Conversations in Global Affairs with Dr. Joel Rosenthal

The Conversations in Global Affairs series discusses the greatest challenges and changes in the field with policymakers, thinkers, and activists in global affairs.


On Tuesday August 25, 2015 Global Affairs Ph.D. students Lynette E. Sieger and Kelsey Lizotte visited the  (CCEIA) in Manhattan, NY.  There they met with the President of CCEIA and Professor in international relations at NYU and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program Dr. Joel H. Rosenthal.

Video: Ethics in International Affairs, Realism, Pluralism, and The Iran Deal

Transcript: Ethics in International Affairs, Realism, Pluralism, and The Iran Deal

Part I. On Ethics in International Affairs: A Multidisciplinary and Multi-professional Endeavor

LES: To begin our conversation would you tell us a bit about your academic background and what led you to this place.

ROSENTHAL: Sure from an academic perspective I started as a student of American foreign policy and I was always interested in the conduct of American foreign policy primarily in the 20th century although in my training I went back to the founding.  But there was always a strongly American focus getting into both political and cultural history.  I was interested in the history of ideas and what were the ideas and principles

that formed American policy.  Over time what that did it evolved into international relations more generally, the study of international relations.  But I very quickly felt confined by the usual disciplinary boundaries being interested in the ideas, being interested in the philosophical kinds of questions.  It led me to a multidisciplinary kind of approach which again led me from American foreign policy to IR—international relations.  What happened in terms of my professional development I started as a teaching assistant organizing sections, study groups, for the lectures in American foreign policy and I found that when I was leading the discussion I would organize it around ethical questions.  Because I found that students were interested in it.

LES: Which is not common to traditional international relations studies to focus on the ethical questions.

ROSENTHAL: No it’s not common at all but if you think about it from an American foreign policy perspective, so something like: how do you justify or would you justify the use of an atomic weapon; discuss. Or how would you justify, can you justify intervening and under what circumstances?  What do we mean by human rights? What is a human rights policy? So you can see there was a whole series of questions and that’s how I started to make a connection between ethics and international relations.  And as I moved from the history of American foreign policy into international relations I realized that the normative questions, ethical questions, it was sort of a difficult area because of the way the discipline went.  So that’s how I got into the area. I said there’s a space here to develop those normative approaches to international relations.  Again, my background was from an American perspective but as I was moving along I was trying to do it from a more global perspective.

LES: Do you think that since you were interested in the American perspective did the position of the United States as a global player sort of influence why some of these other questions were coming up about interventionism or the ethics of nuclear warfare etc.  Did that stem from the sort of current issues?

ROSENTHAL: Yes, you have to remember that I am of the Cold War generation.  So as I come into all of this it’s really at the depths of the Cold War and the issues that were being discussed were the question of deterrence; nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons systems, could they be ever, I don’t want to say abolished but at least a de-emphasis in some way.

LES: Tamed?

ROSENTHAL: Tamed in some way.  In some ways there’s an analogy to the environmental crisis now as it’s sort of seen as a survival question.  But I come into it at that time frame and it’s also a question of the use of American power.  The United States, at that point it’s a bipolar world.  And then as time goes by we come to the question of unipolar, perhaps with a question mark, but the idea that the United States is, we eventually get to, the indispensable nation.  We get to the Clinton years again perhaps with a question mark.  This is my perspective on things that the United States is a strong if not the strongest power.  So there’s the ethical question of how that power will be used.

LES: Responsibly so to speak.


LES: So you finished you doctorate at Yale University and did you go into a teaching position or did you come straight to the Carnegie Council? What was your career trajectory?

ROSENTHAL: I really came fairly quickly here. As I was finishing at Yale I did some teaching. So I’ve always been kind of a hybrid because shortly after I came here I began to do some teaching as an adjunct at NYU and I was very grateful for that opportunity.  So I’ve always felt like I had one foot in the classroom as it were in teaching.  Then here also one foot in the sort of generation of we’ll call it research with a research agenda in this field.  So while I’ve been one foot in one foot out of academe I feel pretty closely connected to it.

LES: And the two really feed into each other, maybe you could tell us a bit more about the work of the Carnegie Council and what is it that the Carnegie Council does?  For me knowing about the Carnegie Council it seems an obvious fit for you but perhaps tell the audience a bit more to understand why.

ROSENTHAL: Right, it’s an interesting transition.  One of the things I realized when I got here there was a sort of advantage from an educational perspective.  The Carnegie Council is an educational institution.  That’s its purpose.  We create educational opportunities for people, we create literature in this field, we convene, we publish, we broadcast.  So it’s really academic in nature although it’s really a kind of lifelong learning rather than academic per se.  One of the things that I realized when I arrived is there’s a powerful educational opportunity by bringing in not only scholars who have devoted their lives to studying various issues and have them speak to issues of the moment, issues of global concern, but also bringing in I’ll call them practitioners—although I don’t really like that term but people who have worked a problem.

LES: Doers, policy makers.

ROSENTHAL: Doers, ‘I’ve worked a problem.  I’ve been in the financial world and I’ve worked on this issue, sanctions’; ‘I’ve been a professional military officer and I’ve been in peacekeeping missions’; ‘I’ve worked at the UN and I’ve worked in diplomacy of this type for my career’; ‘I’ve been a journalist and I’ve covered these issues’; I’ve been a not for profit executive or field officer and I’ve done relief operations’ and so on.  So you can just keep going.  But this is real life experience of working a problem and I realized that the Carnegie Council could be an important place where that knowledge is transferred in some ways and lessons learned.

LES: Yes and it seems in some ways an issue we run up against in the field of global affairs the department where I come from is that you really want things to be multidisciplinary as you say but often in academia you have these constraints of ‘in this department you deal with this and only this’ and that’s one aspect.  The other aspect is that there’s a very nationalized bent to it so you’re doing international relations in the United States for some obvious reasons and then also for reasons that it happens to be where you are situated you’re going to be very focused on the United States.  So then did the Carnegie Council also open up that side for you the multidisciplinary side but also in maybe bringing in global voices, voices from around the world?

ROSENTHAL: Right a couples things.  One is multidisciplinary for sure and to you see that to ask and answer the kinds of questions that we’re interested in it has to be multidisciplinary. The other is multi-professional to see that there’s something really powerful going on there when you get people to look at a similar issue but from their different positions.

LES: To sort of not be stuck in an idea itself and asking is it actually practicable, how does it play out?

ROSENTHAL: Right and then also the last point you suggested–and I know we’re doing a lot but it’s good to have ambition–to put it in a global perspective.  Just to give you an example I just spoke this morning to a group they’re all Americans but they have different experiences in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. And they formed a group and they’re studying together and they’re actually travelling to Israel and Palestine together as a way to learn.  And it’s part of their intellectual formation.  And so we had a great conversation talking about pluralism and peace and conflict resolution and rights and then also the conflict itself.  But then I realized there’s also another dimension to it which is that at some level this is a local and regional problem but it’s also very much a universal problem.  And that’s another dimension that Carnegie Council can provide to look at specific issues both in their specificity but to see them as universal issues.  So if you look at our themes like war, like global social justice, or even things like corruption or these ethical themes you can see them at play in specific areas or specific instances and cases.  But you can also see them as universal human problems.

LES: Yes and you’re very active in seeking out and integrating and providing these sort of thought forums.  You have yourGlobal Ethics Fellows programs which brings together professors from all over the world, Carnegie Council has been hosting a series of events and especially as part of your Centennial events you were in Japan and Greece and all over I couldn’t keep up with you!

ROSENTHAL: That’s a really good example so right so some of the power of this kind of work is to be able to provide a global perspective. And for scholars, students, but also concerned citizens to say ok we have our local and regional challenges but we can see them in a global perspective. Just one brief example you were in Japan and I know one of the issues that was discussed there was the issue of the future of atomic nuclear energy.  So Japan has special resonance for historical reasons—the site of the only use of the atomic weapon, which resonates but also the more recent tragedy in Fukushima.  So Japan has a certain experience that it’s important to think about nuclear issues from an energy perspective…

LES: Which is an issue the world over, right?

ROSENTHAL: Yes. Again one area I think that the Carnegie Council can provide some value added just ensure that these are issue areas of concern to Japan and to the region but that they also resonate globally.  And that we can get people from around the world to participate and investigate in some conversation about these issues.

LES: One more question relating to the Carnegie Council and then we’ll move on more specifically to your own work.  Interesting to scholars of global affairs is the shift from international affairs to what we would say is global affairs.  So there’s more emphasis on non-state actors and how they relate to each other, how corporate actors relate to others and whether or not states can tame them, the idea of failed states versus progressive states.  So how does the Carnegie Council manage that shift from international affairs to global affairs?  Not to say that the international isn’t important but how to you bridge those two worlds so to speak?

ROSENTHAL: Well thank you for asking that and I think that the answer is sort of embedded in your question in some way which is good.  But I think that’s right for Carnegie Council to get beyond very traditional and conventional ways of thinking about international relations which is state-centric

LES: Already by your title you have something distinguishing Ethics in International Affairs and often people don’t put the two together.

ROSENTHAL: Right and we’ve been using this phrase during our centennial period “ethics for a connected world”. In that we realize that our connections often are not really bound up in again state or territory or national identity but we all belong to networks that are transnational in some way. And that when we think about what connects us it’s not so much the traditional passport or if you think about it in terms of diplomacy even that term diplomacy where it’s Washington on one end and Moscow somewhere else and so on.  Where is international relations today?  We’re connected by the internet.  We’re connected by the global climate. We’re connected by the global economy.  Just the way we live our lives are connected in ways that are not necessarily national and that doesn’t mean that states don’t matter or it doesn’t mean that they’re not still the most powerful players but there is a different dimension in terms of human identity and sort of how you live your life empirically which is connected.  And we’re trying to capture that in some way and that’s why I do think that the term global is catching on for a reason because international doesn’t quite grab it.

LES: Yes, all those key aspects.

ROSENTHAL: Right and we’ve talked about this before that even the way people conceive of their identity.  Sure national identity if you survey people I am guessing comes up pretty high but there are other identities whether it’s religious…

LES: Even national identities where now people in a globalized world it’s so easy to have parents coming from different places and for you yourself to have lived and worked in a variety of places and so to identify

ROSENTHAL:  Exactly so I think more it is complex.  Again I am enough of a realist to think that states matter and states mattera lot and it’s still where the action is in a lot of ways but it is incomplete if you think of just a state to state kind of world.

Part II.  A Reconceptualization of a Realist Framework in Global and International Affairs

LES: That leads into the first question I wanted to start with related to your own work.  You describe yourself as a realist but you do it in a qualified way that often scholars wouldn’t necessarily associate with realism.  But what you say makes sense that you’re a realist who sees that there’s something about realism in understanding that relationships are cooperative.  They’re not just competitive. So sometimes because your interests are tied in with those of other people it’s in your interest to act cooperatively.  So if you take this as a starting point for thinking about international relations or thinking about ethics, behaving ethically towards other people, what is the benefit of starting with that rather than some of the more conventional frames like competition for instance, both for policy makers and academics?

ROSENTHAL: It’s kind of a basic insight which is from a pragmatic perspective to think of working with human nature and not against it.  But to have a full and complete understanding of what constitutes human nature.

LES: So in a way it’s more realistic than an alternative of competition.

ROSENTHAL: I think so.  Again, human beings act on their perceived interests and my view is that we should work with and not against that from an ethics perspective because some of that we could say goes right to altruism, magnanimity and that’s fine but that’s not how to build a system. It’s part of human nature but I don’t think it is determinative.  So people act in their interests and what I try to understand is how do we define our interests? And rather than see interests as being self-evident and self-executing this is my concern with a lot of realists it just posits interests. Period. It is like a black box.  Interests. Maximizing power. Maximizing utility. I don’t think that’s right.  I think our interests are what we say they are. I think interests is socially constructed.  I am not really a postmodernist but I think there’s a moment here to say, what are our interests? We define what our interests are, they’re not just given to us. So that’s one point of entry into realism.

LES: And that’s maybe where some of your background with philosophy and political science could bring these things together rather than addressing it in a contained fashion.

ROSENTHAL: Yes again starting very simply Adam Smith.  I am just now echoing Amartya Sen and he says it better than I can but if you look into his new introduction to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments

LES: Which you introduced me to by the way.

ROSENTHAL: Good always teaching

LES: Yes

ROSENTHAL: But he just makes the point about Smith that Smith is often misunderstood as being a sort of crude realist.  The idea being that it’s all about maximizing power and so on. If you actually look at Smith in the first chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments, in the first paragraph.  The chapter is called “Of Sympathy” and that first paragraph in that first chapter is that the first thing you have to understand about your own interests is that they’re bound up with the interests of other people and to have some nuanced view of interest.  It’s more about exchange.  It’s not just about your interests and my interests in competition it’s a more complicated thing.

LES: And maybe actually we learn a valuable lesson from Adam Smith in the sense that we focus so much on The Wealth of Nations that we really missed the other important piece Theory of Moral Sentiments and one really shouldn’t work without the other. He wasn’t thinking that way however we tend to compartmentalize and separate these things whereas your work and maybe the work of the Carnegie Council is to bring those together.

ROSENTHAL: Right.  And my version of realism I’d like to think of as emphasizing enlightened self-interest. Meaning the enlightened part is understanding the interests of others, how that exchange works, some notion of reciprocity, some notion of fairness and these other ethical dimensions like rights.  These kinds of things that they’re not exclusive from interests but part of the way we think about our interests.

Part III. Pluralism in Global and International Affairs

LES: The next question I have for you is a little more complicated and difficult. The idea of pluralism comes through in all of your work as a very important notion. It makes sense because you want to bring in ideas from around the world, you want to be open to hearing everything so that you can make the best decision.  This idea of pluralism makes a lot of sense but often the hairiest and most complex conflicts that we have in the world is trying to deal with fundamentalists who they themselves don’t relate to some sort of a pluralist vision.  Their ideology is tied into a set and fixed way and they don’t really want to accept other ways. How then being a pluralist and being a good sort of liberal in the sense that you want to justify your actions, how do you tackle a problem like the Islamic State while still staying principled?

ROSENTHAL: Great question you’ve gotten to the heart of the problem in the sense what’s difficult about this approach.  So what happens when your approach emphasizes pluralism but you’re running into others who don’t recognize that? I think that the first step is to recognize some degree of humility and say yes there is some sort of an impasse there.  Again this is why I consider myself a realist I do think that there is an intractable problem there.  Now the question is how much of that is really out there?  Do we tend to exaggerate that? Certainly there’s ISIS and there are other religious, primarily religious, fundamentalist groups.  What the percentage of this is I don’t know and how much mayhem they’re causing.

LES: Yes but we can think of a handful of conflicts where it’s very important, ISIS or I think of the situation in Myanmar where the Buddhist majority is targeting Rohingya.

ROSENTHAL: Right and here’s where I sort of get into trouble with the more pacifist crowd.  There are some groups that need to be confronted there’s just no way around it. Where we have to draw a line for ourselves and say this is just not acceptable and then again there are situations where we don’t.  So from my perspective if you ask what can we do about it, the first thing is we try to understand it.  But at some point you reach this intractable place where you don’t accept it.

LES: A decision has to be made.

ROSENTHAL: Yes and I think sometimes the best you can achieve is agree to disagree and try to contain the negativity to the extent possible.  This is what reinforces some of the more realist tendencies that I have where you run across groups that say they want to kill you.  There’s not a lot you can do with that to try to understand it and perhaps to put a fence around it and take a very long-term approach to try to get to some sort of mutual recognition.  But if someone is not going to recognize you or your humanity or your right to exist that’s a problem you have to plant your flag somewhere.

LES: Yeah I suppose you could say that it enables the idea of pluralism.  You have to have some limits or else it stops being useful because if everything goes then nothing is valuable nothing is defensible.

ROSENTHAL: I agree and I think when you, you know from a philosophical perspective if you see a regime or a leader or a group that is promoting cruelty and inhumanity to some extent it’s a moral obligation to resist it.  There’s a limit to any principle and pluralism has its.

Part IV. Challenges of the Iran Deal 

LES: So then last question relating to your work that I want to address.  You recently wrote a very thought provoking piece if I may say on the Iran Deal. And you were cautiously skeptical if we can say that over whether or not the deal would be successful. So maybe in terms of these principles that you value, realism and pluralism, could you say a little bit about how the Iran deal measures up?

ROSENTHAL: Sure and I can build it off of the answer I just gave you about mutual recognition or reciprocity. Part of my skepticism about the deal was the structure of it.  Which extracted the nuclear question from a much bigger set of issues. There’s a significant ongoing, fairly hot, set of conflicts in the region where Iran is a major player. And the way the deal is structured is that they will continue to be a major player without having made any, no concessions whatsoever outside of monitoring their nuclear ambitions and there’s a time limit on that. Were I to have some input in this I would have liked to have seen what Henry Kissinger called some linkage to issues of recognition or issues of some perhaps even if it’s a benign statement of non-belligerency in certain areas.  I don’t think that it’s controversial to say that Iran has been funding and sponsoring certain forms of terrorism.

LES: So you would have liked to see some concessions some sort of formal promise to cease and desist as it were before moving forward?

ROSENTHAL: Yeah or some at least even benign statement of intent.  But my understanding any time I raised the issue is that they would never agree to that. So, again when people say well what’s the alternative, that would have been my alternative to say let’s put this into a somewhat broader thought what are we trying to achieve here.  As we were talking before I hope that I am wrong about this but it’s not the usual course that arms control will lead a kind of rapprochement it usually follows a rapprochement.  So let’s hope that this is a new precedent

LES: Yet we have some good reasons to be cautious

ROSENTHAL: Yeah be a little bit cautious about that.  It’s also not controversial to say, Obama has said it himself, that now that the agreements in place it will require more attention to the areas that the pentagon has been concerned about.  Everything from the use of proxy forces, ballistic missiles, cyber war.  I mean this happens in all kinds of conflicts.  So there will be more attention to these non-nuclear issues rather than less. But let’s hope—and I understand the argument for—that this creates a basis to build on. There are a lot of regional questions that could benefit from some cooperation between Iran and the United States and its allies.  It would have been nice to get some signal that that will happen but it seems quite the opposite.  So we’ll see.

LES: It’s a tricky balance I suppose in international affairs to want to engage with people and to negotiate with people but at the same time that you’re doing that you’re fostering and facilitating their power structure so you have to be careful about how you go about that. Is this a little bit of what your point is?

ROSENTHAL:   Yeah and it’s also a major issue in engagement in general and it’s an unanswerable question and it’s a fascinating one intellectually which is at some point you need to engage those who oppose you but at some level at some point are you enabling them and are you granting them credibility and legitimacy.  It’s a very fine line and unanswerable in any specific way.

LES: Yes but that’s something people need to keep in mind as they’re negotiating or evaluating.

ROSENTHAL: Yeah what the balance is and I think you can make a credible case either way.  It’s not an easy call.  So as we were discussing before I give President Obama credit for his courage and his conviction that this is the next step but I think that there is significant historical precedent and we have reason to be concerned about the legitimating the nuclear program, legitimating the regime, and empowering them in certain ways through the relief of sanctions.  So I think that those who oppose have a legitimate case. I do regret the polarization of the political debate, the all or nothing. And no middle ground which I think is unfortunate.


LES: We’ll conclude with one last question.


LES: If you had advice for scholars entering into the field of ethics and international affairs or global affairs what advice would you give to them on important research projects or what is important for them to remember as emerging scholars coming into the field?

ROSENTHAL: For scholars I think first of all you have to master a literature and that’s always important but based on my experience to also sort of try to reach out to those who have worked the issues that you are studying and to get some empirical feel for that.  What it’s like practically on the ground.  I think that’s important.  I think it’s also more possible than ever to get a global perspective on whatever issue you’re looking at and to make the effort to do that.  So it’s an exciting time in many ways.  There’s a lot more opportunity and capacity to be as we were discussing before multidisciplinary, multi-professional, and global.  To me that’s what’s exciting about the field and I hope that scholars who are coming up would grab that opportunity.

LES: Thank you.

ROSENTHAL: Thank you.

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