The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Security vs. morality?

June 14, 2005

The Washington Post reports today on the recent NATO-Russia joint communique, which among other points stated that “issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including the recent tragic events in Uzbekistan, was also discussed.” According to the Post, this rather bland language papered over an intra-agency dispute within the US government about how best to handle the situation stemming from the 13 May crackdown against a failed uprising in the city of Andijon. The crackdown, which Human Rights Watch has labeled a “massacre,” involved the deployment of armed troops to respond to an antigovernment protest; witnesses reported numerous human rights violations, including a systematic effort to kill wounded survivors of the initial clash.

The intra-agency dispute here is a rather traditional tug-of-war between the State and Defense Departments, with the State Department pressing for an international investigation into the events in Andijon while the Defense Department, worried about preserving US access to Uzbek air bases, is less willing to antagonize the Uzbek government and thus endanger current US military strategy and tactics in the region. Given this split, and the reluctance of Russia to assent to any kind of international inquiry about human rights violations on its borders, the NATO-Russia communique couldn’t very well take a stronger stance.

It would be tempting to regard this disagreement as a case of national security versus global morality, with the Defense Department playing the role of the narrow defender of the national interest and the State Department playing the role of the expansive, idealistic proponent of a normative consensus. But this would be a mistake, I think. Especially given that the Defense Department’s position is intimately tied up with the prosecution of the War on Terror — a project that is certainly some distance removed from a clear-cut defense of the territorial integrity and physical security of the United States.

What we have here instead is a disagreement about conceptions of security, and not a clash between a security orientation and a morality orientation. Defense’s position is that prosecuting the War on Terror justifies paying somewhat less attention to an event that seems very much like an egregious violation of human rights, while State seems to be arguing instead that security is achievable primarily by insisting on uniform standards of conduct for all US countries. The people at State are not starry-eyed idealists, and the people at Defense are not hard-nosed realists; both are acting with a complex mix of ideological and practical considerations at hand.

This ought not to be surprising, especially if we keep in mind Arnold Wolfers’ 1949 observation that

The “necessities” in international politics, and for that matter in all spheres of life, do not push decision and action beyond the realm of moral judgment; they rest on moral choice themselves. If a statesman decides that the dangers to the security of his country are so great as to make necessary a course of action that may lead to war, he has placed an exceedingly high value on an increment of national security.

Appealing to security considerations, as the Defense Department seems to have done in opposing a more thorough and invasive investigation of the Andijon situation, is just as much a value-laden stance as an appeal to human rights. Neither are an ultimate trump card in the debate, and neither should be able to silence their opposition definitively. Unfortunately, appeals to “national security” often have this effect, and lead us to ignore the real moral choices that they obscure.

The point here is that security is one value among others. We have to be careful not to allow that value to supersede all others by fiat, and not to forget that in acting so as to advance security concerns in this case we would be in effect condoning violent repression. I’m not sure whether we should or shouldn’t be pressing harder for an international investigation, but in either case we should be honest about what we are doing. We should take responsibility for the choice, and not hide behind protestations of “strategic necessity.”

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.