Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Morality Is the Enemy of Peace

| June 13, 2024

The conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine can only end with deals that don't satisfy anyone completely.

French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838) was an accomplished political survivor who managed to serve the French revolutionary government, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the postwar Bourbon restoration. He was a subtle and accomplished statesman, remembered today primarily for his sage advice to his fellow diplomats: "Above all, not too much zeal." Wise words, indeed: Overzealousness, rigidity, and excessive moralizing are often obstacles to any effort to find effective solutions to difficult international issues.

Unfortunately, political leaders routinely frame disputes with other countries in highly moralistic terms, thereby turning tangible but limited conflicts of interest into broader disputes over first principles. As Anderson University's Abigail S. Post argued in an important article in the journal International Security last year, leaders engaged in international disputes use moral language to rally support at home and abroad and to enhance their bargaining position vis-à-vis their adversaries. When they do, disagreements over potentially divisible issues (such as disputed territory) turn into zero-sum conflicts between competing moral claims. Unfortunately, moral principles are hard to abandon or relax without inviting accusations of hypocrisy and charges of betrayal. Once governments use moral arguments to justify their positions, cutting a deal becomes much harder, even when it would be in everyone's interest.

Post's article illustrated these dynamics with a revealing case study of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas dispute between Argentina and Great Britain. To back its claim to the islands, each side invoked familiar moral norms. Argentina relied on the norm of territorial sovereignty, and its case was straightforward: Britain had illegally seized the islands in 1833 and therefore should give them back, full stop. The British responded by invoking a different moral principle: the norm of self-determination. In their view, it didn't matter how Britain had gained control of the islands; as long as a majority of the residents wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, their preferences should prevail.

Once these two positions were firmly established, compromise became nearly impossible. Despite the islands' limited economic and strategic value, reestablishing control became a potent political issue in Argentina. But British governments could not cede them to Argentina without appearing to abandon a group of British citizens who wanted to remain under British rule. Given these entrenched positions, a military confrontation was probably inevitable.

In short: Moral claims transform divisible and potentially solvable disputes into indivisible and much less tractable conflicts. Among other things, this finding suggests an important revision to the so-called bargaining model of war. This framework views most conflicts as being over potentially divisible issues and argues that, rationally, states could reach mutually acceptable solutions if they had perfect information about each other's capabilities and resolve and could overcome the "commitment problem" (i.e., the inability to assure others that a deal will be kept)....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Morality Is the Enemy of Peace.” Foreign Policy, June 13, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt