Why ‘Morals’ Matter in Foreign Policy*…

Deepanshu Mohan
5 min readMar 11, 2022

*This article is due to be published in print. Published Link will be uploaded here..

Source: Al Jazeera

A lot is being said on India’s position in the UN on the Ukraine-Russia crisis. The position, thus far, has been broadly of ‘abstention’ and ‘silence’. The Indian Government has also failed to explain the causal reasons for its repeated (abstention) vote or to call a spade-a-spade given how Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine is both unprovoked and in clear violation to basic tenets and principles of international law.

I argued recently that a prolonged ‘silence’ of India-and/or the inability of the Modi government to condone or condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, with each passing week, may indirectly affect us (and our interests) in the longer term, despite what bonhomie we might share with Russia. If A’s friend commits murder and A maintains a position of ‘silence’ or gives the friend a free pass, what does it say about A and her/his moral character?

Yes, this isn’t India’s war.

And, yes, maybe the Indian government, been late in evacuating its own citizens (given how late the advisories for evacuation were issued) didn’t have a choice but to be ‘silent’ in the first couple of weeks -given the administration had to work with both Russian and Ukrainian authorities to get its own citizens out. That’s understandable.

But, once the evacuation of Indians is complete (as it is about to now), India’s geopolitical position of ‘silence’ will increasingly be questioned (in a way it already is). More importantly, India (like many other democratic nations) has a moral responsibility to say more-and do more to counter Putin’s Russia.

To many ultra-realists/supporters of pro-government position (there are many shouting in TV studios now), the very mention of the word ‘moral’ or ‘moral responsibility’ seems problematic. Whataboutery has been common in discourse too.

Ultra-realists may argue what’s so special about condemning a great power for this crisis -or why should India support the West’s attack on Russian actions- when Americans too have been guilty of intervening in other nations and have its own wars (from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan).

Still, it would be moral obtuse to ‘compare’ one great power’s military aggression to another.

It is true how ‘American exceptionalism’ has been entrenched in 20th century international politics discourse and was part of shaping a US-led international order (which is on the verge of collapse now).

But, as Theodore Roosevelt put it a century ago, “Our chief usefulness to humanity rests on combining power with high purpose”. Based as much as on ideas of ethnicity, America has long seen itself ‘as a cause as well as a country’.

Dominant powers surely promote their political values. Imagine how the world would look today if Hitler had emerged victorious in World War II or if Stalin’s Soviet Union had prevailed in the Cold War.

Of the three great ideological narratives of 20th century-fascism, communism and liberalism-only the latter was left standing at its end.

US President Woodrow Wilson, recognized as a ‘thought leader’ in American and post-World War II international order, offered a liberal internationalist project with two main aims: to tame international anarchy through the erection of binding international law and organization, and to change the other states in the system toward constitutional democracy.

Wilsonian liberalism-anchored by the US sought a world made safe for democracy. Nehru and Gandhi’s views too from India were in broader convergence with this thought. Alas, the current state of international politics paints a grim picture and a dissolution of a universal value-based moral compass.

Source: Google (Images)

As Joseph Nye argues in one of his recent books: Do Morals Matter?

The American order after 1945 (too) was neither global nor always very liberal. So-called American hegemony left out more than half the world (the Soviet bloc and China) and included a number of illiberal authoritarian states. (At the same) Defenders argue the liberal international order, albeit imperfect, made the world a better place because it produced an era of unprecedented growth in the world economy, which raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and allowed the spread of liberty and democracy. Future presidents will have to make moral choices about foreign policy in a world where the post-1945 Pax Americana and Wilsonian vision have changed”.

Realists who trace their (western) intellectual ancestry to classic thinkers like Hobbes, Machiavelli, Thucydides argue that in an anarchic world, foreign policy is largely ‘amoral’. Thucydides famously said, “the powerful do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must”. Nevertheless, humans exercising ‘selfishness’ and ‘aggression’ didn’t make us the most dominant species on the planet. It was because of our ability to exercise restraint, to cooperate, to reason, with both intuition and prudence, that made us dominant and standout.

It is important for leaders, especially in the current context, to realize-and understand how both intuition and reason are core parts of moral reasoning-and must be put into thought for principle, policy, and practice.

Practicing an ultra-realist view that ethics (or moral reasoning) has nothing to contribute because there are no real choices in foreign policy and only one’s own country counts, is a misconception. Another misconception may confuse a leader’s moral character with his moral consequences, and still another makes judgments based on moral rhetoric than results. Putin may give a ‘moral’ reason for invading Ukraine, but that can’t be accepted.

Joseph Nye’s contribution is critical in this regard. Nye argues, “As a practical matter, in our daily lives most people make moral judgments along three dimensions: intentions, means, and consequences. Intentions are more than just goals.”

Lyndon Johnson may have had ‘good’ intention when he sent American troops to Vietnam, but a leader’s good intensions, according to Nye, are not proof of what is misleadingly called “moral clarity”. The second important dimension of moral judgment is means. How do we treat others? Does a leader consider the ‘soft power of attraction’ and ‘the importance of developing the trust’ of other countries?

According to Nye, when it comes to ‘means’, leaders must decide how to combine the hard power of inducements and threats, and the soft power of values, culture and policies that attract people to their goal.

Source: Reuters

A leader who pursues moral but unrealistic goals or uses ineffective means can produce terrible moral consequences at home and abroad. Putin’s actions in Russia resembles to that of a war-criminal so far. His military commands have bombed civilian areas inside Ukraine, killed its innocent people, attacked maternity hospitals. His actions, at the very least, must invoke a collective sense of moral conscience amongst nations (including India) to put their faith in peace and mutual-cooperation. This isn’t required for a ‘West-enabled narrative’ or for enforcing ‘American moralism’, but is critical for securing international peace and a stable world order.



Deepanshu Mohan

Associate Professor of Economics & Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University…