Interstate Relations and the Golden Rule

By Coon, Carl | The Humanist, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Interstate Relations and the Golden Rule

Coon, Carl, The Humanist

the "Golden Rule"--treat others as you would have them treat you--is part of human nature but humans instinctively apply it only to close kin. When addressing larger groups, we have to learn to be civil and we need rules of law to help us distinguish right from wrong. The course of human social evolution can be seen as a gradual progression from smaller to larger groups that have succeeded in developing systems of manners and laws that keep the group functioning efficiently.

Humanity is now at a stage at which it must, as a whole, define a code of ethics that requires independent nation states to treat each other decently. Some of the legal framework for such an evolution is already in place. International laws and regulations govern a host of interstate relations, starting with postal systems and fishing rights. What is lacking is a generally accepted body of ethical principles--a sharpened sense of what is right and wrong. Consistent patterns of gross human rights violations are wrong, and something must be done about them. But what, when, and under what circumstances?

Was the United States ethically right to invade Iraq or should the world as a whole have found another way to correct the evil of Saddam Hussein's regime? Is it right that economic globalization should occur in a way that mainly profits the already rich or should it be managed with more social conscience? What needs to be done about pollution and environmental degradation and who should pay for that? The list of issues goes on and, with each technological advance, grows larger.

Legal systems should grow out of and reflect a generally accepted sense of right and wrong. Any society functions best when most of its people obey the law not because they have to but because they believe it is the right thing to do. But in recent decades international jurists have been fashioning elaborate systems of laws on an ad hoc basis to meet emerging problems of a mostly technical nature--while the ethical basis for such laws have remained largely unexplored.

It didn't have to work this way. Just after World War II the United Nations was young, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was freshly minted, and most people still believed that certain rules applied to the way nations declared and waged war. An idealism was in the air, a willingness to at least think about some new set of rules that would govern interstate relations so as to obviate the possibility of future wars and usher in a new era of decency toward the less fortunate. But then the Cold War began and all bets were off. When I was beginning my diplomatic career in the U.S. service, we weren't encouraged to think beyond the narrow confines of the national interest. The morality of statecraft was based on Machiavelli, not the Golden Rule. The prevailing ethic was that national interests were grounded mainly in security, political independence, and well-being of the population--interests that had no intrinsic moral quality and couldn't be subjected to moral scrutiny or judgment. International law became a dry and strictly utilitarian codification, precise in its application and leaving everything that wasn't explicitly regulated to the states.

Nation states, often impelled by Cold War pressures, continued to use a wide array of "dirty tricks"--from bribery, disinformation, and various other forms of covert actions all the way to torture and political assassinations. They still do. And yet if the Golden Rule were applied to relations between nation states, all these dirty tricks would be found unacceptable in that they involve lying, cheating, or some form of outright violence against other members of society.

I can envision a time in the future--a Golden Age--when the Golden Rule will be the basis for international relations. Future generations will be brought up to believe that nations, like people, shouldn't cheat, rob, and attack each other. …

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