States and morality

Published: November 3, 2019
The writer is a Social Development and Policy graduate from Habib University and has a keen interest in politics and social issues. He can be reached at

The writer is a Social Development and Policy graduate from Habib University and has a keen interest in politics and social issues. He can be reached at

This year at the United Nations (UN) forum, many world leaders spoke about collective issues such as global warming and terrorism, being faced by citizens across the boundaries. After explaining their stance on global issues and their efforts to curtail the damaging effects on society, they instantly moved to issues of territorial delimitation and foreign policy between the hegemons and other regional powers. Though some concluded their address with a threat to their archrivals, others urged their fellow world leaders to practise ‘morality’ in the field of international relations.

Plato, an Ancient Greek philosopher, has coined the term ‘noble lie’, which means “our rulers will probably have to make considerable use of lies and deceit for the good of their subjects”, to explain the relationship between the state and morality. Similarly, Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, has argued that moral reasoning is not very useful to the existence of the state when faced with armed neighbours. Machiavelli has highlighted the role of religion and claimed that “the responsible state leader must not operate in accordance with the Christian ethics”, whereas Hans Morgenthau believes in an extreme approach, condoning that “sometimes it may be necessary to trample on human rights for the sake of national interest”.

The aforementioned philosopher’s layout of classical realist thought – They believe in the supremacy of national interest and national security over any other contemporary forms of politics. A similar line of argument was also exhibited by Lt Gen Asad Durrani in a talk show with Mehdi Hassan, a senior journalist, at Al-Jazeera. In response to a question on morality, Durrani claimed: “if it is concerning an individual’s act and interest, then I suppose morality counts, but in the statecraft, morality takes a backseat”. This argument can also be supported by Morgenthau’s opinion on how there is one morality for the private sphere and different morality for the public sphere.

Since the emergence of nation-states, territorial space has become a major ingredient of national identity. This form of identity is inherently guided by civic nationalism. In order to solidify a unique identity within concrete boundaries, states have to employ surveillance and, at times, some form of coercion to not only maintain ‘national identity’ but also to demonstrate it through various means. As a result, in a relationship between state and morality, national interest always takes precedence. While world leaders utilise the international stage to promote peace and harmony between conflicting states, they tend to practice ‘morality’ vaguely in their own backyard.

Therefore, what needs to be underscored is the hypocrisy of world leaders. Though they raise the issue of atrocities, war crimes and violation of international law happening in other parts of the world, they tend to either forget or prefer to remain oblivious to the oppression in their own state while forcing morality to take a ‘backseat’ when dealing with the issues related to foreign policy and national identity. Hence it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that mantra of ‘morality’ only resonates within the halls of such prestigious forums, while states only practise ‘national interest’, based on their economic, strategic and political objectives.

State leaders shrewdly use ‘morality’ to not only ameliorate their rather deteriorating international image but also to further their positive public opinion. Thus, as responsible citizens of various states, we all should be cynical of ‘morality’ in our own backyard before we endeavour to elevate our national leaders to the epitome of peace harmony and morality.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2019.

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