International Norms and National Policy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Frederick O. Bonkovsky, a Professor of Political Theory at Emory University, has written a stimulating and useful book on a subject about which there is much occasional writing but little systematic treatment. He is here concerned with the identification, propagation, and development of ethical norms for international conduct. In order to come to better terms with current foreign activities and moral traditions in America, the author focuses on just-war doctrine and deals with the great statements made on the subject as he traces the foundations of the theory.

When beginning the essay one wonders whether an examination of just-war philosophy enunciated by various theorists from ancient times to the present might provide background for formulation of moral theory applicable to modern foreign policy. Although it might be assumed that the content of the meaning of “the good life” can be discovered in the tradition of natural law and Christian teachings on war and peace, Professor Bonkovsky makes no pretense of this. Rather, he points out that ethical norms advocated in the past for the ordering of international conduct are “Fallacious in both general theory and specific application.” Moreover, “national justifications of actions are often simply restatements of ideological beliefs, distortions of reality, mistruths, or out-and-out nonsense.” Consequently, ethical norms are of only modest value in providing a normative theory for international politics. In their stead, he proposes a system of procedural standards of prudence and justice to suggest how proper policy choices may be made. He tells us that a procedural norm calls for careful examination of various values, purposes, facts, and parameters in order to gain control over policy. The standards proposed are second-order guidelines for reconciling differing values and for taking account of competing purposes in international relations.

Seemingly, Bonkovsky seeks to combine normative and empirical-analytic theory. Normative theory suggests that alternative goals and preferences for political institutions can be made and also provides propositions for testing. Empirical-analytic theory suggests that guidance can be furnished for the kinds of political behavior considered essential for the attainment of goals. Such a combination will not necessarily provide answers to the question of kinds of institutions and norms appropriate to the world’s relationships, but they can provide insights vital to solving some of the more serious international problems. Presumably, this is the justification for the author’s approach to his subject.

Bonkovsky’s method is a successful fusion of ethical history with political and social analysis in a tight, subtle, and convincing pattern of argument and explanation. The first part of his essay is given over to a consideration of classical and early Christian bases of Western thought about international politics. Readers learn that, at its inception, Western ideas posited a close relationship between politics and ethics. The ancient Greeks, whom the author characterizes as chauvinist and exclusivist in the main, believed that they alone were rational beings. Their attention was concentrated primarily on the polis where human virtue was thought to be a right ordering of relationships. Their special variety of social morality, “reason of state” which governs a society in dealing with other societies, had one rule: the safety of its people is supreme. In its name, both individual and social morality of others may be overridden. By way of contrast, the Romans, through their preeminent representative, Cicero, were able to overcome the idea of polis exclusivity and the doctrine of raison d’état to develop a natural law theory of international politics and build thereon the first explicit just-war doctrine.

In the next segment of his essay, Bonkovsky examines two classical formulations of international norms provided by St. Augustine and Grotius which he believes are pivotal in the history of the West. Christianity had transferred the classical vision of the state to heaven, making possible Augustine’s realistic look at actual states at what they do and cannot do. He believed that the fundamental fact of human life is the division of interests, the worldly interest that centers about the body and the other worldly interests that belong specifically to the soul. This distinction led to the foundation of all Christian thought on ethics and politics. In addition, in his great work, The City of God, Augustine formulated a doctrine of a just war and taught the West how to think about international relations. He indicated that war was permissible to the Christian when resorted to in a just cause, in defense of the state against external enemies and in punishment of wrongdoing. Moreover, war must be declared by a competent authority; and, when so declared, the responsibility for the justice of the war rests with the ruler, who cannot escape or shift the moral burden, and not with the individual soldier who...

(The entire section is 2066 words.)