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Ethics in Geopolitics - An Inquiry

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Geopolitics is an encompassing term, one that broadly refers to the policies (and the thinking behind it, subconscious or conscious) that nation-states choose to deploy in relation to vis-a-vis other states in the international arena. This large interplay of politics and strategies, convictions and aspirations, the steps undertaken, the alliances formed can be termed as Geopolitics.

Traditionally, be it by Chankaya or Machiavelli, the state leaders have been advised to follow a different yardstick of morality and ethics while charting out the plans for managing intra-state affairs. Ones that are different to what citizens residing in the state are expected to follow. Machiavelli asserted the incongruity between being an able ‘Prince’ and a good Christian at the same time. On a similar note, Chanakya’s Arthashastra, which among other things, was also a treatise about political conquest, gave a sutra (an aphorism) of ‘saam, daam, dand, bhed’ which essentially translates to striving for achieving the desired goals through any means possible. It favours the achieving of ‘end’, irrespective of the ‘means’ adopted.

In essence, the leaders have been trained, by the conventional wisdom, to put the maxim of national-interest above any other consideration.This broad encompassing principle was etched into the consciousness during the emergence of Nationalism in Europe, from where it travelled onto the whole world, courtesy of the soft power of the imperial powers. The whole project of Decolonisation was also based upon the idea of nationalism, using which the nations in Africa and Asia demanded the right to ‘self-determination’.

Be it Donald Trump’s strong push for America First, Biden’s intent of re-strengthening America’s ties with its allies or Xi Jinping’s resolve to put China back to what it sees as its rightful place at the top of the world hierarchy as the top patriarch, the principle of national-interest is where the leaders attribute their strategies from.

Therefore, national-interest reigns supreme when it comes to the functioning of geopolitics. However, is this the only principle that geopolitical considerations should adhere to, given the way the world order is evolving?

This is definitely not an appeal to discard the idea of national interest, for it would be impractical to say the least. However, what this article strives to advocate is that national interest cannot be the only lens through which Geopolitics should be approached. For, if it is the case, then Iran is justified in launching its institutional support for the several terrorist groups across the Middle East and so is China, for trying to hack and steal American intellectual property.

Now it is a no-brainer that the current world order is fundamentally changing. The leverage of America’s hegemony has relatively declined as several regional powers, that detest the western leadership and framework, gain political traction and ground, China leading from the front. As Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar highlighted in his new book: ‘The India Way’, the world is increasingly moving from being a multilateral order to one of multi-polarity, where International relations is being conducted more as a bargain, like we observe in a market. China acting like a bully, having border-related issues with almost all its neighbours and forcibly constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea, Iran in its resolve to achieve nuclear weapons, an emerging Turkey under Erdogan who’s trying to portray himself as a modern caliph, Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, to give a few examples.

This is where Ethical considerations should be allowed to play a greater part. For, if we allow ourselves to face the reality, our world faces some unprecedented challenges that require us to cooperate cutting across the geographical and ideological faultlines, for this time, it is not about the victory of one block over the other, as observed in the cold war, but about the future of our civilisation as a collective.

Having just witnessed the Covid pandemic, this should have been loud and clear. For instance, China not allowing a transparent access to the WHO’s investigating team in particular but the whole world in general can be justified in the name of national-interest, however, had the CCP undertaken an ethical consideration, it should have cooperated, for the collective larger good. This is not to single out China as an odd one out, however, given the current geo-political context, the country serves as an adequate example when a nation-states takes national interest way too far.

Therefore, what the world collectively needs is a mix of national-interest and ethical considerations by all the state actors given the severity of the challenges we face. Climate Change is only the beginning. For, we are the cusp of a technological renaissance, Artificial Intelligence, the emerging world of metaverse, Blockchain, it’s like staring at the abyss. Joining hands to control the emerging power rather than weaponizing them remains the only way.




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