Essay on Ethics and Foreign Policy

National Interest vs. Conduct of Ethical Foreign Policy: No Balance in Sight

By Luke Grcich


There are lots of ideas about what an ethical foreign policy means. However, when the theoretical “rubber” of a policy meets the very real global “road”, there are really three things that matter; the intention of decision-making nations, the method of policy implementation, and the final outcomes of their policies. Each of these criteria has very real implications when it comes to the abuse or preservation of human rights. This paper looks at aspects of the foreign policies of the United States and China. As their policies have become known as the Washington and Beijing Consensuses respectively, the first chapter compares and contrasts the two. America has failed more often than not to help create systems of good governance and democratic reforms under the Washington Consensus. China, while increasing its strategic and economic strength, has not created a more stable or productive Africa through its policies and still has a lot of internal issues to resolve. The second chapter focuses on the use of Private Military/Security Corporations (PMCs) in peace-building and humanitarian operations by the US, the positive and negative aspects of their usage, and the ethical difficulties that arise from their employment. The third chapter focuses on how China and the US have pursued economic and strategic security, especially in Africa, in regards to oil and other commodities and how their policies have affected and still are affecting the continent. Finally, the conclusion highlights that Africa’s real need to progress to be a productive part of the global community is good governance. It also highlights that, while the US and China have made progress, neither has a policy that effectively engages Africa as a whole and how both are potentially adding to the problem.


What is an Ethical Foreign Policy?

It is difficult to extrapolate what an objective foreign policy would be for any one government. The truth is, there are always competing ethical standpoints on any one given foreign policy issue. In matters of peace making initiatives, such as stabilizing a region, preventing/ending a genocide, or trying to safeguard resources there is no one easy answer. Does a nation or group of nations decide to put boots on the ground, try for economic sanctions/incentives, try to facilitate talks between conflicting groups, or a mixture of the three? The answer is yes but no. Each policy maker, whether from the UN or a sovereign nation has to take into account past successes and failures of this type of endeavor, the culture of the region itself and how they might respond to an interference based policy, the economic repercussions of a conflict, and possibly most important of all, their exit strategy. Every policy maker, to some degree has to be a pragmatist and must make decisions with very limited amounts of information due either to lack of good intelligence or simply because the time available does not warrant the ideal amount of time to analyze a situation. In a broad sense, the widest responsibilities of governmental actors in regards to foreign policy are considered to be respect for the sovereignty of individual nations, adherence to international law, multilateral action (if possible) and humanitarian intervention to prevent or stop blatant violations of human rights. (Ethics and Foreign Policy) The most basic of human rights are defined as “life, liberty, and security of person” according to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN website). Unfortunately, even when defining the most basic responsibilities of government in foreign policy matters, each answer begs several new questions. On the idea of humanitarian intervention, questions are raised about what would provide necessity for an intervention on humanitarian issues. One might venture to say that humanitarian response is necessary when civil society within a nation is being impeded beyond that nation’s ability or willingness to correct it.

So, how does a nation, objectively promote an ethical foreign policy? One important factor doing this is realizing that the ends do not justify the means. A nation must stick to its ideological guns if they want others to follow suit. The credibility of a government is directly related to its ability to justify its policies from an ethical standpoint. If a government is no longer able to ethically defend its policy decisions then it will no longer be regarded as a source of positive contribution to the geo-political system and will become more known to be rogue state. Rogue states are easy to identify when they have a relatively small amount of clout on the international stage but when they have significant influence due to military strength (think technologically advanced armed forces, chemical and/or nuclear weapons), strong economic production (not only vast resources, but the ability to process and be a market player), or geographical advantages they are harder to nail down because their policies cannot be dismissed as easily if they go against the norm.

If a nation wants to make an effort at an ethical foreign policy, it must not pursue its own interest without interest in the global system as a whole. While total altruism is not necessary, a healthy regard for the needs and purposes of other nations must be an important part of the calculations for policy makers. One way of fulfilling this type of foreign policy would be not to pursue a nation’s foreign policy ambitions to extremes.

So then, if something is done with self-interest in mind at all, can it then be called ethical? While this question may sound pertinent, it is unhelpful. First of all, there is no foreign policy decision (and for that matter, very few decisions by individual humans) that is completely devoid of self-interest. So to say that something is unethical if it furthers an individual’s or a nation’s self-interest is to give up on the idea of ethics altogether.

The safest and possibly most far-reaching definition of what an ethical foreign policy is would have to state first and foremost that in both the manner of implementation and in expected outcomes the policies created would engage and promote civil society. There have been lots of political scientists who have argued the origin and purpose of civil society. For the purpose of this paper, civil society will mean the Western ideals of human rights in all their aspects, namely, “life, liberty, and security of person” (UN UDHR).

Chapter 1:

Between Beijing and Washington

The two largest economies in the world, America and China, have continued to wrestle with each other in their attempt to expand their political and economic interests across the world.  To that end, they adopted different political and economic policies.  The United States adheres to the idea of the Washington Consensus, which elucidates the promotion of policies that promote good governance (i.e. democratic institutions, formation of a constitutional system, and “bill of rights” type freedoms), liberalized market economies (capitalism with some government regulation), and social safety nets (social security, Medicare, etc.) (Harvard, CFID). Summarized, the Washington Consensus has been hailed as a foreign policy that promotes human rights through the Western democratic model, personified in the example of the United States. On the other hand is the Chinese policy known as the Beijing Consensus that concentrates primarily on the business aspects of global development initiatives without policy formation in regards to governance. These two approaches are the backbone of each nation’s foreign policy initiatives and dictates the regimes that each is willing or unwilling to work with.

However, it would be a mistake to narrow the Beijing Consensus (BC) down to foreign policy alone. The BC is much more inwardly focused on China’s own economy than it is outwardly focused, or at least it was at its inception. The main idea behind the BC is China’s desire for self-determination. China does not just want to be a sovereign nation; it wants the power to control its own national destiny. With the Opium Wars in mind, and seeing US military dominance in both of the Gulf wars, China most certainly is interested in gaining military equity with the rest of the superpowers of the world.  However, China learned from the Soviet Union, that getting into an arms race with the United States was not the way to win your self-determination, only a way to bankrupt yourself. Therefore, Chinese Communist Party leaders have advocated for a “peaceful rise” in order to avoid conflict with the United States and not cause another Cold War. (Romero, 39)

So, therefore, the modus operandi of the rising Chinese power has been to grow its economic strength and mobility by opening more bilateral channels with neighboring countries and expanding trade ties with nations like Russia, Pakistan, and a variety of African countries. The Chinese have been very successful in their foreign and trade relations by following the BC. China surpassed the US in 2006 as the largest trading partner to South Korea and Japan (Pan). China has also become and influential member of groups like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China has also been instrumental in settling territory disputes between its neighbors and is opening up even more trade and diplomatic relations with nations outside its neighboring countries.

Beijing has shown real skill in diplomacy…China has signed a treaty of amity and cooperation with ASEAN, begun bilateral negotiations with ASEAN countries, established economic and diplomatic relations with countries across South America and Africa, and settled contentious land disputes over islands claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. (Pan)

However, China faces other problems that could be just as dangerous as direct confrontation with the United States. One issue that the Chinese are facing is the environmental implications of their rapid industrialization. Chinese environmental history for the past 20-30 years looks like a rapid repeat of that of the US’ from the Industrial Revolution to the Dust Bowl. China’s exponential increase in economic strength is causing an exponential rise in environmental problems. China’s water supply is both inadequate and tainted, about 70% of its lakes and rivers are polluted (Bajoria). Desertification is an ever-growing problem as well, China loses about 5,800 square miles of land per year to desertification (5,800 square miles is roughly the size of Connecticut) ( As of 2004, China surpassed the US as the largest greenhouse gas-emitting nation by volume in the world, which, among other things, causes acid rain to fall on around 30% of the country (Bajoria). Also, as China industrializes, more and more cars are hitting Chinese roads, making automobiles the number one cause of air pollution in China.

With all these things in mind, China has begun to put tighter restrictions on pollution causing industries and already has higher automobile mileage restrictions than the US, but there is no short-term solution. China has adopted the Kyoto Accords and, as of 2012, is now responsible for meeting the obligations stated in the agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Also, along with other developing nations, China made a proposal to cut its emissions by 90-95% by 2050 (Johnson). Regardless of long-term aspirations, many experts are skeptical of environmental change in China, citing the lack of economic incentives for Chinese companies to pursue reform.

Another of China’s concerns is the widening gap of education and income between the social classes within China. While urbanization is on the rise, most of the Chinese population are still rural farmers or factory workers. Without a good standard of living and improved education systems, China’s economic strength is doomed to be only a flash in the pan. Understanding this, Chinese policy makers have made unprecedented strides in education, healthcare and infrastructure. These institutions have helped to lift about 300 million Chinese out of poverty as of 2005, almost the amount of people living in the US (Ramo, 11).

While the United States has been in the news for the past decade for the twin wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, China has been influencing nations from Indonesia to Brazil. Many developing nations, even India, have recognized the merit of the Beijing Consensus. Beijing has become more attractive than Washington for a few reasons. The first is that the Chinese do not have ethical qualms with working in conjunction with governments who are not actively seeking reform towards more democratic type institutions, as is prerequisite for strategic partnership (ideally) with the United States. This willingness to work with nations that the US is not leads into the second reason why Beijing has become more attractive to many developing nations. Since the 1970’s, the US has arguably been the hegemonic power leader in the global political system because of her economic juggernaut, military strength, and aggressive foreign policy posturing. If not resentment, than at least jealousy has been the result of the past decades of US dominance and many nations, China especially, have been eager to exert their own claim of self-determination against the current hegemonic system. Now that China has become an economic powerhouse, many developing nations have begun to adopt the Chinese system and Beijing is ready with financing options for these governments. For instance, in nations that are beginning to recover from their conflict ridden past, China is making resource-backed loans and building schools, hospitals, roads, as well as other infrastructure projects.

Since 2004, China has concluded similar deals in at least seven resource-rich countries in Africa, for a total of nearly $14 billion. Reconstruction in war-battered Angola, for example, has been helped by three oil-backed loans from Beijing, under which Chinese companies have built roads, railways, hospitals, schools, and water systems. Nigeria took out two similar loans to finance projects that use gas to generate electricity. Chinese teams are building one hydropower project in the Republic of the Congo (to be repaid in oil) and another in Ghana (to be repaid in cocoa beans). (Brautigam)

When looking at the last two decades of Washington Consensus versus the Beijing Consensus, which way of doing things has helped the largest amount of people? While the US has made efforts to create democratic institutions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, these have come through costly wars. China, on the other hand, has made resource backed loans to African governments like Angola, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other places in Africa. These loans come in the form of infrastructure creation in these nations, hospitals, roads, schools, agricultural practices, etc. While there are plenty of cases of corruption and shady dealings conducted by the Chinese, which nation’s idea of development is working the most effectively? The main difference between the Chinese and American understandings of development is epitomized in this quote by a top Chinese official, recorded by Joshua Ramo,

You know we are often chastised about human rights or democracy… But frankly, if we pull 1.3 billion people out of poverty, that will be one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of mankind. We will work on the other things. But, really, I have to tell you that I think lifting 1.3 billion people out of poverty is enough for my lifetime.

The biggest problem that the West has with China, other than increasing competition, is that China has no qualms about who it partners with in its economic partnerships. China has been willing to partner with pariah regimes in Africa, as well as in other parts of the world that her Western counterparts in the US have been unwilling to because of their lack of emphasis on democratic reforms. Many nations including Brazil, Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Zimbabwe, and others have bought into the idea of the Beijing Consensus. These adverse reactions to the push for democratic reforms in exchange for economic partnership with the US and China’s openness to business without governance reforms, coupled with China’s abundance of cash reserves, have led China to become one of the leading trading partners with various African regimes, and the continent itself.

On the other hand, the United States has not been idle in the pursuit of her foreign policy agenda. The most obvious examples of this are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other than the War on Terror, the rationale behind these wars is also the thought that Islamic dictatorships are not an effective enough bulwark against the expansion of Islamic extremism (Foreign Policy, Bush Was Right). While the ultimate outcome of the Arab Spring is still unsure, the idea has merit. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has created what could be called nation-building wars. The idea in both wars was to replace the dictatorial regime with a democratically elected and sustainable government. It remains to be seen how effective these initiatives will ultimately be.

In both of the cases of the Washington Consensus and the Beijing Consensus one can argue that each nation is making the effort to build its own type of civil society. Washington is seeking to promote human rights through democracy and Beijing is seeking to promote self-determination through business and trade. However, to say that either nation has an objectively “ethical” foreign policy, the specifics have to be reviewed in both cases.

In summation, since the end of the Cold War, the US has been the hegemonic power leading the global political system. However, in the past decades China has been increasing exponentially in economic and strategic strength. This has caused tension between the two powers, which shows the overarching struggle of the Global North (developed nations) and the Global South (developing nations.) The Beijing and Washington Consensuses are ideologically opposed as the US seeks to promote human rights and development while China focuses on development through purely economical means, without regards to reforms in governance.

Chapter 2:

Ethics and the Use of Private Security Corporations

Private Military/Security Corporations (PSCs or PMCs), are privately owned companies contracted by government organizations and NGOs to provide supporting services in various capacities to their employer. Often these companies are employed in food service, waste disposal, transport, and other roles, but one main service they provide is armed assistance to agencies whether that be providing security details to VIPs, performing combat operations, defending supply lines, or other security services. The main benefits of employing these companies is that they handle the logistical needs of their employing organizations at less cost than the organization itself can provide, as well as providing decreased liability to the employing entities. The decreased cost in employing PMCs in regards to logistics and red tape is the main reason why their usage is on the rise in almost every developed nation.

When speaking of US peace-building operations PSCs have been involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the areas of logistics, intelligence, and security operations including guarding supply trains, interrogation and translation, and protection details for military and civilian facilities, diplomats, and other dignitaries. The United Nations has also employed PMCs for the similar purposes in order to cut down on the cost and red tape of employing personnel who are direct members of any one nation’s military.

The ethical dilemma of employing these kinds of groups is manifold. The first problem is that the US Department of Defense (USDOD) was not even aware of exactly how many personnel were in Iraq at the height of the war. The estimate is that there were some 15,000-20,000 private contractors in Iraq who were variously employed in the responsibilities above (Pan). The UN Working group on the use of mercenaries estimated that the expenditures of the use of PMCs by the US could have been over $200 billion in 2011, “spending on contracts and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to exceed $206 billion in 2011, according to the August 2011 report by the US Commission on Wartime Contracting. Also, in 2010, the number of contractor employees hired by the US Departments of Defense and State and USAID exceeded 260,000” (UNHCR). As anger rises at the presence of foreign governments on their native soil, aggression against foreigners in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to rise, causing many more PSC employees to be engaged in combat operations either planned or unplanned ( While there is a relatively small amount that participates in direct combat, the probability of PSC personnel engaging in fighting is on the rise. While the financial reasoning is sound for employing these types of groups, there must be better oversight by the USDOD and other governmental groups actively involved in these types of peace operations.

It is important to understand that any company directly employed or contracted by a government is therefore an extension of that government’s policies, if not in writing, at least in perception and should be held accountable as such. When an organization acts, especially one that engages in combat operations in any capacity, other governments and the world at large will see the act as one allowed, if not endorsed, by the government employing the company. In 2007, Erica Razook of Amnesty International talked about the responsibilities of PMCs in the prevention of human rights abuses.

With current industry work in conflict and post-conflict areas, PMSCs take on high-risk, complex assignments, only heightening the need for them to (i) proactively identify the risks of human rights violations their operations pose, (ii) operationalize policies, procedures and internal structures to ensure every possible step is taken to avoid the abuse of human rights by their operations, and (iii) respond with adequate and meaningful attention to accountability and to compensate victims, if and when instances of criminal conduct occur.

She goes on to say that the vast majority of PMCs do not create the necessary frameworks within their organizations for adequate avoidance of human rights abuses.

The second problem with using PMCs is that there is no clear legal jurisdiction for prosecuting PSC employees who commit human right violations in nations they are working. The US’ Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (MEJA) gave the first authority to the US government to directly prosecute contractors who committed human right violations while under the employment of the US armed forces (MEJA). While a step in the right direction, this legislation falls short in several ways. There is no way for the government to prosecute anyone other than a US citizen and there is also no jurisdiction for contractors working for other governmental organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency or other governmental agencies involved. PSC contractors come from a variety of different backgrounds including South Africa, Nepal, Australia, and others. Since this is the case, it is obvious that MEJA is incapable of creating real protection against abuses committed by PSC personnel and the US government ought to take more substantial steps, which would allow them to prosecute the company as a whole rather than just the individual. As it stands now, PSCs are self-regulating and take responsibility for punishing employees who have cause to be reprimanded. While this works in the traditional environment of employer-employee relationship, there must be more accountability when a sovereign nation, which is responsible for its own foreign policy whether carried out by a member of its armed forces or a hired contractor, employs a group of specialists for a certain task. When any actor, individual, corporation, or government is allowed to carry out directives with relative impunity (the lack of accountability to authorities) abuses are bound to happen, especially in the case of armed conflict.

There are many advantages to deploying PMCs. These firms are easy to deploy in areas where productivity and convenience are important. They have greater flexibility in their operations than formalized national militaries or international organizations and they pull from a larger pool of potential expertise for regional operations.

According to Executive Outcomes, during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 the company could have deployed armed troops on the ground within 14 days of being hired. The cost of a six-month operation to provide protected safe havens was estimated at $150 million (around $600,000 a day), compared with the $3 million-a-day UN relief operation. (Singer)

Also, in case of the death of a member of one of these organizations, there is not the same political backlash from the domestic populations of an employing government. Another potential benefit is that NGOs or other organizations operating within conflict zones can normalize their security operations by outsourcing to a PMC instead of relying on imprecise agreements with local warlords or clans (Singer). Private organizations are also better suited to provide security training to local security forces, where humanitarian agencies and even national armed forces have shown relative inadequacy. PMCs can also provide logistical support for aid distribution and protection to NGOs and international organizations.

Until the United States creates a system with which to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses, not only by members of its armed forces but by all companies employed by the US, it is not possible to consider it to be an ethical actor in the realm of ethical peace building. While the US can always “fire” the organization that is responsible for the abuses, there must be legal action to follow. The whole ethical framework of a peace-building mission is undermined if violence is allowed to pass unprosecuted. The entire point of peace building missions is to ensure that violence does not go unchecked and that actors accused of crimes are made subject to the due process of law. “Impunity allows torture, ill-treatment and killing to thrive. All allegations of such abuses must be thoroughly investigated,” says Razook later in the article. If the US wants to be the source of positive change in the developing world, especially in places like the Middle East, it must play by its own rules. Those rules, while not laid out in any particular form when it comes to PMCs, constitute the rules of engagement by nationally created armed forces and these rules are primarily put in place to prevent human rights abuses by military personnel. If a government takes the step of involving PMCs for use in armed conflict, these same rules must be followed and the same consequences must be pursued for violations of these rules.

The inability of the US legal system to prosecute these PMCs was made obvious in the ruling made by a federal judge in 2010 in the case of several Blackwater security guards. The legal case was the result of several Blackwater members who opened fire on Iraqi civilians in 2007, leaving at least 17 people dead and another 20 or so wounded. The federal judge who made the ruling said that the case was improperly built against the Blackwater members and that much of the evidence was mishandled by the prosecution (NY Times). Despite the legal formalities that caused the case to be thrown out, many Iraqis, including several who were injured in the attack, spoke out angrily against the US ruling in this case. “Why do they have the right to kill people? Is our blood so cheap? For America, the land of justice and law, what does it mean to let criminals go?” Abdul Wahab Adul Khader, one of the civilians injured in the firefight, said this (NY Times).

While this case could be considered by some as an exception to normal cases that are tried in the US, it highlights the flaws of the current system in place to prosecute private security firms. The case itself took around three years to be heard in federal court, which makes sense if this were a normal civilian crime, but since a group directly employed by the US government in a conflict area committed it, it seems absurd that this case would be tried in the traditional format of other US lawsuits.

In a report from the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, one member stated,

As for private military and security companies, their ever-expanding activities continue to raise a number of challenges,” Ms. Patel said. “Providing security to its people is a fundamental responsibility of the State and outsourcing security to private military and security companies creates risks for human rights, hence the need to regulate their activities… the potential impact of the widespread activities of private military and security companies on human rights means that they cannot be allowed to continue to operate without adequate regulation and mechanisms to ensure accountability.(UNHCR)

While this was the statement of the UN working group, the UN is not capable of creating a system adequate to regulating the activities of PMCs. Some have called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to begin to prosecute human rights offenders in conflict zones, but aside from being a logistical nightmare, that is not the ICC’s main purpose. Also, the US and many other major international players (including China) have not signed the treaty that created the ICC in the first place. Therefore, it is the individual nation’s ethical responsibility to create a system that regulates the activities of these groups. Again however, the problem arises of who should do the investigating, who should conduct the trial, and how should the sentence (if found guilty) should be carried out. The only way to adequately create a system like this is for the nation employing these types of companies to make contractual requirements on PMCs to adhere to international human rights laws as well as to submit to a tribunal of the nation’s own creation.

In conclusion, the use of Private Military Corporations is a very controversial subject and is a growing phenomenon. PMCs are used by national governments as well as international organizations. PMCs provide relatively low-cost solutions to complications in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian efforts. However, they also pose an increased risk for human rights abuses and there is currently no adequate way to hold these organizations accountable for such abuses.

Chapter 3:

Ethics and Oil:  Eastern and Western Approaches to the African Continent

The end of the Cold War did not bring an end to conflicts around the world as many have thought. Even though there has been significant reduction in interstate conflicts (conflicts among states) nevertheless, intrastate conflicts (conflicts within states) have dramatically increased in the aftermath of the cold war. Intrastate conflicts have been manifested in the form of civil wars, internal insurgencies, ethnic conflicts, genocide and succession movements. Those conflicts have not only claimed millions of lives but also destroyed entire political and economic systems of those societies as the never before.

Ideological conflicts have been replaced by terrorism and resources conflicts. Conflicts over access to oil, water, and precious minerals have evoked proxy wars among major powers in developing nations. The major global powers economies (the US, China and other western powers) dependence on resources from developing counties and access to developing markets have continued to fuel tensions and confrontations among groups within developing nations.

The fact that the economies of developed nations are powered by the consumption of energy sources from developing nations is the defining problem of 21st Century geopolitics. They are driven by the consumption of fossil fuels, partially in natural gas and coal but primarily through the utilization of oil. The price at the pump affects all other parts of the global economy. The most valued commodity in the global system at time is most certainly black gold. Even in the past year, with crude prices on the rise, America has seen price increases of every commodity from airfare to peanut butter. The US alone consumes approximately 18.8 million barrels of oil each day making it the largest importer of oil in the world (EIA). Everyone who watches the news understands both the West’s (not just the US, Europe as well) need for oil as well as the difficult foreign policy maneuvers needed to secure a steady flow of it to their refineries at a reasonable price. Since the 1930’s, the West has had a vested interest in the formerly uninteresting Middle East because of the discovery of massive oil reserves in the Saudi Arabian peninsula and the areas of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and other big oil-producing nations. This interest has always been dogged by the political and ideological disagreements of these two worlds and has caused tension that has global implications.

The US has an interesting history with non-African oil-producing nations. While her biggest oil partner is Canada, totalitarian regimes like that of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are also high on the list of suppliers to the US. Why then is there such a difference in the oil partnerships it seeks to forge in Africa? And has it really even pursued policies of the Washington consensus in the actual deals that it has made in Africa? While the answers to these questions are inherently complicated, for the most part it looks as if the US has not followed through on its political ideals, especially in Libya (the nation with the largest proven oil reserves in Africa.) The US opened up diplomatic relations with the Gaddafi regime and was propping it up with billions of dollars in aid money, arguably in exchange for oil concessions from that country while Gaddafi continued to rule a country devoid of what the West would call democracy. The US also had other strategic partnerships with other regimes like Egypt, which rule (or ruled) their nations while putting very little emphasis on democratic reform.

Since the terror attacks on 9/11, the US and her allies have begun to search for new oil prospects more vigorously and have begun a new “black gold rush” to the African continent. However the West now has to vie with China, the new kid on the global block, for oil rights on the African continent. This has caused obvious strain as the economies of the Global North (established first-world economies) face new opposition from the Global South (less developed nations and emerging economies). The implications of China’s rise, as well as the rise of other developing economies such as India, Brazil, and Turkey, have implications that are reshaping the power structure of the global political economy.

This has also caused geostrategic tension. The West feels that Africa is within its traditional sphere of influence and has had this view since the days of colonialism. While the US has not directly taken over portions of Africa, she established her own colonies on the world’s most populous continent like Liberia. China on the other hand, as stated above, is the newest player to this game and is bringing its own rules to the table. While Western governments, mainly the United States, have promised investment and development in Africa in exchange for resources, they have done so while attempting to influence the internal affairs of many African ruling regimes. This is the Washington Consensus in motion.

While the US seeks to promote development it also presses the issue of democratic reforms toward a Western based model. In a departure from the traditional approach to promoting American interests in Africa, from seeking to influence the continent from the outside, in 2008 President Bush approved and created the United States African Command (or Africom) with the purpose of protecting US strategic and economic interests in Africa from terrorism and other threats. Through Africom, the US seeks to build an environment more ideal for the growth of business while also giving more security stability to specific African nations that have strategic and resource consequence to US interests on the continent. Many African leaders see this as only an extension of the US’ policy of selective engagement in Africa, while ignoring Africa as a whole. The Nixon-Kissinger era of US foreign policy initially developed the practice of arming specific regimes in Africa and this practice has continued ever since. Prominent African leaders look on US military strength in Africa as generally a good thing. However, military presence is not the only piece in the puzzle of African security issues. In ethical terms, while potentially providing a means of nation building and democratic influence to the region, this is not the picture of an ethical foreign policy decision for a few reasons. One reason is shown by the mixed reactions of from the African community. There is no continent-wide support for Africom and it has not been endorsed by the African Union. The US has essentially ignored the sovereignty of African nations by creating this body and has refused to address the main concerns of the native organizations leading the continent. The main focus of the African Union and other sub-regional bodies is the effective management and resolution of ongoing African conflicts. As of right now, Africom is purely an extension of US self-interest in the region and is not benefitting Africa as a whole.  If Africom is to be successful in the long run and a positive influence on Africa, the US must use it to partner with the established organizations in the areas of conflict resolution, management, and (possibly most importantly) prevention. The biggest problem currently facing Africa is the lack of good governance. Even an American presence on the continent will not have a positive effect unless there is active engagement between all parties involved. The best kind of engagement on the part of the US would include listening to continental leaders and organizations while going the extra mile to respect the sovereignty of individual nations. If this is to happen, Africom will have to shift from the basis of the national interests of the US and her allies to a partnership with existing African security structures. This approach, more of an investment into Africa itself rather than simple self-interest, will be a more difficult road for the US than its current approach but will be better for Africa in the long run while still respecting the ideals of sovereignty and self-determination of African nations.

On the other hand is the Chinese approach to securing its own energy security. As has been stated already in this paper, China seeks to create economic partnerships with selected African regimes, and much like the US, largely ignores other African nations. The main difference between the two approaches is China’s non-interference policy in the internal affairs of the nations it partners with. This is attractive to any regime that is resistant to or tired of the US mandate to implement reforms in exchange for strategic partnership.  While China still imports most of its oil from the Middle East, its African partnership is rapidly expanding (Alessi). One of the main points of the Declaration of the Beijing Summit of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation is to

Deepen and broaden mutually beneficial cooperation, encourage and promote two-way trade and investment, explore new modes of cooperation and give top priority to cooperation in agriculture, infrastructure, industry, fishery, IT, public health and personnel training to draw on each other’s strengths for the benefit of our peoples; (Declaration of Beijing Summit).

China has begun to partner with what the West would consider pariah regimes. The President of oil rich Equatorial Guinea even called China his country’s “best friend” after a failed coup attempt that the US and other Western nations likely had knowledge of but did very little to prevent (Wide Angle, PBS). China has also made deals with other nations such as Nigeria, Angola, Congo, and others where it is exchanging resources for capacity building projects. While one can argue that this policy of non-interference is better than the US’ failure ridden approach to democratization, China is making the same mistake that the US made in its initial creation of Africom, which is ignoring Africa as a whole and only operating in a piecemeal capacity. Yes, China is succeeding in creating better quality of life for thousands of Africans, but there have been many documented complaints of exploitive labor practices on the part of Chinese companies. Also, China’s policies of non-interference have helped aggravate regional conflicts like that between North and South Sudan. It was only when faced with pressure from the UN Security council that China broke from its policy of helping to arm the government in Khartoum against the South Sudan rebels and to begin the push for UN peacekeepers to help stabilize the situation.

This presents an interesting dilemma when it comes to the ethical standpoints of Washington and Beijing models of engagement with Africa. As was explained in the preceding chapter talking about the foreign policies of Beijing and Washington, many nations in the Global South have resentment toward the interference mentality of Washington and have begun to side more and more with China. When it comes to oil, this is no small shift. Also, the double standard of US oil partnerships cannot be ignored. China’s policies of economic partnership along with non-interference are the opposite side of the bad spectrum of development strategy from the US. Both nations are concerned with energy and strategic security, but neither is accomplishing sustainable systems in Africa.

To recap, despite the lack of breakout of large-scale global conflicts since the end of the Cold War, the world is arguably a more violent place. Intrastate conflicts are on the rise in many parts of the world. The economic needs of developed nations are the fuel for these conflicts. As nations like China and the US vie for resources, they often fund many conflicts in resource rich areas. Neither the US nor China has developed a policy to resolve or prevent these conflicts and have focused mainly on their own self-interests instead of seeking ethical policies to create a better global system.


There are really three determining factors of what makes an ethical foreign policy. Those criteria are the intentions behind the decision, the means a nation uses to implement its policies, and the outcome of that nation’s foreign policy initiatives. This paper has examined how the intentions behind the Beijing and Washington Consensus’ take very different approaches to accomplish the same ends, namely economic and strategic stability; China through economical means without regard to governance and the US development with reforms aimed at furthering respect for human rights. While both have arguably “good” intentions, we must then look at how implementation of those policies has been carried out. US peace-building operations have been largely privatized, which has caused great potential for human rights abuses. China, through non-interference, has not directly caused but not prevented human rights abuses through indiscriminate support of regimes that are known to be rogue and corrupt. Both nations have been party to human rights abuses through the ways they have executed their foreign policy aims. The one aspect that is still to be decided is the final outcome of each nation’s decisions. The testing ground for the US will be in the final outcomes of Afghanistan and Iraq, whether they will go the way of failed states or somehow come out as effective democracies. The test for China is to see if after the development programs have run their course, the nations that they have become partners with can develop into states that have good governance systems.

Good governance is the key to solving Africa’s problems, and there is no “one size fits all” solution for the African continent. Good governance has to balance economic development with protection for human rights. One has to only look at the early stages of the American capitalist system, like that written about by Upton Sinclair in the Jungle, to know that laissez-faire capitalism will not protect human rights. There must be a balance of government regulation that still gives companies, especially those in developing nations, the breathing room they need to grow.

The question of economic development has turned into a “chicken or the egg” type of dilemma. Which comes first? Economic development or democratic governance? Unfortunately, the two do not go hand in hand. If a nation is trying to implement democratic reform (free markets, social safety-nets, popular elections, etc.), the very market systems they are trying to build can undermine the best of intentions by their very nature. The most powerful people are always the people with means, meaning the ability to receive education, start companies, and gain control of some or all parts of government (either by their money or position.) If there is no structure in place to provide the opportunity for the rest of the population to better their circumstances or even very limited opportunity, the “haves” will continue to gain while the “have-nots” will only stagnate. This is true of all governments and all systems because it is true of mankind. Men, with some exceptions, seek to gain power and advantage over their fellows, be it by wealth or power, and there must be systems in place to check those with power and to protect those who do not.

The other complicating factor when it comes to promoting good governance is the incredible variety of cultures and backgrounds around the globe. In a world of so many opinions and cultural differences, can one person say that it is ethically suitable to promote a form of government that might be incompatible with the cultural and historical norms of the society where implementation is being attempted? The Western world went through several hundred years of thought development, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, which led it to create the first truly successful form of liberal democracy. Even then, the transitions from monarchies and totalitarian regimes were almost always stained with blood. It will then be difficult, to say the least, to create stable democracies in places that have histories that are rife with ethnic divisions, histories of theocratic domination, and arguably violent tendencies.

The most obvious problem the US faces right now in both wars is exit strategy but the underlying problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the cultural capacities that both Iraq and Afghanistan have for democracy. America is truly exceptional in the way that it came into being because the cultural elites were perfectly positioned to develop the kind of system that was needed for the world’s first sustainable democracy. This however was not enough. The population of the fledgling nation was also educated enough (and had the motivation) to understand the reforms that were being made so that they could emotionally and intellectually get behind the newly formed system of government.

The part where the US (and China for that matter) are not exceptional, is that if the US wants good governance, it must be the example to new nations. If we want dictators and insurgents held responsible for their human rights violations, the US must hold itself accountable for the same things, namely the human rights abuses committed by its employees. As it stands, the use of PMCs is a blatant foreign policy double standard. It is unethical in that there is no adequate form of accountability for PMCs and no good way of tracking their activities. When any company, military or not, is left to regulate itself completely, the outcome is almost always unfavorable for much of the population. In this case especially, when the US claims to be the world defender of human rights and freedom, the current usage of PMCs shows the US’ primary concern for its own interests with only a peripheral interest in the security of other nations.

As Americans, we must be honest with ourselves in both our successes and our failures. The US has run an informal empire of economic and strategic strength since the late 1800’s as evidenced in history and in foreign policy decisions. Manifest destiny has never truly disappeared from the American persona abroad, and the dollar has become the most effective influencing agent in the past several decades. However, a dollar saved or spent cannot be our main criteria for evaluating an effective or ethical policy. If that continues to be the main decision maker, the US will show that it is just like any other colonialist nation in history, purely self-interested and tyrannical.


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