Getting Our Way: The Ethics of National Interest

On 5 February, the McDonald Centre hosted a remarkable colloquiuim on national interest and foreign policy. Inspired by Sir Christopher Meyer’s book, Getting Our Way, the colloquiuim was co-sponsored with the Royal Institute for International Relations at Chatham House and the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict. Meyer, who was formerly HM’s Ambassador to the United States, is currently presenting on the topic in a new BBC series. If you missed the broadcast, you can watch the full series online via BBC iPlayer

The title of the book and TV programme—Getting Our Way—can be seen as one symptom of the current lurch away from liberal idealism back toward realism in foreign policy. The post-invasion woes of Iraq are widely held to have writ large the imprudent and hubristic folly of trying to ‘save the world’ for liberal democracy, and to counsel more modest and self-regarding ambitions in the future. Participants at the McDonald Centre colloquium discussed, in light of this, whether this means an end to an ethical foreign policy. Must the new realism be brutally selfish? Or are we forever fated to bounce back and forth between absolutist Kant and cynical Hobbes, or can national self-interest itself be morally obligatory?

In addition to Meyer, participants included professors from Oxford, Chatham House, the LSE, and St Andrew’s (Nigel Biggar, Paul Cornish, Gwyn Prins, and Nick Rengger), Major General Tim Cross (ret), and Jeremy Hill, former ambassador to Lithuania and Bulgaria, as well as others from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defense. The day’s programme is available here.