Global Ethics: Anarchy, Freedom and International Relations

September 17, 2009

Author: Mervyn Frost

Edition: First

Publisher: Routledge

Pages: 192

Price: £75.00 and £18.99

ISBN: 9780415466097 and 6103

It is widely assumed by realists and others that ethics is at best a relatively minor element (if not wholly irrelevant) when it comes to understanding international affairs. It is also widely believed that where ethical obligations do reach beyond the borders of the state, they are "thinner" than those applying within. Mervyn Frost's compact and eloquent book, Global Ethics, offers students a theoretically sophisticated argument challenging both assumptions.

Frost presents two central arguments. First, he argues that ethics is central to global politics: it shapes actions, determining the field of options open to actors; but, more fundamentally, its salience is seen in the fact that ethics "constitutes" the actors themselves - both states and citizens - since it defines the rules by which they achieve recognition as participants within global "social practices". Without such recognition, international actors may be excluded from co-operative practices, their ability to pursue their interests is diminished and they may be subjected to sanctions, enforcing compliance.

Frost illustrates the universal desire for such recognition in the narratives through which governments and other agents try to demonstrate that their behaviour has been consistent with shared ethical commitments.

His second major argument identifies the substantive ethical commitments underlying contemporary social practices internationally. All - or almost all - individuals engage in two "anarchic" practices of global reach: the "Society of Sovereign States" (SOSS) and "Global Civil Society" (GCS).

Commonly, the former is identified with a "communitarian" ethic emphasising the rights of states, the latter with a "cosmopolitanism" focused on the rights of individuals; and the two are widely seen as clashing on key issues.

But Frost maintains that GCS and the SOSS need to be interpreted as part of a broader "practice of practices" - a "double anarchy" in which individuals are constituted globally as both civilians in GCS and citizens of particular states.

For states to maintain membership in good standing of the global SOSS, he argues, they must fulfil the requirements simultaneously of both dimensions of the double anarchy, defending and augmenting the rights of civilians under their care, respecting those beyond their borders and respecting the sovereign rights of other states. This holistic view, he argues, offers insights that can help to clear up apparent contradictions in our approach to issues such as illegal migration, humanitarian intervention and globalisation.

Global Ethics neatly weaves analysis of concrete contemporary problems into theoretical arguments and students will find insightful discussions of private security companies, the Iraq War, al-Qaeda and the "War on Terror", among others. It thus offers both an excellent introduction to theoretical inquiry into ethics in the context of international relations and a useful starting point for debating a range of case studies.

Who is it for? Advanced undergraduates and graduate students reading either international relations or international ethics.

Presentation: Readable, compact and accessible, even when it presents fairly demanding insights and theoretical exposition. Good use of concrete illustrations.

Would you recommend it? Certainly: it offers an excellent way to initiate discussion around the ethical dimensions of global politics.

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