IN an era of foreign policy in which national principle and ethics seem non-existent, when as a nation we switch positions on intervention in Bosnia with more trembling and trepidation than a Victorian damsel faced with her first beau, what moral guideposts should we be observing?
Even now in Bosnia -- which will be the cultural and moral marker for this age -- we as a nation still do not have the faintest idea why, whether or when we should be there. We have forgotten how to judge ethical questions.
At a recent conference at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., however, naval officers and other guests for two fascinating days considered "The Ethical Use of Force: The Responsibility to Intervene."
Keynote speaker Dr. Mike Rion, an ethicist who works with corporations through his Resources for Ethics and Management company, first suggested the "right questions on intervention into the affairs of another country: Who matters? Is it our problem? Are we being true to ourselves? To whom do we have obligations? What are the costs and benefits? Did we create the problem? Will intervention work?"
He concluded that "our first obligation is to fix problems we might have caused. But that must be done without undue risk to self." We must also ask whether we are being true to ourselves. "What action will best express our character and values? What can we live with, and what is unacceptable?"
Meanwhile, we must avoid the ethical original sin, which deals with the "unintended consequences of good intentions." At the same time one must not be paralyzed by the possibility of unintended consequences.
One of the unintended ethical consequences of the Clinton administration, Dr. Rion said, is the ethically mistaken idea that "self-interest is tainted" and that making money in the business world is wrong. This, he said, "is a very misguided way to look at ethics and decision-making. Actually, profitability is one of your ethical considerations."
Dr. Alberto Coll, professor at the Naval War College, picked up this theme, saying that "interventions that are (considered by some to be) truly moral, where there is no sign of American interests involved, using force only 'in the interest of others,' are actually high-risk." Such interventions, which the Clinton administration has tended to approve (Somalia, for instance), are actually "ultimately immoral."
"The 'humanitarian interventions' in which we have no self-interest are basically distractions from our central concerns . . . ," he said. "Today, the great issues being neglected are Japan, NATO, Iran/Iraq. Iran/Iraq should be in the forefront of our agenda, not Somalia or Haiti, yet today we don't have a coherent strategy regarding them.
"And so the great distractions posed by 'humanitarian interventions' are ultimately less than moral because they keep us from doing things that are far more moral and significant."
Basically, Dr. Coll said: "Our purpose throughout the Cold War was not to defeat the Soviet Union but to construct a community of like-minded nations to promote their economic and political interests in the world. Today, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Soviet Union, our purpose is the same: to nurture, protect and encourage a community of democratic and capitalist states with which we can maintain a degree of minimal order in a dangerous and unstable world."
In recent years the United States has moved the question of "last resort intervention" to the United Nations. Neither the United Nations nor any other international organization -- with their clumsy or non-existent command structures, and confusion of power principles -- comes close to becoming reasonable new sources of effective intervention.
In this quicksand of haplessness, American diplomatic thinking on intervention has tended recently toward the "humanitarian intervention" model, which Dr. Coll correctly chastized. Even now, as we muddle about in Bosnia without clear objectives, there is little discussion of what principles should guide us.
George Kennan, the great foreign policy thinker, spoke the other day to diplomats at the State Department on the occasion of his 90th birthday. He remarked that one starts with principles and the ideas follow.
We are groping for new principles in a dangerous world that our leaders are addressing with such naivete.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.