What's 'Right' and What's 'Wrong' in World Affairs … And Who Cares?

Guest: Robert J. Meyers
Title: “What’s ‘Right’ and What’s ‘Wrong’ in World Affairs”
VTR: 11/4/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND where, not infrequently, viewers write to demand of me, “What did you think about the issues your guest discussed last week?”, or asking why I didn’t agree or disagree with this point or that. And this actually pleases me for my program isn’t about me, it’s about my guests and their points of view. Still, I’m not an intellectual eunuch, I can say, “This I believe” on most issues, and in antoher setting I will…I do…sometimes all too willingly and volubly my wife tells me. My mind is open, yet a trust that it’s not empty.

Today, however, I’m stumped, admittedly perplexed because on the matter at hand, ethics and world affairs, while I don’t quite draw a blank by any means, I do have too many questions and too few satisfactory answers. So that I turn to my guest today, Robert J. Myers, President of the prestigious Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. Dr. Myers has been the publisher of The New Republic, was the founder and publisher of The Washingtonian, and served as Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Far East Division. He’s been around the track.

Now several years ago, Michael Ledeen wrote a New York Times op-ed piece titled “When Security Pre-empts the Rule of Law”, quoting with obvious approval Winston Churchill’s insistence that it would not e right or rational that the aggressor powers should gain one set of advantages by tearing up all laws, and another set by sheltering behind the innate respect for law of their opponents.”Humanity, not legality must be our guide”, said Churchill and, of course, we did attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro, we have undermined other leaders of nations with which we were not at war and recently President bush has actually had to scurry around making up excuses for not having “Taken out” Noriega when supposedly we had the opportunity.

All of which boggles my rather old-fashioned mind, at least, and so I turn to my guest for clarification, if not direction, asking whether even the title of his organization, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs doesn’t loom somewhat as an oxymoron, and I know you’ve pointed out that people raise that question constantly, Dr. Myers. What’s your answer?

MYERS: I think this is because people who have not spent a lot of time thinking about international affairs tend to equate it with quick fixes and a Machiavellian impulse that whatever comes up the state can deal with it in a system, in the old right of the state to do anything. But those are old-fashioned ideas, and these are not the way America, other democracies, and increasingly even the Communist world reacts to foreign policy problems. They have developed a more coherent set of operative techniques to deal with these things, out of sheer necessity.

HEFFNER: Another set, based on morality?

MYERS: the morality comes from a notion of what is right or wrong, about a set of circumstances, and in a democratic society you have to take into account the range of pluralistic opinion, the point of view of what seems to be a rational national interest that will be supported at home and respected abroad, and it becomes more complicated. Not too many years ago even in the United States, the handful of experts ran foreign affairs pretty much as they wanted…there was a cabal or clique and the average citizen felt he could participate. But through education and the spread of travel, international economic inter-dependence, and the like many, many more hands were at work in the international relations field, so more things have to be taken into account. Kissinger, years ago, used to enjoy particularly working out deals with Communist governments because he didn’t have to deal with public opinion there, or for that matter, then at home. For that isn’t the way things are done anymore because the old system has not worked very well. We only need to point to our unhappy experiences in the 20th century with two World Wars, and not to mention a whole flood of smaller ones, to see that maybe there can be some improved way of dealing with this.

HEFFNER: But how will, then, emphasis upon ethical, moral considerations change that configuration?

MYERS: Well, I suppose we need to talk about some examples. If you take the case of NATO for many, many years. NATO was perceived in the democratic societies in the West, including obviously the United States, Canada, 14 countries, as the shield of the west. There was a great coherence in appreciation of the fact that the NATO alliance was keeping back the “Evil Empire”, the Soviets, that was a nice dichotomy, and we could see that that was something worth supporting, and up to now that general notion has remained intact. It’s quite obvious, too, that none of these policies are forever and you have to change your inputs when the objective circumstances change. But that’s an easy example, a great unity of the West question based on a common heritage, a common background and a moral appreciation of the world.

HEFFNER: but I, I’m a little bit puzzled. Why does the question of…or why does the theme of unity enter into this consideration? I know that we, from this nation, presumably, with a proper respect for the opinions mankind, but wouldn’t following that clarion call have taken us into directions that would have very, very little to do with right and wrong?

MYERS: Are you talking about the NATO thing, or just as a general premise?

HEFFNER: No, I’m…I’m talking about NATO, but I am talking about a general proposition, too. How does that become a shield? How does sharing sovereignty in part with others who do not have our precise…precisely the same culture, how does it make for the choice of right or wrong?

MYERS: Well, to conclude the NATO thing, the shield I was mentioning was a defense shield against the Soviet Union, a particular problem. Now, one of the problems you run into in ethics and international affairs is they are often many pluralistic, good principles involved, just as they are in our domestic society, and you can’t run one of them way into the ground at the expense of all the others. That’s why, for example, under Carter a lot of people complained about too much emphasis on human rights that might be opposed to legitimate security considerations, or perhaps under Reagan for a time, a neglect of human rights concerns and out of this pluralistic society you’re talking about, some being interested and some not, as against a security problem which perhaps would build up too much. But in any society, and particularly again talking about the democracies, there are, of course, vast differences of opinion and when you translate that to the international scene, and you find all these countries with different cultures, to some extent, the question is how do you find normative standards in international affairs that will have an ethical content? Well, that…that problem is something we work on in our council all the time, and I think if you look around the world, you can see that there is certainly a core level of international agreements that even allow the world to operate. They’re violated on occasion, like the sanctity of embassies, or international things like fishing rights and all these other things that you see in the press. There’s a great web of international agreements that keep the world functioning. The question then continually arises, “can you thicken this, can you enrich that”, so that you have more normative agreement in the world about what should be done.

MYERS: Are there some kind of transcendental notions that, that do arise that people can subscribe to. This has always been limited.

HEFFNER: I like that bit of…that metaphor “the web”, “thickening it”, is it your opinion that that web has…of international cooperation, of a…basic concerns that are shared…has grown, has thickened?

MYERS: Well, I think that you can certainly prove that in the economic area. The whole world institution of the IMF, the World Bank, the general agreement on trade and tariffs, and all that…all of those things have brought a new relationship among all the countries, including increasingly the Communist bloc. That there is a system if you want to participate, that you need to follow because while you can have certainly many different customs and habits and aims…people in country A can all wear yellow shirts if they like, and so on, if they want to be in the international trade business, they have to pay some attention to the rules, and so, I think that those kind of things are rather encouraging in trying to develop more restraints on individual nations, and by that we’re talking about the individual people on the end who are making the decisions for those countries.

HEFFNER: Then you seem to be saying that the emphasis can, and perhaps should be placed upon an economic web that brings us together, rather than a moral one.

MYERS: Well, you make a good point, but I would have to say that the economic one, the reason it’s so valuable is that it really is one of the real pillars of moral concerns. And I think if a George Stigler at the University of Chicago, who was given a Nobel Prize in the 70s, who was saying that most economists don’t specifically think in moral terms, but every economic program has a goal, and if it has a goal, decisions have to be made to say that, “A should be pursued rather than B”, and through that consensus you have a moral proposition that other people can either buy into or not, and certainly the international trade system is a great example.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, i…you use a word…you’ve used it a couple of times, “normative”…

MYERS: Right.

HEFFNER: …I’m beginning to think that your…that the interest is in, that you’re expressing, is not in ethical, but rather normative situations because the ethics of the marketplace, one might say, are not ethics at all, and if the economic relationships become basic here, I would think what most of us think of as questions of right or wrong go out the window. And what comes in the window is the question of “does it work, does it produce, does the marketplace warrant this position or that?”.

MYERS: Well, I think that the…if you want to talk about the gap…the international agreements of the kind I’m talking about…we’re always talking about a difference between the global responsibilities that nations are all supposed to take in these processes and the national interests that produce their specific policies. So it’s always a pluralistic thing and a series of compromises, but the point is that out of that comes these normative standards that people then must live up to.

HEFFNER: But what’s the relationship between “normative” and moral or ethical?

MYERS: I suppose if you discuss and people have different definitions…morality is the particular basis from which your ethics come…that it can be religious, that it can be utilitarian, it can come from some utopian idea like Marxism, and from those moral bases come out their ethical counterparts that actually operate in the world, and I would equate the ethical business with the normative standards that arise through practice. In other words, it isn’t an abstract thing, it’s what…what is the norm in doing business, not necessarily business business, but in human relations and inter-state relations, and that comes up with this web of international associations I’ve suggested.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you about a specific area…

MYERS: Sure.

HEFFNER: …if I may. Because it’s of interest to me as a professor of communications and public policy, let’s take the matter of “open skies”. We live in a world in which the “norm” is in opposition to the notion of open skies in which the normative consideration has to do with limiting what we, in our country, pride ourselves on, as a belief in First Amendment freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc. we pay attention to what goes on in most of the rest of the world, those concerns go out the window. Now…

MYERS: Well…

HEFFNER: …what happens? Where do we…how does this web include us and most of the other nations of the world?

MYERS: Many of these propositions that I’ve suggested earlier often are in opposition to each other. The notion of open skies is in opposition to probably a more fundamental principle of this web I’ve been discussing of sovereignty…


MYERS: …national sovereignty seems still to be the first law of international relations and exceptions than are the subject of long history usage and negotiations. So that nations always make that their first claim, something like open skies would have to be something that is of probably a lesser order and would have to be agreed upon. Take the situation in China, the only principle of international cooperation, law and understanding they’re standing on is sovereignty. That is the whole business, non-intervention in any way by a foreign power. Now what one would normally call that particular stand as opposed to ethics and international affairs would be a moralism, something like Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for democracy. The Chinese are insisting that the only thing that matters, and this is their moralistic response to the disasters in June, is non-intervention, sovereignty is the whole thing. And that whole proposition relates to the open skies, those have to be negotiated.

HEFFNER: Well, those have to be negotiated…famous last words perhaps. I mean in terms of our ethical considerations, what is not…what does not fit into “those matters have to be negotiated”, don’t we have some first principles? Are you saying that we must put our reliance upon normative matters and throw things up to a vote, whatever our own basic principles are?

MYERS: Well, there is certainly that aspect because we cannot claim that our interpretation of what is supposed to be in our own nation…its first and foremost moral propositions may not be those of somebody else, and the ethics that come out of them will be in competition, not only in our own country, but with others. So, these have to be adjusted, often the claim of superior strength has carried the day in many of these things…it has not necessarily made them universal or ethical. But, if you cannot negotiate these things, that is always the next option. And so, I think, that when you want to place these claims into the international arena it’s best that it comes really from a slow appreciation of experiences and traditions which relate to the fundamental things of your own country, and you have to see in the interaction…in inter-state relations, specifically political problems that raise questions of power, of how they can relate. This web that I’ve discussed has arisen really since about the 15th century in the West, and surprisingly, over this century, particularly, many, many countries have signed up for systems of international intercourse, of a normative sort, that have transcended cultures and ideology. And the question is of whether at this particular time in history, there is a fairly good opportunity for thickening this as I suggested because people, at the moment, seem to be looking for ways to settle disputes on a more cooperative basis. That, of course, can blow up as this very century shows. If somebody decides that their own situation takes precedence, their view of their national interest, which may be flawed because it’s not so easy any more to sit down and say, “Well, our national interest dictates A, B or C” because there are so many competing and contentious claims in each nation’s domestic society, let alone on the international sphere.

HEFFNER: What is your bet about how the ideology basic to the concept of open skies…First Amendment is used as a short-hand…individualism and freedom of thought…how do you think they will fare as the web gets stronger and thicker?

MYERS: I think the, the open skies argument which has entered, obviously, into arms control, verification procedures and so on, is one of those that probably everybody can live with. This is partly of the technology problem that we’ve discussed in a different context. I think that open skies are the kinds of things that the Soviets and the United States, which had been the main contention, can agree with and many of the other countries and, of course, this demonstrates another aspect of international relations, can’t do much about it in any case. So, it’s a kind of thing that will keep growing, I believe. I think the open skies thing will be resolved. I don’t consider that as too, too critical considering other big issues that are still around.

HEFFNER: I wasn’t thinking of open skies as a military matter, I was thinking of it as a communications matter, I was thinking of the earlier use of the concept of…

MYERS: Right.

HEFFNER: …of open skies, and again, I wonder, what’s going to give? The need, and I recognize it, for unity or our devotion, this nation’s historic devotion to individualism. Not to going it alone, but to individual freedom. Where do you think the ‘give” point is going to be? That proper respect for the opinions of mankind.

MYERS: Well, i…I think that events, particularly the last year or so, showing the power of the idea of freedom, individually and economically which people, I think, cynically for many years, looking at the Communist world, thought that none of these people really cared about this kind of thing. And we can see that it seems to be something of a natural law, which you might bring out of a religious tradition, that people have these rights, these First Amendment rights, so to speak, and given the opportunity and the education and so on, would try to make use of them. So I think that through the individual realization of himself or herself, you’re gaining a better sense of communities in the world and that individualism in the community, which has always been in some tension, perhaps is being better understood in the United States, Japan, many other places where these oppositions…who have to be resolved in some way for a upward step in the…in the human development.

HEFFNER: This, this idea, newly set forth of the end of history, do you subscribe to this notion that in a sense the West and the Western traditions have triumphed?

MYERS: Well, I don’t look at it that way. That is…a friend of mine developed that notion and I’m sure there have been many variations of the West finally overwhelming communism. I think that the bankruptcy of communism has been told by many for many, many years. That’s…you’re not going to develop a system of society based on stamping out class warfare and having, basically, an amoral system…the communist system, the end being the elimination of the class conflict, anything you do is quire alright, and Marx, himself, who was not a man given to much levity, would break out into gales of laughter on the mention of morality or ethics because it wasn’t relevant in the communist system. But, getting over that anomaly still means all these competitive ideas and pluralistic schemes and new challenges to the international state system, communities and the individuals are going to continue. It would only be if you thought that was the only issue going that you could say that that is the end of that history, but I think to try to make it on a moral, more universalistic approach, it doesn’t make very much sense, and of course, a lot of people have commented to that effect and some other angles on it.

HEFFNER: How…how lasting do you think this newer relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union is?

MYERS: Well, I suppose on what level we’re talking about…I think the encouraging thing about what’s happening in the Soviet Union regardless of the final outcomes is it certainly marks the end of any effective Imperialism on the part of the Soviet Union. I don’t think they are likely to try to project their force abroad with all the problems they’re having at home with the nationalities and the stagnant economy, and I think that ideology as Fukuyama, you and others suggested is bankrupt. So, the Soviet Union, over time should be a more peaceful place in the sense that they will not have the resources or the energy or the self-confidence to be as difficult as they have been in the past, when perhaps we have over-emphasized their capabilities and their intentions. I don’t know. In any case, none of those terrible things that those of us who were interested in this problem in the 50s, 60s and 70s, have come to pass. So I think if you have a Soviet Union of…that has some of the factors of the description I gave, that is a group that we can probably deal with much more successfully, and also, to get on the moral and ethical problem, they are now willing to talk about Western ethics. Not as…simply defending the bourgeois culture, but as a right in way, wrong way of doing things, and this to me has been a phenomenon that I hadn’t expected in my lifetime.

HEFFNER: As we end, I must ask you one final question. Do you think they’re sitting in the Kremlin, right now, saying more or less the same thing about us, that we are not going to worry now about their military imperialism, maybe the needn’t worry about our cultural imperialism and as Tocqueville said a long, long time ago, these two giants will rise, and go down, in the same path.

MYERS: I think that reassessment is going on in both sides, and I think that when you think about ethics and international affairs one of the great critiques and critics was Hans Morgenthau who was…and Rheinhold Niebuhr who were always worried about the limitations of the human soul and spirit and how the nature of man tended to be very negative, and that it was forever trying to assert itself over…dominate man by man. And I think that while that notion is still important, there have been other ideas of trying to build up institutions and ways of doing business that tend to harness a bit this, this tendency, and we can hope that that will go on.

HEFFNER: That’s the note on which to end, thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Myers.

MYERS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Lawrence A Wein Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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