The Seven Deadly Sins of Foreign Policy

Lust, sloth, and wrath are even worse when states do them -- right, Machiavelli?


Everyone knows people are supposed to be moral, to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, and so on. But what about states — do they need to be moral, too?

Early Christian and medieval scholars worried over how individuals could lead holy lives if they did not live in a secure state. After all, people wouldn’t go to church on Sunday if an inconvenient horde of pillaging Visigoths was planning to sweep in that afternoon. The meek are promised in scripture that they will inherit the earth, but these were times when the powerful and well-armed had gotten there first. Medieval writers like Augustine and Aquinas acknowledged that states could commit immoral acts — but only to protect order and keep citizens safe. In other words, killing an infidel here and there was better than allowing civilization to fall.

However, later scholars proved substantially less squeamish. For political theorists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, sin in the international sphere was permitted, if not explicitly required. With lessons such as "any injury done to a man must be such that there is no need to fear his revenge," Machiavelli was down with the dark side. Hobbes, too, provided justifications for nations to run amok. In the state of nature, or the war of every man against every man, "nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustices have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues." Bad wasn’t just good — it was necessary.

Today, international relations theorists don’t theorize about sin, but interest. At the core of realism, arguably the dominant school of IR, is the belief that wise statesmen will act amorally as opposed to immorally. In other words, they will act according to their interest, defined not by good or ill but by the amount of relative power they have in the system. Liberal IR scholars tend to downplay sin altogether, arguing that that the interconnectivity of states will foster cooperation, good governance, and peace.

But is sin an area that we’ve neglected at our peril? After all, a key thing to recognize is just how evil a state can be, compared to an individual. With armies, bureaucracies, technology and a citizenry to tax and exploit, a state’s capacity to commit sin, once its policies are committed to it, is truly global.

In Christianity, the Seven Deadly Sins are believed to erode and destroy the spirit, leading an individual on the path to damnation. So what happens when a state engages in these behaviors?

1. Lust

From Helen of Troy to Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties, lust has brought down rulers, emperors, and empires. But lust has an even bigger role to play than clouding the judgment of individual rulers.

For many years, demographers have warned that unmarried, sexually frustrated men in countries with severe gender imbalances may cause violence and instability. Now, in China, which is expected to have up to 30 million more men than women by 2020, that effect has already begun to take hold. A 2007 study by the Institute for the Study of Labor argued that the gender imbalance in China is strongly linked to a dramatic increase in crime between 1988 and 2004, accountable for one-seventh of offenses. Crime rose at an annual rate of 13.6 percent, with the overwhelming majority of offenders between the ages of 16 and 25. In 2000, 90 percent of arrests in China were reportedly men.

What’s more, research by Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea Den Boer suggests that high sex ratio societies cannot be expected to emulate normal sex ratio societies either in terms of government or in terms of their tendency towards peacefulness. Observing that these societies simply have a different security calculus, they suggest that there is a poor prognosis for "full" democracy in these countries — they are much more likely to move toward authoritarianism. A list of countries with the highest gender imbalances between 2000 and 2005 includes China, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, South Korea, India, Serbia, and Belarus. With some exceptions, these are not the freest and fairest of democracies, suggesting that untrammeled lust does hinder egalitarianism.

2. Gluttony

The United States has to look within when it comes to this particular sin, with 27 percent of Americans obese and 36 percent overweight. But, according to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults were overweight. Of these, over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese.

But gluttony goes beyond expanding waistlines. Presently, the developed world is competing with the BRICs for resources like kids fighting for Halloween candy. In 2011, the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Program estimated that, by 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels, and biomass per year — three times current consumption. Noting the growth of population and prosperity of developing countries, the report warned that future demand would be "far beyond what is likely sustainable."

The Christian concern with gluttony was the selfishness it fostered — that the poor would be denied their share of scarce resources. And although great strides may have been made in lifting millions out of poverty in recent years, the World Bank estimates that 1 billion people will still live in poverty (that is, less than $1.25 per day) in 2015. With only five countries spending the bank’s recommended 0.7 percent of GDP on development assistance, gluttony in the traditional sense is clearly alive and well.

3. Greed

Greed, simply, is having much and wanting more — a behavior that is not exactly difficult to find in the international sphere. It is rich OPEC countries setting an inflated price for oil. It is Vladimir Putin stealing your Superbowl ring.

Historically, greed and war have gone hand in hand: the grabby invasions, annexations, and colonizations of conquerors from Napoleon to Hitler to Saddam Hussein. But if, as we are frequently told, the world is indeed becoming more peaceful overall, and old-school invasions are going out of style, what’s the role of greed in international politics today?

In fact, although there might be fewer conflicts today, greed and war are still closely intertwined — if perhaps in new ways. David Keen wrote in 1998 that civil wars persist when individuals and groups have rational incentives to keep them going or when the apparent "chaos" of civil wars can be used to further local, short-term interests. Or, as he paraphrases Clausewitz, "war has increasingly become the continuation of economics by other means," creating a space for actors to develop alternative systems of profit, power, and protection.

There is plenty of scope for profit in economies that develop around war: Army units and rebel forces may develop links to smuggling networks, or benefit from looting civilians or by demanding protection payments. They may also extort money from humanitarian aid groups, as has often been the case in Somalia, or take hostages and demand millions of dollars in ransom.

While blood diamonds as a source of funds are relatively well known, entrepreneurship in conflict zones is evolving. In 2012, the New York Times alleged that the Ugandan Army, Congolese Army, and new South Sudan Army, not to mention al-Shabab, the Sudanese Janjaweed, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are taking advantage of Central African to smuggle ivory. Twenty-two elephants were found killed with their tusks missing in Congo’s Garamba Park in June 2012, and LRA escapees indicated that the order to attack elephants came directly from Joseph Kony, according to an FP report.

In short, greed transforms violence into opportunity.

4. Sloth

For the religious, sloth means spiritual laziness: the indolent refusal to cultivate virtue and grow closer to God. Similarly, sloth on an international level goes beyond lazy politicians or even international institutions (what was the last thing you did, U.N. Conference on Disarmament?) and encompasses the indolent refusal to cultivate a state’s virtue — or at least some well-balanced GDP growth.

The best example of this comes along with the so-called "resource curse," whereby states blessed with an abundance of natural resources become lazy and slothful. Why worry about innovation when you are sitting on an ocean of oil? These states feel they can just take it easy.

But there is good reason to worry. Given the volatile prices and revenue streams that dominate the extractive industries, there can be serious consequences when demand drops.

This is a problem that has famously affected Venezuela for decades. As the global economy was battered by the 1970s oil crisis, Venezuela, with some of the world’s largest oil deposits, benefited greatly from skyrocketing prices. But once the price of oil began to fall, corruption, inequality, and catastrophic mismanagement of the economy began to take its toll. The country’s failure to manage its oil wealth created the conditions for Hugo Chavez to come to power. Yet when presented with another oil boom in the 2000s, Chavez invested the profits in military equipment and televisions for the poor, rather than in projects that would generate economic growth. Recently, Venezuela has borrowed up to $40 billion dollars from China, to be paid back in oil, not money. Slothful habits, it would seem, die hard.

5. Wrath

If you’re going to be wrathful, Machiavelli said, do it right: "Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge." In other words, if you are going to hit someone, hit them hard, or they will hit you harder.

This maxim has held true in modern times. The Japanese failed to deliver a decisive strike to the Americans at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and suffered the wrath of U.S. military might thereafter. The failure of either Iran or Iraq to deliver a decisive blow against the other resulted in a drawn-out war lasting most of the 1980s and inflicting over 1 million casualties. And America’s failure to knock out the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 means that country faces an uncertain future after the departure of coalition troops in 2014.

Clearly, Machiavelli was right to warn aspiring princes of the danger posed by wrath. But then again, he was a man who experienced the wrath of the powerful Medici family when he was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly conspiring against them — not a happy fate.

6. Envy

Envy may be a sin that more states — or at least their oppressed inhabitants — should indulge in. After all, a North Korean song proudly boasts that "We have nothing to envy in the world" and look how well that has worked out.

Arguably, it’s envy of the freedoms enjoyed by those living in the West that has inspired revolutionaries to stand up for human rights and democracy. The coveting of freedoms enjoyed by others inspired the authors of the Czechoslovakian Charter ’77 and Chinese Charter ’08. And a similar sentiment inspired some who participated in the Arab Spring protests — even if subsequent developments have not always worked out in their favor. Of course, envy doesn’t mean love: the Arab Spring wasn’t motivated by love for the West, but desire to share in the best of its institutions and freedoms. In 2011, Marc Lynch quoted an Al Jazeera talk-show host who opened his program with the lament, "Why does every nation on Earth move to change their conditions except for us? Why do we always submit to the batons of the rulers and their repression? How long will Arabs wait for foreign saviors?"

7. Pride

Augustine teaches that pride is the root of all sin, as it is loving the self rather than loving God that leads people astray. But what about states? If pride on a state level translates into nationalism, it’s pretty clear from the last century that this sin can get deadly really fast.

Then again, a certain amount of nationalism is crucial for states to exist: the love of country that gives citizens pride in their institutions and leads them to vote and volunteer. Whereas in the medieval period the state was seen as a kind of necessary evil, by the 19th century the belief that the state could be a force for good began to take hold. The work of G.W.F. Hegel put forward the idea that an ethical state is necessary so an individual can flourish in a civil society, regarded as a citizen and equal. The Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini argued that nationality is what makes liberty and equality possible for individuals. John Stuart Mill’s liberal nationalism led him to view the issue through "self-determination" — that is, the right of self-regarding peoples (at least Western peoples) to form their own state as an act of popular will.

For these thinkers, pride in culture, language, and shared history unites a nation and helps it to flourish. In other words, there is a reason we cheer for Rocky to pound that Ruskie. For Bond to shoot for Queen and Country and those Asterix guys to beat the Romans. Surely love of country can be expressed in innocent ways — say, with a Kenny Loggins soundtrack playing in the background.


Without a Hobbesian hegemon to keep our world in check, the Seven Deadly Sins are reminders that states, like people, need to do right to do well. But Hobbes and Machiavelli would be the first to remind us that the states that turn the other cheek will likely end up with two sore cheeks. In a time when even the Vatican’s banks are under investigation for corruption, sin is here to stay.

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