Is Great Power Competition Ethical?

| October 2020
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In the aftermath of Ali Wyne’s presentation on great power competition, I have had some people who have asked why the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs would focus on such a subject. After all, rivalry among major powers does not seem to be a template for ethical behavior, and runs the risk of conflict and even war.

I feel that this assessment comes about from a conflation of “ethics” with humanitarian concerns, or even pacifism as a whole–that the only ethical pathway is one which is explicitly non-violent. There is also a sense that the realities of an “anarchic” international system–“an-archic” in the sense of the Greek term meaning a lack of a common authority–that is, that sovereignty in the world is divided among nation-states and is not unified in a single, overarching international public authority–is somehow itself an unethical state of affairs. On the other hand, human history is replete with struggles by groups fending off the universal claims of one interpretation of what constitutes ethics and morality, and the cuius regio, eius religio settlement which ended the devastating and destructive wars of religion in Europe, reinterpreted in the modern context, argues for a world in which self-determined communities are free to determine their own ethical frameworks.

In such conditions, therefore, the search for applied ethics to guide political leaders becomes even more critical. One concern my colleagues Jessica Blankshain and David Cooper have is that “theories” about how the world ought to work must be made relevant and applicable for practitioners. This would include ethics–and providing guides for when the world does not turn out the way we hoped or planned.

What has started me on this line of thinking was attending a presentation by Andrew Michta of the George C. Marshall Center.  The focus of his remarks was on the contributions that allies can make in great power competition, but the ethical component I wanted to draw out was the point that the great power “competitors”–namely Russia and China–seek revision of the current international order, one which rests on certain ethical assumptions (usually encapsulated in what the theorists would call the “liberal world order.”) We can argue the extent to which the United States has lived up to those principles, but a related question is whether those principles are worth securing and defending against revision, particularly if the revisions being proposed would fundamentally change both the balance of power in the world but also understandings of what constitutes justice and the rights of the individual, among others.

So, there are two questions to grapple with: first, is there an ethical dimension to great power competition (beyond the struggle for power and influence), and second, is there an ethical way for a state to engage in great power competition? And does securing and defending a coalition of democratic states meet both of those tests?

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