Review of “In the national interest” by Allen Buchanan

Buchanan’s intent is to demonstrate that it is contradictory to simultaneously hold human rights and the “Permissible Exclusivity Thesis” in mutually high regard. In this review I jaunt through the article, first explicating the Obligatory Exclusivity Thesis (OET), then the Permissible Exclusivity Thesis (PET), and then the several ways of justifying the latter thesis. I finalize the explication by discussing how, having demonstrated the inconsistency of holding PET and human rights, that this can lead to a reconceptualization of domestic politics – they must become cosmopolitan, they must the millennium’s shared plurality into account.

Obligatory exclusivity thesis: A state’s foreign policy always ought to be determined exclusively by the national interest. (110)

Based on OET, national policy guides all foreign actions – this means that human rights are of no consequence to a nation that does regard human rights as an element of their national interest. That said, such an extreme position would commit anyone holding it to a pretty tight corner. In light of this, Buchanan suggests another formulation of the OET that allows us to at least consider rights. The weakened thesis is called the Permissible Exclusivity Test:

Permissible exclusivity thesis: It is always permissible for a state’s foreign policy to be determined exclusively by the national interest. If a state chooses, it may subordinate all other values to the pursuit of the national interest in any case. (111)

We focus on PET, even then OET is held by many political leaders, for two reasons:

  1. It is less demanding and therefore should be easier to justify than the OET;
  2. If we show that the PET is indefensible it will count as a count again OET.

Attempts to Justify the Permissible Exclusivity Test

The PET doesn’t take a particular position on what the national interest is, which means that we cannot assume that the national interest bears resemblance to the national interests in North America – it could resemble the interests of any nation, any morality, or any culture. We have no guarantee that by adhering to PET that nations will consequently adopt human rights – this principle asserts that it is permissible to do anything in foreign politics on the basis that it is motivated by national interests. Moreover, this assertion draws a close correlation between national and foreign interests – the principle assumes that there is always a close relation between the two. While there are many such relations, it cannot be said that all foreign policy decisions are motivated by the national interest. Moreover, this thesis would make it morally permissible for a large militaristic nation to launch wars against far weaker, passive countries solely on the basis of the national interest – this is an extremely unappealing view of the PET, and we now turn to several ways of justifying it and defending it from these critiques.

The Fiduciary Realist Justification for Permissible Exclusivity

Fiduciary Realism holds that the overriding moral obligation of state leaders is to maximize the national interest. Fiduciaries are expected to always act for the betterment of the national interest – their duty requires them to orient all foreign policy in line with the national interest and to ignore their own moral directions. In essence, they are to become automatons, figures that act solely for the state and for nothing else. In addition to this the state, and her agents, are supposed to exist in a realist situation – realism here should be read as ‘Hobbesian’. Under this system a series of international conditions exist:

  1. There is no global sovereign that can enforce rules of peaceful cooperation;
  2. All states are approximately equal in power to one another;
  3. States are primarily concerned with their own survival;
  4. Given the above conditions, the most rational thing for a state to do is to try to subjugate others to avoid being subjugated;
  5. In this situation, where all are trying to dominate each other, moral rules are inapplicable. (114)

This environment presupposes that the base and final position of nation-states is one of violence – the only real goal of foreign policy is to sustain the state through military might. Instead of directly refuting this position Buchanan uses a series of minor examples to demonstrate that Hobbesian realists must justify their position – it is not his own task to refute the position until an adequate defence is given of it.

To begin, nations do cooperate with one another in areas where military security is not a concern – examples can be seen by looking at relationships built on cultural exchange, peaceful sharings of technologies, or to learn and explore for the sake of learning and exploring. Historically more economically powerful nations were able to take risks by engaging in these kinds of relationships, but as information technologies develop, and global communications become increasingly common, lines of trust are developed. Bonds are formed that are not militarily strategic. Moreover, the strict correlation between national interests and survivalism suggests that the attitudes of nations are fixed, and in doing so ignores the plastic quality of states that are influenced by corporations, NGOs, other governments, and their own citizenry, not to mention ‘non-intelligent’ factors such as the environment.

Another flaw in the fiduciary realist justification is that it maintains that “pursing an additional increment of benefit for a nation that is already exceptionally rich and already enjoys excellent protection of human rights always should have priority over every other end, including making great improvement in the well-being of the world’s worst off people” (116). A defender of fiduciary realism might insist that leaders’ correct roles, morally speaking, are to promote the state. As an agent in the state of nature, leaders cannot let themselves be distracted by the temptations of morality – it does not exist in the domain for foreign policy because no sovereign can legitimately enforce rules of peaceful cooperation.

With this in mind, we need to approach a fundamental question: Is the state an association that exists for the sole benefit of citizens? Or should it be recognized as a resource for benefiting its own citizens and others by grounding its actions and judgements on human rights. If human rights act as a common ground, then it remains possible for independent nations to focus on particular interests for their people on the basis that some local needs are best understood and served by local (i.e. national) government. For the Hobbesian realist, however, it is impossible to reach the point where human rights can operate this way – by asserting the existence of a state of nature cooperative common moral norms can never arise, let alone be championed.

The Instrumental Justification for Permissible Exclusivity

This mode of justification aims to show that “even though there are human rights, it is permissible for foreign policy to be determined exclusively by what best promotes the national interest concedes that although the national interest is not the supreme moral value, conditions in international relations are such that those who conduct foreign policy should act as if it is” (118). Ultimately, this is a market-style approach for justifying PET – if all individuals are rational agents who are mutually self-interested, and genuinely are equal, then their combined behaviour will have the same effects as though a global morality guided all national actions. The burden lays on those who would justify this position, not with Buchanan, or us, to justify it for them so that we can knock it down again.

The most innovative defendant of this justification is Hans Morgenthau, who argues that we must assume that actors will behave this way, and that morality should not be the directing force for politics on the basis that it could lead to moral colonialism. Morgenthau appears to have two central (though undisclosed) premises in his argument:

  1. Each society has its own notion of morality that is incompatible with other notions;
  2. If a state lets morality guide its actions it will eschew tolerance in an attempt to enforce its views on other nations. (119)

(1) fails to recognize that most moral systems are generally aimed at establishing a peaceful means of co-existing and, as such, seems to miss a critical point of common contact between moral systems. It also (foolishly) supposes that morality can be effectively disengaged from national actions; (2) Is somewhat extreme, and also supposes that morality would be the common rail that would guide international relations. Human rights, within an institutional framework and justified according to legal norms, offer a means of guiding international actions without allowing for moral imperialism. Human rights prevent aggressive wars, and mitigate imperialism by inhibiting powerful nations’ abilities to act on people across the world. Establishing a legal structure offers a way of mediating moral conflicts by establishing a way for punitively treating nations that do act as moral imperialists. In light of these reasons, we cannot accept Morgenthau’s defence of the Instrumental Justification.

Explaining the Popularity of the Permissible Exclusivity Thesis

The PET is extremely well liked because it is simple, draws on historical prejudices, and allows leaders to exploit nationalistic hatreds. Moreover, there is an assumed dichotomy between PET and utopianism. This distinction, however, compresses the ideal and non-ideal moral views into a utopian perspective. To be more clear, the ideal theory focuses on the principles that a just world would conform to, whereas non-ideal theory attempts to determine how to move towards the ideal situation. The non-ideal and ideal situation can both allow for attention being given to national interests; the world is not necessarily ‘smoothed’ by either of these theories. Since we lack a world government, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the will be a moral division of work.

Ultimately, once we are free from necessarily looking at the national interest we can adjust our attention to how ‘domestic’ policies are shaped by, and shape, other governments and citizens, and vice versa.

I would take slightly different tacks than Buccanan at several points – to begin, I’d have made a distinction between morality and ethics to clarify and rebut justifications of PET. Moreover, I think that his current estimation of human rights fails to recognize that (a) there are governments that had no time in crafting them; (b) there are governments that flagrantly ignore them; (c) that even with human rights, Darfur continues. He need to work harder to give a reason for why we should see human rights as something genuinely worth considering. I recognize that his central aim is to dissolve the belief that a nation can be directed by national interest and hold human rights in high regard, but there isn’t a solid reason for accepting the value of human rights here, save for at an instrumental level. I would have appreciated it if he had at least tried to appeal to something like (U) to justify them, though for space reasons and perhaps lack of familiarity with Habermas it wasn’t included.