A World of Gray

Countries should pursue what the great international-relations scholar Hedley Bull called “purposes beyond ourselves.” But the real world is a place of gray shades, and more often than not the cause of human decency and security will be better served by recognizing and working around that constraint rather than challenging it head on.

CANBERRA – Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident turned president, and North Korean despot Kim Jong-il might have lived on different planets, for all their common commitment to human dignity, rights, and democracy. When they died just a day apart this month, the contrast was hard for the global commentariat to resist: Prague’s prince of light against Pyongyang’s prince of darkness.

But it is worth remembering that Manichaean good-versus-evil typecasting, to which former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were famously prone, and of which we have had something of a resurgence in recent days, carries with it two big risks for international policymakers.

One risk is that such thinking limits the options for dealing effectively with those who are cast as irredeemably evil. The debacle of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 should have taught us once and for all the peril of talking only through the barrel of a gun to those whose behavior disgusts us.

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