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The case for moral realism : morality and interests in understanding Australian foreign policy

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Brostrom, JA (2015) The case for moral realism : morality and interests in understanding Australian foreign policy. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

This thesis seeks to make an original contribution towards understanding the position of morality in classical realism. To do so it develops the notion of “moral realism” as an explanatory framework to help understand why (and when) nations tend to act morally in their foreign policy choices. Three factors are identified that form the moral realist framework: (i) expectations of reciprocity between states; (ii) rational choice in calculating foreign policy decisions; and (iii) moral and material outcomes of foreign policy. The central argument of the thesis is that when states choose to act morally, they can stand to gain material benefits in return. To demonstrate this, the thesis applies moral realism to the foreign policy of Australia in three important areas: aid and development, humanitarian operations, and strategic alliances. It finds that – in the Australian case – moral outcomes were more likely when they also converged with material interests.
Scholarly interest in how morality can be theorized has increased following the revival of classical realism in contemporary International Relations theory. But instead of this revival being an opportunity to revisit classical realism’s insights on understanding morality by the consequences of states choosing to act morally, recent scholarship has been dominated by normative and critical school approaches. I argue that this has contributed to a misrepresentation of classical realism’s core methodological and theoretical principles. This is where this thesis makes its main theoretical contribution. It addresses the lack of classical realist perspectives by presenting a way of understanding morality that remains within classical realist theory and method. My own offering, which I term moral realism, is consequentialist rather than normative, and has been developed by a careful examination of the ideas of three key classical realist scholars – Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Through an examination of Morgenthau, Kennan and Niebuhr, I detect three shared ideas used to characterize moral realism that are then applied to understand the foreign policy choices of states: expectations of reciprocity; rational choice; and moral and material outcomes. These three factors are then applied to a specific case study of foreign policy: in this thesis, to Australian foreign policy choices. This allows the thesis to assess whether or not moral realism is a valuable tool for understanding morality in foreign policy.
I find that moral realism is capable of explaining Australia’s foreign policy choices, and thus represents a valuable contribution towards understanding the role of morality in explaining its policy decision-making. I find that Australia was primarily motived by calculations of expectations of reciprocity in each of the arenas under review. At the same time, a rational choice process helped inform when Australia chose to include morality as part of its foreign policy decisions. This indicates that moral and material outcomes were likely, which reinforced the core claim of a moral realist approach.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Moral realism and understanding Australian foreign policy choices
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2015 the author

Date Deposited: 11 Nov 2016 04:19
Last Modified: 03 Nov 2017 16:00
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