Below is an excerpt from the Introduction of Ethics and Global Security, a book co-authored by Katrina Lee-Koo, Matt McDonald and myself and published by Routledge in July 2014.


With its world wars, cold wars, proxy wars, colonial wars, guerrilla wars, civil wars, drug wars, and new wars, not to mention its genocides, nuclear weapons, economic crises, gender-based violence, refugees, famines and environmental disasters, the 20th Century was a century of chronic and endemic insecurity. What will the 21st Century be? It certainly did not start out well. Its first decade alone saw aircraft smashing into New York’s World Trade Center, a new global war on terror, the near-death of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the Indian Ocean and Japanese tsunamis, Cyclone Nargis, the war in Iraq, genocide in the Sudan, and three brutal wars in Palestine and Lebanon. The picture beyond that does not improve when we add global stalemate on climate change, mass slaughter in the Congo, Islamist terrorism in Pakistan and India, a craze for walls and ‘border protection’, and strategic anxiety about Iran, North Korea, the rise of China, and a future of drone, cyber and space war.

All of these examples have been riven with moral anxiety and exemplified particular ethical choices: whether to use poison gas against enemy forces to protect one’s own; whether to bomb populated areas to shorten a war or degrade an enemy’s industrial capacity; whether to develop and deploy weapons that can destroy cities in a few seconds and kill millions; whether to use starvation as a weapon of war; whether to support Islamic extremists in a proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, in the face of warnings about how they were likely to turn on their masters afterwards; and when that time came, whether to fight such extremists by systemic violations of the international laws of war and human rights. The debates over these issues exemplify many things: their inherent moral complexity, competing ethics and norms, and a global interest in their rightness and long-term impact.

None of these ethical questions and dilemmas are new, but the field of security studies has been slow to address them, and it has no established tradition of ethical thought (Burke 2010; for new research see Floyd 2011; Hayden 2005; Robinson 2011; Roe 2012). This book attempts to address that gap, and to contribute to a dialogue about the possibilities for a genuinely global security orientation and practice in international politics. We survey a range of ethical perspectives and arguments relating to diverse problems on the global security agenda, so that we can begin to understand how ethical commitments shape security relationships and outcomes: to understand how poor or compromised ethics can contribute to insecurity, and how good ethical arguments and decisions might be able to improve the situation. While incorporating elements of existing ethical perspectives (such as realism, liberalism and just war theory), we push on to argue for a specifically cosmopolitan ethics. A cosmopolitan ethics aims to ensure the security of all states and communities through time, by aiming for the elimination rather than just the management of grave insecurities. We regard such an ethics as not merely morally desirable, but as strategically necessary, and with this objective develop ethical guidelines for the decisions and policies of all security actors. We list these principles here in Box 1.1, and explain them below in the section ‘Key Principles of a Cosmopolitan Security Ethics’.

Box 1.1: Cosmopolitan Security Principles

A cosmopolitan global security system recognises that contemporary insecurities take a myriad of forms that cross national boundaries, and cannot be addressed by states alone or by conventional geopolitical and military means. Contemporary insecurities are the result of long-range processes, which arise from historical practices of industry, economics, military activity, non-state action, and more. They have complex manifestations that persevere unpredictably through time. A cosmopolitan global security system holds that the security of all states and human beings is of equal weight, and that we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the global ecology is preserved. It is committed to ensuring that all states and communities can benefit and participate equally in the creation of a system that supports their needs without prejudice.

Principle 1. Global Security Responsibility

The responsibility of all states and security actors is to create deep and enduring security for all human beings in a form that harmonises human social, economic, cultural and political activity with the integrity of global ecosystems.

Principle 2. Future Security Responsibility

All states and security actors have a fundamental responsibility to future generations and the long-term integrity and survival of global ecosystems; a responsibility to consider the impact of their decisions, choices and commitments through time.

Principle 3. Global Categorical Imperative of Security

All states and security actors bear a responsibility to act as if both the principles and consequences of their action or policy will become global, across space and through time, and to ensure that their actions will have positive consequences that can be borne by the world as a whole.

The importance of ethics

If practices of global security politics raise ethical questions at the conceptual level, they have also precipitated broader debate and contestation in the ‘real world’ of international security. The Burmese military’s refusal to allow foreign aid after the 2008 cyclone that killed 140,000 provoked global outrage, calls for foreign intervention, and active regional diplomacy (Evans 2008b; Kouchner 2008). After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 280,000 the United Nations and ASEAN moved to create an early warning system and response capability, in recognition of the failure to have such a system in place beforehand or to even put such threats on the region’s security agenda (Burke and McDonald 2007: 1). Some of the scientists who built the first atomic bombs questioned their use in warfare and opposed the later development of fusion weapons, while scores of former national security policymakers have supported calls for total nuclear disarmament (Bird 2005: 426; Burke 2009; Oppenheimer 1984: 113; Schweber 2000). The 2011 tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima led many Japanese (and four European countries) to question the role of nuclear power in their energy supply, and brought calls for stronger global regulation of the industry (Fackler 2012). The widespread bombing and targeting of civilians in war have provoked major innovations in International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including the classification of area bombing and rape as war crimes, and new treaties outlawing land mines and cluster weapons. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established to prosecute major international crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and aggression. The latter crime has been defined in such a way (‘the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations’) to have put the US, Britain and Australia in the dock had it been in force at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Amendments to the Rome Statute 2010).

The moral anxiety and debate in such cases—just a few of many—suggests something important. Ethics matters. In this book we contend that the nature of global insecurity in the last century, and the kinds of security that the world will be able to achieve in this one, depends significantly on ethics: on the ethics we bring to our analysis, policymaking and decisions; on the ethics that underpins our understanding of what security is and to whom it is owed; and on the ethics that shapes the realities we accept or deny. Whether people live or die, whether they suffer or prosper—which people live and prosper and where they are able to do so—are ethical questions. How they are answered in the real world will be the results of particular ethical frameworks, rules and decisions; the result of the ways in which ethical dilemmas are posed, and how they are addressed and resolved. Is it right to attack—or target—cities with nuclear weapons? Is it right to even possess them? Is it right to detain asylum seekers, push their boats out to sea, or return them to the places from which they fled? Is it right to target terrorists and insurgents with remote-controlled robotic aircraft and missiles, even if the dead include civilians and their operators kill without risk? Is it right to invade a foreign country to stop crimes against humanity, end a famine, build a state, or remove a regime, and if so, what are the right ways of going about it? Is it right to use torture, or suspend habeas corpus or the rule of law, to protect our security? What forms of reasoning, what criteria and ends, should govern such decisions?

These are some of what most of us recognise as “moral” questions central to war and security—questions that go to killing, harm and humanity—and put in this form they are certainly of great importance. In particular, such questions are addressed in great depth in the “just war” tradition, and you will read more about that school of thought in the pages that follow. However in this book we argue that the influence and problem of ethics in security goes beyond moral choices in particular cases, and beyond questions of war and violence, to take in the very system and infrastructure of global security itself. This “system” is a dynamic and contested set of processes that develops out of the frameworks provided by (and actions of) key structures and actors: international treaties and law, regional and global organisations, governments, militaries, intelligence and aid agencies, NGOs, corporations, communities, and civil society organisations. The “international” management of security, however, should not be confused with a genuinely global sensibility, perspective, practice or set of institutions. Currently, we have a largely state-centric international security system that attempts very imperfectly to deal with increasingly global processes and dynamics of insecurity: risks and threats that have transnational and often global sources and symptoms. This system is structured around a cooperative tension (and sometimes outright conflict) between national security policies and military alliances, regional security organisations (like ASEAN or the OSCE) and collective security “regimes” of international law, treaty agreements and international organisations in areas like arms control, disarmament, and the environment. These regimes reflect both cosmopolitan commitments to deal with global problems in an effective and equitable way, and an uglier power politics that generates compromises that reflect particular national and corporate (rather than global) interests. Such regimes are also almost entirely missing or stagnant in areas like the energy and the world economy. A global approach to security thus recognises that our common problems are global in scope and that national, regional and collective security responses need to be reformed to serve genuinely global ends (Burke 2013a).

In our view, the kind of global security system we have, and how and to whom it provides security, is the very first ethical question. Does this system serve the interests of states and corporations alone, or of all people and the ecosystems they depend on? Does it serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, or the poor and the marginalised? Does it serve the interests of some at an unacceptable cost to others? These concerns preoccupied a “high level panel” of former states-people asked by then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to map out a new global security agenda in 2004. In their report, A More Secure World, they said:

Differences of power, wealth and geography do determine what we perceive as the gravest threats to our survival and well-being. Differences of focus lead us to dismiss what others perceive as the gravest of all threats to their survival. Inequitable responses to threats further fuel division. Many people believe that what passes for collective security today is simply a system for protecting the rich and powerful (United Nations 2004: 2).

 We believe that “ethics” and “morality” are not things that can be brought to insecurity or war from outside, to a space that would otherwise be unethical or amoral. Rather, we believe that even before we face a specific moral decision, ethics constitutes the choices available to us—that particular ethical commitments, options, limits and imperatives are implicit in the system itself, and in particular theoretical and policy world-views. Every vision, every practice, and every system of security has an ethics—even if we cannot agree that all are equally ethical. As Richard Shapcott (2010: vii-viiii) argues, any work of political ethics

must draw attention to the possible consequences or implications of different starting points…it is only once we have assessed or understood these [consequences] that we can reflect adequately upon our ethics and whether we think the costs of our positions are worth it, or not, or whether they are justifiable or need modification.

In sum, even as we accept that to be able to term a perspective or behaviour “amoral”, “immoral”, or “unethical” is a powerful and sometimes legitimate use of language, it is analytically more helpful to be able to lay out the assumptions and commitments of a range of ethical frameworks that bear on the problems and realities of global security, so that their effects can be considered and judged. Even as we assume a responsibility to advance a distinctive global security ethics that is better—that will lead to a more just and stable world—we do so in a global political context where moral pluralism is a fact. Debate among competing ethical perspectives is necessary and important.

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