Power, Morality and Justice

7 june 2014

International Politics in the 21st Century

Timofey Bordachev - Head of the Eurasian Programme of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Ph.D. in Political Science, Russia

Resume: It was not international diplomacy that has steered the situation over Ukraine into the condition of nearly systemic confrontation. The current state of affairs should be blamed squarely on the absence of diplomacy for nearly a quarter of a century.

This article is a revised version of the concluding chapter of the textbook “Power, morality, justice: Theory of International Relations in the 21st Century,” to be published by the Mezhdunarodniye Otnosheniya Publishers.

“Our task is to explore the ruins of international order and discover on what fresh foundations we may hope to rebuild it.”

Edward Hallet Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939.

On November 10, 1942 the victory of the British Expeditionary Force in North Africa over a joint Italian-German contingent in the battle of El Alamein made history. In the evening of the same day Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill addressed the British elite in these words: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The world order that emerged in the wake of the Cold War was neither just nor stable. It was unjust because a group of states, homogenous in value terms, appropriated the right to supreme truth. Automatically all others faced a stark choice – toe the line or take one’s leave.

The unstable nature of this kind of world order was rooted in the fact that formally and in real life it relied on a structure that had taken shape in a different historical era. The world’s second largest nuclear power – Russia – had been ousted from the group of victors, while China showed no ability or wish to join it. Some international institutions, such as the United Nations or the OSCE, were paralyzed or degraded. Others, for instance the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, became foreign policy tools in the hands of the United States and its allies. The international political system started running at idle. Its degradation went out of control after the Ukrainian crisis of the winter and spring of 2014 ruined the Western monopoly to abusing the basics of the world order.

The science of international relations is at a crossroads. The old theories these days fail more often than not, while new, convincing ones, are still to be invented. A comprehensive approach to analysis is replaced by many micro-theories good enough for analyzing particular cases only – those of integration, international institutions and, to a certain extent, foreign policy. But there are no answers to the fundamental questions, of which the problem of war and peace is the main one. The intellectual space is brimming with concepts made up of conflicting elements of political and economic sciences, and the “black swans” of pseudo-theories are floating about the vast expanses of political journalism. Why?

The structural theory of Kenneth Waltz and his followers made international relations a science in its own right. Neo-realism and other neo theories, including the neo-liberals and liberal institutionalists, have separated the realm of international affairs from that of national ones to create a convincing methodological apparatus for the analysis of this autonomous sphere. However, the end of the Cold War and the noticeable growth of the number of factors that determine the position of a country within the system and  –  more importantly – the disappearance of clear criteria that allow for identifying the structure-forming states have considerably limited the applicability of all “stability theories.”

Neo-classic realists tried to fill in this gap and proposed an internal correcting variable. But the question of the components’ universality, the weight of each of the components and of the variable itself has not been studied comprehensively yet. Besides, the neo-classic attempt to cross-breed Waltz’s method of international policy analysis and the science of the state’s foreign policy failed to resolve the problem of formalizing consistent regularities at the “system pressure–unit reaction” level. The general methodological confusion of the beginning of last decade brought about a situation where scholars in full seriousness started discussing concepts that put the emphasis on the factor of unpredictable randomness as the most important driver of world politics.


We have no idea what a new world order will be like, but we can say with certainty what it will not be like. The experience of the 20th century will not be replicated under any circumstance. Even if a future world will be arranged along harsh confrontation lines, it will surely not replicate the Cold War system, based on a standoff of blocs and ideologies approximately equal in power. Respectively, attempts to easily separate the international sphere from the foreign policy sphere will hardly succeed. In the modern conditions the sole indisputable and objective reality is the sovereign state – the agent possessing rights and bearing responsibility for its citizens. Waltz’s integral international system is no longer able to be such an indisputable category, although its key characteristics – structure and environment – remain the most important categories of analysis at the level of regional and functional subsystems. But does that mean that the system theory was an evolutionary dead end of the most important social science?

A firm NO can and must be the answer to this question. The task of any theory is not to present a rigid matrix into which a scholar squeezes the international political reality. The task of any theory is to point to the most important regularities that allow for taking a systemic approach to analysis and forecasting. Therefore, the science of international relations cannot say accurately what a future world will be like. But, building up from the experience of past generations it can outline the major factors that will determine the structure of this world of the future and the response of actors to arising challenges. Also, it is capable of identifying the forces that will be playing the leading role in mapping the trajectory this or that international political situation or process will follow, providing a priori motives of behavior of sovereign actors – the states.

At this point it can be postulated that three factors will determine the world’s development: power, morality and justice. They are not an expression of our capabilities – the power of states is invariably relative, the principles of morality do not play the decisive role in world politics yet, and the world is immanently unjust. Power, morality and justice express aspirations inherent in individuals and states. Each state seeks to get stronger and enhance its significance in the world system, although the tools employed may vary. Each state is aware of the need for moral restrictions on domestic and foreign policies, although it has its own ideas of what is decent and what is not in world politics. Each state wishes to see a fairer world order, in which the interests of any member of the international community and its own, sometimes unique, understanding of justice, are respected.

Historically, power has been the most important striving of all peoples. The Anglo-Saxon tradition, which Edward H. Carr pioneered in the 20th century, termed power as the basis of any world order. The Roman Peace (Pax Romana), the British Peace (Pax Britannica) and the American Peace (Pax Americana), which in the works of British and U.S. authors describe different historical forms of international order, have always rested upon the dominating power of one state (at least hypothetically) – of the Roman Empire in the 1st-4th centuries A.D., of the British Empire of the 19th century and early 20th century and of the United States of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.

The relative power of the state has always been the universal yardstick to measure the real significance of military, economic and ideological resources. All these subjective features turned objective, when they began to be looked at from the standpoint of their influence on the power of the state in competition amid a hectic international environment. Hans Morgenthau maintains that power is the most effective means of restricting violence in inter-state relations and making them more civilized. A good illustration of this was offered by ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who said that “in the pre-historic times habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with their residents as with barbarians.”

The relative power of several participants of the international system provides the material basis for building a balance of power – the most reliable means of maintaining peace and the possibility of cooperation at the regional and global level. Some elements of this balance of power can be found in antiquity, when, according to Jane Penrose “the Sassanians were the ‘other superpower,’ east of the Romans, and despite the bombastic and triumphant tone of certain Roman sources as well as the somewhat biased views of certain contemporary historians, modern scholarship and examination of primary sources and other evidence reveals the Sassanians to have been an adversary on a par with the Romans.”

The pursuit of power can be regarded as a universal law of international politics. It remains the main driving force behind the behavior of each single unit within the international system. And it should be borne in mind as an independent variable in analyzing the ways in which countries respond to external challenges irrespective of their material capabilities. The optimal solution of any complex international political situation must be aimed at a relative strengthening of all players involved, or at least those of them who are fundamentally important to keeping the system stable.


Morality has been a natural restriction on the use of force in international relations. Many great thinkers of the past acknowledged that international politics is not subordinate to common ethics, for it is a kind of ethics itself. However, Thucydides was an advocate of moderate, rationally regulated power. This restraint has no material basis, though – human beings stopped eating killed enemies not because their flesh was poisonous. It stemmed from abstract reasons of morality – the ideas of what is appropriate and what is not. Those norms would eventually be transformed into religious taboos, which had served as people’s legal codes up to the 17th century. Even the ousting of the Church from international affairs has not utterly erased the moral component. It is beyond doubt that the ethics of responsibility – the doctrine postulating that anything is justified by reason of state – points to the amorality of the sovereign’s behavior in relation to his subjects that is moral in relation to others. The realistic school classic Hans Morgenthau wrote about that back in 1948. Although power is the main restriction on attempts at establishing hegemony, exclusive reliance on it would bring about a pre-state situation in international affairs where, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “the condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

In other words, states, just as individuals, are forced to accept the fundamental world ethic principle (“the golden rule of morality”) – treat others the same way you would like them to treat you. Morality is getting institutionalized to become a means that states employ to guarantee some minimum of security. Humanism manifests itself not only as a basic trait of human nature, but as a means to regulate relations among peoples and maintaining relative order. States need some degree of morality in world politics and they seek it.

What makes morality unique is that it belongs to the whole of humanity and at the same time bears a distinct ethnic and religious flavor. Peoples and civilizations often interpret this or that foreign policy decision by their partners as moral (ethical) or immoral on the basis of their own scale of values. A good example of this is seen in the promise not to expand NATO eastward the U.S. establishment had given to Mikhail Gorbachev only to revise it a while later. In Russia this type of behavior is seen as an exclusively immoral act of deceit. In the United States it is regarded as a normal decision made on the basis of a rational choice in changed circumstances. As Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “The U.S. took advantage of a situation in which some decisions had to be made on the future status of central Europe. In the absence of clarity on where central Europe belonged — what is it identified with — we would probably have now had serious problems again today in the middle of Europe.”

However, historically morality and abstract considerations were not only factors restricting the use of force, but also excuses or motives for using violence. As a rule this applies to some extreme manifestations of religious intolerance, historically characteristic of Christianity and Islam. At the beginning of the 21st century the ideas of moral superiority of the “international society” of the Western countries encouraged the use of force and prompted official parallels to crusades. In that connection Russian scholar of international affairs Alexei Bogaturov said: “The revolution of values and obsession with ‘democracy at any cost’ produced a situation where democratization turned into a fetish, and the practice of resorting to democratic slogans in order to excuse U.S. interference at any point on the globe firmly established itself. The idea of democracy was replaced by the idea of a democratic war and arbitrariness for the sake of democracy. The latter phased out the idea of peace on the global scale. The use of force took revanche. A world of balance and mutual respect for each other’s interests in the early 2000s began to be seen as a useless anachronism.”

But the basic purpose of morality – to be the second most effective factor after power restricting the use of violence in international politics – will retain its significance in the future. For this reason morality can well be considered as a basic analytical category characterizing one of the basic strivings of states.

Whether this or that international order is just or unjust has traditionally been considered by scholars, both realists and liberals, as the most important condition for the world’s stability or instability. It was injustice committed by World War I victors – Britain and France, first and foremost, in relation to Germany that by universal recognition caused the agony of the Weimar Republic and the triumph of revanchist sentiment. Edward Carr acknowledges that injustice was inevitable because “in so far … as the alleged natural harmony of interests has any reality, it is created by the overwhelming power of the privileged group, and is an excellent illustration of the Machiavellian maxim that morality is the product of power.” But that injustice resulted in a very fragile Versailles world order and the appalling loss of human life and destruction during World War II. The new world order, embodied in the UN Security Council, did not incorporate the loser states – Germany and Japan. However, pretty soon special mechanisms were established within its framework to incorporate potential revanchists into the community of Western market economy democracies. The European Union and NATO became effective instruments of Germany’s political rehabilitation. The capitalist system and military alliances with the United States were more than fair for Berlin and Tokyo, bearing in mind the “exploits” of both powers during the war.

But the world order that was established upon the end of the Cold War could not be called fair under any circumstance. Attempts at its revision, first implicit and then explicit, could not but follow. Both new powers (China, India and Brazil) and the older ones (Russia) were taking steps along these lines. The degree of protection for the paramount national interest – security – which the given world order guarantees to each of the participants, is the chief parameter indicating whether this order is just or unjust. One of the greatest connoisseurs of international relations of our time, Henry Kissinger, writes: “An international settlement which is accepted and not imposed will therefore always appear somewhat unjust to any one of its components. Paradoxically, the generality of this dissatisfaction is a condition of stability, because were any one power totally satisfied, all others would have to be totally dissatisfied and a revolutionary situation would ensue. The foundation of a stable order is the relative security – and therefore the relative insecurity – of its members.”

The international order after 1991 failed to guarantee the respect of national interests to a very large group of states. It left them no chance to influence the making of decisions on the most important world issues, the issues of war and peace, first and foremost, although formally it preserved their membership of the main official institution of international security – the UN Security Council. In the meantime, not only Russia, a country that in the eyes of a majority in the West suffered a defeat in the Cold War, was barred from real participation in adopting major decisions. China, whose economic growth after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms considerably contributed to progress of the very same West, and India, neutrally-friendly towards the United States, were given no access to the making of decisions, too. Amitai Etzioni, representing the liberal school of the international relations science, described this situation in a very accurate way. He believes that the “Global Safety Authority, a modern-day ‘world state’ has been gaining its own enforcement capability.”

The world that rose on the ruins of the Cold War-era international system was most fair for the Western countries and, with very few exceptions, satisfied their national interests. The United States and Europe emerged winners in decades-long confrontation with the USSR and retained control of all international governance institutions (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO), the controlling stakes in a number of regional organizations (OSCE) and the most armed military alliance in the history of humanity – NATO. There began what Fareed Zakaria described as a great era of prosperity.

But this world order, providing the maximum comfort for the West and, naturally, utter discomfort for everybody else, could not last very long. It is not accidental that one of the ideologists of the neo-conservative trend in the U.S. intellectual establishment, Charles Krauthammer, defined that state of affairs as the “Unipolar Moment,” adding that it would last about two decades. The most resolute attempt to perpetuate that moment was made in 2003, when the international community and its institutions failed to stop the invasion of Iraq and actually surrendered to an outrageous abuse of international law and the Westphalian principles.

But this unjust state of affairs will not last. Not because of a redistribution of forces in the international scene. The countries that had attained victory in the Cold War have demonstrated a remarkable ability for self-mobilization and enhancing the effectiveness of their foreign policy.

The underlying reason is that the privileged group has never ceded the monopoly on power to competitors, even in the form of insignificant redistribution of control resources. The states taking the commanding positions maintain that the international order that they safeguard is right and fair. The intention to make the world more comfortable and fair for themselves is the most important motive for states’ behavior and the way they respond to the challenges of the system. This basic prerequisite should be the point of departure in analyzing any international situation. Thorough knowledge of the conditions of justice for each country and culture is the basic characteristic useful to society, science and successful diplomacy in the new century that has just begun.


The deficit of diplomacy in its traditional sense was one of the key features of the pasts two decades. French philosopher Raymond Aron said that the soldier and the diplomat are the key figures in world politics. They take turns to regulate relations between peoples, protect national interests and restore peace. The basic function of diplomacy is to prevent escalations of conflicts and find a solution that more or less suits everyone – and does not satisfy all to the same degree, if we recall the aforementioned quote from Kissinger.

Historically, diplomacy has never yielded complete victories; it recognizes only relative success. The meaning is to fix relations, conflict-prone by nature, at a new point of development. This point does not herald the full triumph of either party or the “end of history.” It is merely the starting point of a new spiral of the international system’s evolution.

Twenty-three years ago the situation changed qualitatively and not for the better. The Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War and the bipolar world sank into oblivion. It looked like everybody should expect universal movement towards freedom and democracy on the global scale. That did not happen, though, and the shadow of bloc discipline was cast on the whole world. That discipline implied direct or indirect subordination to the leader – the hegemon.

There remained only one leader. In the very center of the world order that appeared after the Cold War there was only one unspoken rule: only one power, the United States and its NATO allies have the right to press for their national interests entirely on their own. All the rest, including loser Russia and rising China, faced artificial restrictions of their rights. The Orwellian principle “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” was implemented in practice in world politics.

This rule became so deeply ingrained in the minds of its adherents that it became to be perceived almost as part of an international code of conduct. A similar transformation happened to the concept of the “international community,” which before 1991 had included all states participating in the world system. The term was usurped by the “international society” – a very limited group of states. Even very competent and intelligent authors began to put an equation mark between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and the whole world, on the other.

In that type of the world the task of diplomacy was emasculated. Which should have been expected, though, because where there are no equal participants with well-balanced rights and duties, the skill of diplomacy is redundant. A similar situation that emerged several thousand years ago left China without diplomacy, systemic foreign policy, and a science of international relations. When relations follow the pattern “enlightened center–barbaric periphery,” it is no use to rack one’s brain over compromises. The related skills are wasted. The arsenal of foreign policy instruments loses resourcefulness and creativity. The logic of internal political struggle prevails. Number one aim is to corner the opponent. Even the function of a go-between in regional conflicts – the United States’ favorite one throughout the Cold War years – gives way to stubborn attempts to push through its own solutions, not necessarily adequate to the realities, but always consonant with Washington’s own ideas what is best for itself.

The whole diplomacy of the outgoing era was confined to coercing everybody into consent, into agreement on the basis of the assumption that the United States is always right. The entire foreign policy machinery of the United States and Europe was geared to deceiving, to twisting arms, or simply ignoring the opponents – to pushing through one’s own solution no matter what. In the spring of 2014 U.S. representative in the UN Security Council Samantha Power, a former Harvard professor, appeared in the limelight as an embodiment of that approach.

Inability to attain full victory has disastrous effects on the mentality of anyone committed to this type of philosophy. It triggers emotional breakdowns we regularly witness these days while watching debates on various international floors. It fuels careless “red line” rhetoric. It prompts steps that in the long run may reduce to nothing all or some power of the Cold War winners. The United States’ pressure on the payment systems Visa and MasterCard exerted in order to make them curtail cooperation with some Russian banks was the brightest example. It undermined confidence in the United States’ own private companies, to say the least, and with it, the main principle the relative integrity of the world rests upon – economic interdependence and people’s faith in independent international institutions and a free market economy.

It was not international diplomacy that has steered the situation over Ukraine into the condition of nearly systemic confrontation. The current state of affairs should be blamed squarely on the absence of diplomacy for nearly a quarter of a century. At the global level the ongoing events were not a result of good or evil will of individual politicians. They are a material expression of the accrued contradictions and intentions of some countries to perpetuate these contradictions, and of others to resolve them somehow.

For how much longer this latent standoff between the West and the rest of humanity will last is anyone’s guess. Many feel quite natural fears for the future of their dear ones and their own future. This allows for clearly formulating at least one task of international diplomacy that will require sparing no effort – preventing a slide towards armed confrontation at the regional and global levels. In the new era of diplomacy we are not expected to agree with everything. Everybody should master the skill of self-restraint and display the highest form of morality in relations between peoples known since the times of Thucydides – a moderate approach to the use of force.

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