Global Ethics, Contemporary Risks and Appropriate Responses: Lessons of History

Global Ethics, Contemporary Risks and Appropriate Responses: Lessons of History

Current conditions in several countries of Europe, a prime focus of this discussion, raise alarms with many informed observers. Risks are seen, in varying degrees in different jurisdictions. And conditions might be seen in two broadly different categories of concern: humanitarian and governance. On the first, there is evidence of ethnic, religious and nationalistic divisiveness/discrimination, hostility to immigrant populations (exacerbated by current migration pressures) and promotion of anti-pluralistic views, as reflected in public opinion and policies. Recent economic crisis and unemployment, that leads some to blame minorities, compound the risks.


On the second concern, there are examples of poor governance and corrupt administrations that do damage to individuals being denied social services and opportunity, and community living by perpetuating offending regimes and unfair outcomes. A history of deficient governments, the legacy of communist regimes and current actions that feed a lack of public trust in government and leaders have troubling consequences. Cynicism, withdrawal from participation in governance and disengagement from discussion of public policies by many citizens can be seen. These undermine the workings of, and exacerbate the loss of confidence in, democracy and facilitate autocracy.

The risks threaten fairness, productivity and harmony in communities and potentially lead to the mistreatment of, or even brutality against, many. The political will to support the use of influence on, or of physical intervention in, other sovereign states in response is limited, leading governments to wait for severe crisis conditions to justify action. Situations then are harder to address and demand more dramatic intervention.

The panel considered current risks set against history and the various forms of intervention that might be called for in response. It explored particularly the prospects for early and “soft” engagement to avoid worsening conditions. This included a discussion of economic or other sanctions or incentives, public/social/cultural diplomacy, policy and institutional development support, international criminal law enforcement and civil society initiatives. For more extreme circumstances of violence and killing, experience with physical and forceful intervention were addressed.

The legacy of war experience created widespread support for the idea of intervention on humanitarian grounds to protect minorities by preventing or stopping oppression and killing. Some ad hoc and permanent international machinery was established to address humanitarian offences and a mixed body of experience has resulted. Advancement of good governance is less likely to motivate intervention.

In both categories of risk, humanitarian and governance, there are considerations that lead even well-intentioned governments to choose not to intervene, or to delay action beyond the time when “softer” forms of influence might work. Governments of offending jurisdictions do often maintain stability, or purport to suppress a prospect of worse developments. They point to situations where intervention in support of protecting or ‘liberating’ a domestic population has resulted in chaotic and violent conditions.

Experiences with various forms of intervention in different locations and conditions were considered by the panel. They have frequently involved greater, longer and more costly involvements than initially represented or expected. Successful exit strategies have been hard to find. Unstable, fragmented, even violent conditions and forces hostile to the interveners, have been left behind. Some complain that particular missions had more extreme undisclosed objectives, such as regime change, rather than the more limited claimed purpose of ending violence, or have challenged the ability to end the violence without regime change in many circumstances. Underlying causes of instability and/or abuse, or achievement of reconciliation of historic internal grievances, are often not resolved. The essential ingredient of economic viability may be missing and not resolved by intervention. Economic sanctions, while credited with some successes, also appear elsewhere to have hurt innocent populations or benefitted disreputable interests able to manipulate or take advantage of circumvention techniques.

Significant elements of the public in some regions, where intervention might seem morally compelling for oppressed segments of the population, are increasingly hostile to actions by the western powers and obstruct them violently. While of a very different order of magnitude, it might be noted that Austria felt the influence of external pressures during the Waldheim Presidency from 1986 and the rise of Jorg Haider in 2000, even while negotiations on restitution for seized property and compensation for forced and slave labor during World War II were underway. Recent financial crises generated their own form of external influences that exacerbated tensions.

Citizens of the major powers whose engagement is, in practical terms, essential to the effective enforcement of ethical principles across sovereign borders, are tired of international engagements of this sort. Greater priority is being given to domestic issues. Both sides are resistant to giving real continuing authority and independent capacity to international governance institutions to do the job without recourse to case-by-case political resolve of the relevant states. Intervention is often left to more regional efforts by those very directly affected by spillover and fighting and to what many complain is a less well supported international criminal legal system.

The complexity of the choices increases when a morally offending government supports interests of the would-be interveners, raising the threshold for intervention. The interests supported can be found in their:

  • providing assistance with security information
  • helping with money laundering policing
  • permitting defense installations on their soil
  • providing geopolitical support internationally
  • even cooperating in trade and investment interests.

The panel discussed individual past and current examples and whether we are ignoring the current behavior of some governments and delaying a response to our peril, or that of local populations. It considered what and who can be looked to for some corrective response – e.g. leading democratic governments, the European Union, international agencies, civil society, or others - and what prospects there are for effective methods and the political will for action.

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