us.” Blair maintained in 2010 that “the Iraqi people, as a people, were not in favour of the sectarianism. As a people, they supported and have supported throughout the political process” (Blair, 2010, p. 194). The only way to maintain this homogenized representation of Iraqis as a singular “people” was to find an alternative source of the violence. The resort to Iran and Al Qaeda as “external” spoilers (Blair, 2010, p. 182) therefore provided an opportunity to continue the binary relational ethics of U.K. foreign policy—with these “others” substituting in for the Iraqi regime, “prepared to do terrible things in order to frustrate the will of the Iraqi people” (Blair, 2010, p. 221). Not only was responsibility for these deaths denied; the same oppositional ethos and violent identity politics which led to the invasion and occupation were iterated once more.

Future Directions

There are ample opportunities for future research regarding ethics in foreign policy. The area remains under-researched because of assumptions, still pervasive in some circles, that they are two separate areas that require a bridge. This article has been perhaps too dismissive of deontological and consequentialist approaches to ethics, especially as these remain the central traditions of ethical philosophy. However, future work using these traditions could productively engage more with the politics of foreign policy making itself, moving beyond moralizing and exploring how moral rules and calculations are employed, negotiated, and traded off against one another. This would provide greater potential engagement with the post-positivist literature, where foreign policy is seen as an inevitably ethical arena, but engagement with ethical philosophy is not as developed as it could be.

However, the most important way in which the study of ethics in foreign policy can advance is through investigations into non-Western approaches. While attention has been shifting in this direction in international relations (see Acharya & Buzan, 2010; Tickner & Waever, 2009; Tickner & Blaney, 2013; Messari et al., 2017), studies of non-Western foreign policy analysis lag behind (an exception being Brummer & Hudson, 2015). This body of literature needs to be developed, with a particular focus on the role of ethics. For example, there are important parallels and discontinuities to be found between constructivist and Chinese-Confucian understandings of the international, where the moral and the material carry equal weight (see Qin, 2010, p. 42). Similarly, post-structural and postcolonial understandings of ethics in foreign policy may find productive dialogues with social science in the Islamic world, where faith and rationality, ethics and the material, are being combined through postcolonial hybridity (Tadjbakhsh, 2010, p. 182). This could be an important way to revitalize the study of relational ethics in foreign policy, which appears to have passed its zenith, with key texts mainly published in the late 1990s (e.g., Campbell, 1998; Weldes, 1999). Post-positivists now appear more interested in security politics and rarely engage in foreign policy to the same degree—for example, one of the key texts (Barkawi & Laffey, 2006) used in the discussion of relational ethics, and which does explore Islamic postcolonial hybridity, is overtly speaking to security studies, rather than foreign policy analysis.

One of the major advantages of virtue ethics, in contrast, is that it remains a largely untapped resource for the study of foreign policy. Realist foreign policy’s basis in virtue ethics needs to be further, and more systematically, drawn out. Similarly, examinations of virtues in foreign policy could be an important way of developing connections with the broader “practice turn” in international relations. More productive, due to its explicitly ethical foundation, would be to grow linked research agendas with those who employ the natural law and just war traditions—are these separate from virtue ethics, or part of a broader understanding of foreign policy “goods” and “virtues”? Such parallels have already been started within just war theorising (Scott Davis, 2011). Importantly, this would also offer virtue ethics an avenue for engagement with non-Western approaches, as Islamic conceptions of just war are already a key area of concern (Kelsay, 1993, 2007; Nardin, 1996). Taking a different route, virtue ethics could also usefully respond to the charge of conservatism, exploring its own resources for dealing with foreign policies that seek transformational change, including through the marrying of faith and reason in Islam, rather than maintenance of the status quo.

Finally, common to almost all accounts of ethics in foreign policy is an overriding focus on intervention and war. In the wake of a disastrous occupation of Iraq, a failed NATO intervention in Libya, and the international community’s paralysis over Darfur and Syria, the field needs to diversify beyond this emphasis if it is to remain relevant. Two issues in particular, for example, see ample discussion of ethics, values, and norms: foreign aid and refugee and migration policy. These are often assumed to be non-foreign policy issues; while one is the focus of development studies, the other is more commonly reserved for domestic politics. Yet they remain key ways in which the state engages that which is currently “external,” while migration/refugee policy disturbs the distinction between domestic and foreign policy in important ways. Engagement on these issues would allow the study of ethics in foreign policy to link with literatures and approaches that have not been examined here, particularly those that stress the cosmopolitan drive toward global citizenship through development and migration (e.g., Benhabib, 2004; Bauböck, 2009; Tonkiss, 2013; Miller, 2007; Pieterse, 2006). As nontraditional foreign policy issues, aid and migration could be productively reclaimed by the field to further explore the role that ethics continue to play in enabling and constraining state actions.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (1.) I will treat ethics and morality as synonyms throughout. The distinction drawn by others (Thomas, 2001) is difficult to sustain conceptually or etymologically (see Bulley, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (2.) This is also not helped by the fact that many liberal states often separate their more obviously ethically infused practices from their State Department or Foreign Office. For example, U.S. President Kennedy created the technically independent United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1961; and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair split development and aid provision from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1997 in creating the Department for International Development (DfID).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (3.) Brown is correct here, but this opposition of ethics and interests is not only an assumption of Chomskyan-realists. A more traditional realist, Kennan (1985, p. 217), also claims that “all morality implies” the “renunciation of self-interest.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (4.) For full details of the Iraq Inquiry, as well as a copy of its final report, see

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (5.) It is a common critique that as both consequentialists and deontologists include the treatment of virtue, it cannot be a separate approach to which we should give equal weight (Nussbaum, 1999).