U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left (Chapter 6)

RawlsUniversalism with a Pluralistic Face: John Rawls on International Relations

by Brad Baranowski

Brad Baranowski is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation explores the rebirth of political philosophy in the mid-twentieth century United States that attended John Rawls’s publication of A Theory of Justice. The project traces Rawls’s writing of A Theory of Justice as well as the debates and paths of influence it spawned in the U.S., UK, France, Germany, and Belgium. 

In his New Left Review essays on U.S. foreign policy and its theorists, Perry Anderson examines how intellectual traditions that have attracted policy makers over the past seventy years have been remarkably similar. Despite changes in the domestic political winds, the U.S. ship of state has sailed a fairly straight path in international affairs, a mix of realist and Wilsonian principles consistently keeping it on its course. The list of intellectuals and figures that have critiqued this blend of principles is long but typically not noted on it is the political philosopher John Rawls. Called by Michael Walzer “America’s social democratic philosopher,” Rawls was always ill at ease with attempts to nail down the practical implications of his philosophy. And yet, he combined insights from his thoughts on the topics of justice and pluralism to craft his own take on international relations. In my post I highlight Rawls’s criticism of actions related to US foreign relations as well as the key principles he eventually formulated as alternatives to the traditions Anderson explores.

Rawls is known to most as the author of A Theory of Justice (1971). An instant classic in political philosophy, A Theory of Justice laid out principles that should guide a society’s basic institutions in order for it to be just. While he spent the bulk of his career after his opus’s publication defending and elaborating on these principles, this effort was part of a larger project dedicated to showing how ethics, morals, and politics could be grounded in shared reasons—that is, justifications that “reasonable”individuals would agree to upon their discussion and reflection. [1] Value judgments were not merely long shadows that the powerful cast over the weak to keep them in the dark. Nor were they personal preferences disguised as universal doctrines. In Rawls’s language, morals were guided by a sense of reasonableness, one that was based in shared moral senses like empathy and shame. Justice, for example, ultimately rested on a collective feeling of fairness. While based on moral psychology and not the precise postulates of logical, theological, or metaphysical systems, Rawls thought these moral senses no less objective and, thus, generalizable. [2]

International relations hardly entered the picture of justice that A Theory of Justice painted. Rather, Rawls limited his five-hundred page tome to the problem of finding guiding principles for a hypothetically isolated, or “closed,” society. The aim was to generate ideals that reality could be tested against—to see what sorts of rules people would agree to use as standards to judge existing laws and institutions. To find these, Rawls created a thought experiment known as “the veil of ignorance.” What sort of society would you want to live in, Rawls asked his readers, if the information you knew about your place there was severely curtailed? What ideals would you want guiding key institutions such as the economy, the court system, and legislatures to function if you did not know your gender or race identification, class position, or intellectual and religious dispositions? Rawls wagered that you would choose principles that treat everyone fairly, regardless of where they land in life since you could end up on the down and outs. The outcome would be, in Rawls’s language, a “well-ordered society” that affords the greatest opportunity for society’s least advantaged to realize their goals. This he called his “difference principle.”

Keeping the thought experiment confined to a closed society allowed Rawls to control for variables such as the level of resources (this was a place of“moderate” scarcity) and think about issues of stability without worrying about the influence of competing nations. While the treatise contained much in the way of universalistic reasoning, its principles ultimately applied to rather specific cases: industrialized countries with reliable access to natural resources and fairly abundant sources of agricultural goods. This was in keeping with Rawls’s general belief, often overlooked, that reasoning about values is ultimately comparative; we weigh the moral pros and cons of competing principles in choosing political standards, not create new ones out of thin air. Even behind Rawls’s infamous veil of ignorance, readers were invited to compare the principles of justice as fairness against those of utilitarianism and other alternatives. “The correct regulative principle for anything,” Rawls wrote, “depends on the nature of that thing.” [3] For all the demurring about its lack of sense of history, A Theory of Justice was ultimately aimed at nations such as the industrial democracies such as the United States.

This worried Rawls. If the principles of A Theory of Justice were limited to historically particular cases, what of his concern with the universal basis of moral claims? More concretely, what ideals regulate the relations between a “well-ordered society” that follows Rawls’s principles and its neighbors? Should the former, being the embodiment of justice à la its fair-minded institutions, abide injustices among the latter? If justice ultimately applied to humans qua humans, not humans as members of a particular state or community, wasn’t it the duty of those nations that came closer to its ideals to guide those that did not? [4]

These were not only philosophical problems. Nations towards which Rawls’s principles applied had committed morally reprehensible acts against other countries multiple times over the course of his life. Worse yet, these actions had often occurred under the pretense of defending justice and democracy. Rawls need look no further than his native land and to his own experiences for evidence of this.

Into the second decade of tinkering with the ideas and drafts that would become A Theory of Justice, Rawls watched as the United States entered into its own quagmire with Vietnam. In 1968 Rawls spoke to students at Harvard about his sentiments on the conflict. At an anti-war rally among speakers such as his friend and former MIT colleague, Noam Chomsky, and fellow Harvard philosopher, Rogers Albritton, Rawls detailed the reasons why the young listeners standing before him had a right to resist the draft. They boiled down to the fact that the war itself was unjust and that claims otherwise were wrong. Rawls recited two grounds for this charge: first, there was no just cause for the U.S.’s initiated entry into Vietnam; and second, that “our armed forces engage in actions which violate the limits on the appropriate means of waging war.” Rawls coupled these grounds with historical facts he deemed essential to evaluating the situation. The Republic of Vietnam had established itself under Ho Chi Minh through, Rawls noted, an “exclusively indigenous political process” that was self-sustaining for half a year; when the French later attempted to re-establish colonial control, the Vietnamese “liberated themselves” under Communist leadership; and the “resistance to the regime in South Vietnam has been very importantly, if not largely, in the south.” Rhetoric casting the war as just—as a defense of democracy against the expansion of communism—was simply morally illegitimate, denying the ability of one people to establish a decent society by another. Thus students not only had a right to resist service in Vietnam; it was their duty to do so. [5]

Later in life, Rawls reflected on a war in which he had actually been involved. From 1943 to 1946, Rawls served in the U.S. army in the Pacific Theater. Not only did he witness the savage fighting of the Philippines he also witnessed the logical conclusion of “total war”as his company travelled through the scorched shell of Hiroshima during the occupation. The dropping of the atomic bombs on this city and Nagasaki, along with the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden and countless other incidents of targeting civilian centers by the Allies were “great evils.” They demonstrated not the extent to which leaders such as Churchill and Truman desired peace but how powerful the desire for revenge could be compared to a sense of justice. What’s worse, talk of the second feeling could cover up how motives rooted in the first propelled the actions. [6]

In both cases, the morally reprehensible actions of one nation were justified against another in terms flavored with a sense of justice. WWII was the “good war,” a just fight against totalitarianism, and Vietnam was fought to contain communists who questioned the core tenet of American life, democracy among these. Particularly in the case of Vietnam, the ideological claims of policymakers supported military actions that denied a people its right to determine its own political future through collectively agreed upon processes. When wielded as universal panacea to global problems, Rawls realized that the rhetoric of liberalism was capable of providing support to efforts that undermined democratic processes and produced great injustices.

Law ofIn light of these political, philosophical, and humanitarian challenges, Rawls crafted The Law of Peoples (1999). An extension of a paper he had delivered as part of the Oxford Amnesty Lecture in 1993, The Law of Peoples is a slim treatise outlining how “justice as fairness” might regulate international relations. The basic argument applies the liberal principle of tolerance to foreign affairs as well as to liberals themselves. [7] Rather than posit that only societies based on liberalism as legitimate, Rawls claims that “decent” societies, too, demand moral respect. These societies respect human rights and adhere to the tenets of international law. They also provide their citizens outlets for political expression; however, unlike in a liberal society, these venues take the form of associations rather than individuals. As Rawls notes, “these societies are viewed in public life as members of different groups, and each group is represented in the legal system by a body in a decent consultation hierarchy.” [8] Once more, a comprehensive notion of the good—such as a state religion—might regulate public life, but differences are tolerated and all citizens are treated equally before the law. [9] Aside from honoring basic human rights and international law, both liberal and decent peoples, then, are committed to their citizens being involved in the political process as well as applying laws equally to defend this. The key difference is that citizenship for the former is an individual matter while for the latter it is collective. Thus, decent peoples are just as morally legitimate for Rawls as liberal ones.

In interacting with one another, liberal and decent societies adhere to a duty of non-intervention. Echoing his claim to students in 1968, Rawls did not claim pacifism to be the only morally defensible position in this world; instead, war could only be legitimate if undertake in self-defense or, in extreme cases, against outlaw states that commit serious offenses against human rights. [10] The final aim of the Law of Peoples “would be fully achieved when all societies have been able to establish either a liberal or a decent regime.” [11] Achieving this, however, is to be done through aid and patience to societies without the resources to organize themselves around either liberal or decent institutions.

The Law of Peoples is not a perfect application of justice to international relations. Its understanding of how discrepancies of wealth and power between nations should be dealt with is underdeveloped. There is no global difference principle here per say; just a vague commitment to humanitarian aid. Once more, Rawls paid virtually no attention to how global power distributions have been shaped by illiberal forces such as empire (nor, for that matter, how liberalism and empire can be co-supportive). The ultimate list of morally defensible society-types is also sparsely populated. Drawing the ultimate horizon of defensible collective organizations between the poles of “decent” and “liberal” societies leaves the moral imagination of at least this reader uninspired. If the singularity of Rawls’s “law” is to prove morally satisfactory in junction with his commitment to tolerance, I suspect that the plurality gestured at in the book’s title needs to be unpacked more thoroughly.

Part of these issues can be chalked up to Rawls’s aim. As always, he focused on the most abstract level of moral questions raised by his topic at hand. Both A Theory of Justice and The Law of Peoples were exercises in what he called “ideal theory”: an attempt to create abstract standards to measure existing laws and norms against. [12] Rawls’s task was not to gather empirical data but to provide moral guidelines to use in their interpretation. [13]

Unworldly and fuzzy as it might at times be, Rawls’s slim treatise was an accomplishment within the broader currents of U.S. foreign policy thinking, As the diplomatic historian Michael H. Hunt has adroitly mapped, the course of U.S. foreign policy over the past several centuries is notable for the continuities, not disjunctures, it demonstrates. Once more, the red thread connecting the XYZ to the Iran Contra affair is not interest but ideology. Ideologies, Hunt writes, tend towards “persistence in countries with a stable political culture. Spared the shock of a great social revolution or foreign invasion and occupation, the United States has enjoyed this kind of stability to a remarkable degree compared to most other nations.” [14] We have also “enjoyed” a three-pronged set of ideological predispositions in foreign policy decisions. This outlook has been comprised of “an active quest for national greatness closely coupled to the promotion of liberty,” an affirmation of racial hierarchy “[i]nspired by the struggle of white Americans to secure and maintain their supremacy under conditions that differed from region to region,” and a narrowly defined conception of what constitutes “acceptable” political and social changes in other countries (with the historical development of the United States held as the standard). [15] Over the course of the twentieth century the outlooks of Woodrow Wilson, George Kennan, and others who have worked in the traditions described by many as competing have actually, in Hunt’s account, shared a great deal. Little wonder then that the interventions that Anderson describes have found a rich common language of nationalism to describe aims that otherwise might appear as narrowly economic. [16]

These intellectual trends coupled with the reality of U.S. interventions across the world, especially during the heightened ideological climate of the Cold War, highlight the critical potential of an outlook on international relations that is at once universalistic and pluralistic. [17] Sometimes explicit, often tacit, the rhetoric surrounding U.S. foreign policy has taken as a postulate the unrivaled intellectual supremacy of liberal democracy. Questioning the singularity of this principle—that is, voicing skepticism that liberal democracy is the only way to a just society, let alone that produces injustices of its own—involves exposing oneself to the charge of cultural relativism or radicalism. There have been others who have eloquently voiced strong cases against these currents. (Among historians , think of William Appleman Williams and his students.) As arguably the twentieth century’s most important theorist of liberal democracy, Rawls presents an internal critique of these stances, his argument tantamount to saying that a strong defense of universal rights and values depends upon the recognition that these are honored and expressed in a pluralistic fashion.

Sparsely populated as Rawls’s list of defensible societies is, it does include more than just one, which is one more than various figures Hunt examines have allowed. [18] Rawls’s philosophical outlook on IR theory continues to provide an impetus to imagine a moral landscape occupied by a list of legitimate and just societies. In doing so, his variety of liberalism cleaves closer and more deeply to the tenet of tolerance than many other American liberals who have ventured into foreign policy commentary and making. When thinking about values and international relations, Rawls demonstrated that one of the best defenses of universalism is a pluralistic one.


[1] See, for example, Rawls’s dissertation is an extended effort to “state the manner in which ethical principles are discovered and validated” in order to show that reason, not will nor taste, is the root of their moral legitimacy. John Rawls, “A Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge: Considered with Reference to Judgments on the Moral Worth of Character,”Ph.D. Dissertation (Princeton University, 1950), 1.

[2] The last third of A Theory of Justice largely revolves around Rawls unpacking these moral senses as both a justification of his principles and, in my readings, an explication of what he means when he speaks of “mutual self-respect” as a primary good that a system of justice must safeguard. Commentators often disregard this last part of the book as a tack-on by Rawls. But inspection of his unpublished papers reveals that he taught many courses on the theme of moral psychology after A Theory of Justice’s publication and that, had the reception not been so noteworthy, he likely would have written a book on the topic. To my mind, one of the most important and under discussed contributions that A Theory of Justice made to liberal political theory was to place “respect” at least on par with “interest”as a key human motivator.

[3] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971), 29.

[4] Rawls hints at these concerns in his “The Law of Peoples” lecture. See Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 562.

[5] John Rawls, “Just War and Conscientious Refusal,” Box 34, Folder 7, John Rawls Papers, Harvard University Archives.

[6] John Rawls, “50 Years After Hiroshima,” Dissent 42 (1995): 323-27.

[7] As well as an outgrowth of Rawls’s contemplations on current affairs, The Law of Peoples also uses insights he developed more extensively in Political Liberalism (1993). There, Rawls made another attempt to apply the liberal principle of tolerance to liberalism itself by demonstrating that shared comprehensive notions of the good were unnecessary to the task of defining justice.

[8] Rawls The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 64.

[9] Rawls explores the contours of such a society with his imagined Islamic people of “Kazanistan.” See Ibid., 75-78.

[10] See Rawls’s remarks on “Human Rights in Outlaw States” for his thoughts on humanitarian intervention. As is often the case when Rawls moves into “non-ideal theory,” his reflections on the matter are vague. Ibid., 80-81.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Rawls allotted issues of “non-ideal theory”—that is, how to deal with matters such as the conduct of wars, non-compliance to international law, and inequality between peoples—to only one chapter in The Law of Peoples.

[13] See A Theory of Justice.

[14] Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 13.

[15] Ibid., 17-18.

[16] Hunt and Anderson’s contributions are open to multiple interpretations that put them into dialogue. From my reading, it seems that Hunt has convincingly demonstrated key themes that U.S. policymakers have long believed and been earnestly committed to. Anderson, on the other hand, demonstrates the essentially contradictory results of American foreign policy ideology. This is, at least, my reading of the two together.

[17] For an assessment of the U.S.’s record in Cold War military interventions beyond Vietnam, see Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[18] At least when taken on their face value of their public pronouncements. That Wilsonianism, for example, has often looked in practice more like the rhetoric of realism has been documented by many. Even Wilson, as John Cooper’s work points out, was quite the warrior when it came to intervening in foreign countries. See John Milton Cooper, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1985).

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This was a fantastic post. Thanks for contributing!

    Why do you think this aspect of Rawls has been downplayed, relative to his arguments on liberal societies as proposed by “A Theory of Justice”? It seems that, going back to Perry Anderson’s work, it’s a reminder that there’s a rich diversity of thought on the American Left when it comes to foreign policy that, frankly, has either been ignored in public discourse or received little response.

    Thanks again for this post. I particularly enjoyed it because it’s a look at an aspect of Rawls’ thinking that doesn’t receive much attention.

    • Thanks, Robert! That is an excellent question, one that I am trying to answer, in some form or another, in my dissertation. To rephrase your question (if I may) into a more general one I understand you to be asking: Where does this figure called “John Rawls” we all known come from? Why do we talk almost exclusively about _A Theory of Justice_ (TJ) and rarely about his other works? (Or worse: why when we do talk about those other works do we measure their value against that of TJ?)

      To venture a rather general response (one that risks being overly vague): I think the figure of Rawls came out of the reception of TJ. Many of the earliest critics such as the economists Kenneth Arrow and John Harsanyi took issue with the difference principle, skeptical of its political implications and even worrying that they might lead down the path to totalitarianism. (S.M. Amadae’s _Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy_ does a good job of piecing together this part of the reception if you are interested.) Arguably the most well-known response to TJ is Nozick’s _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_, which centered its libertarian critique on the infamous difference principle as well.

      It is also worth saying that before the publication of the book, Rawls was thinking about following it up with a work on moral psychology. Indeed, many of his course notes from the early ’70s are on this topic. But the sheer scope of TJ’s reception caught him off guard and he felt like he had a responsibility to respond to critics. Thus he was born back into TJ himself and many of his responses dealt with political issues critics took issue with.

      My speculation (one that I am still in the process of working out) is that the effect of all this was to make Rawls out to be just another postwar consensus liberal, albeit one who had read more Kant and Wittgenstein than the average. This image is the one handed down in popular philosophic memory.

      Thus, I think that much of the neglect that Rawls’s later perspective on IR has suffered is due to the way in which many have come to frame Rawls. We tend to remember Rawls’s political arguments from A Theory of Justice (along with the infamous “veil of ignorance”) over the more abstract concerns that got him there. The two are obviously linked–Rawls’s major works are, after all, squarely in the field of political philosophy. But I think that we understand the dimensions of his thought better when we come to the political principles he laid out by also highlighting the philosophical problems that puzzled him in the first place. It was the mix of philosophical and political concerns and not just the latter that animated much of his thought and, as I propose above, propelled him into theorizing about international relations.

      • Thanks for this reply! Trust me, you asked my own question much clearer than I did. And I think your ideas here make plenty of sense–I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work down the road.

  2. “…Rawls realized that the rhetoric of liberalism was capable of providing support to efforts that undermined democratic processes….”

    This point, and the post as a whole, underlines ‘live’ questions in foreign policy and int’l politics, notably the tension between pluralism, democracy, and perceived ‘national interest’. When Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected in Egypt, despite his apparent lack of managerial competence the U.S. might have taken a wait-and-see approach (perhaps w Rawls’s “decent” criterion in mind). Instead the U.S. supported the military coup that overthrew him. There are other, earlier examples, of course, with the coup vs Allende being perhaps the most egregious.

    Thus this post, among other things, opens and underscores issues about how Rawls’s work in ‘ideal theory’ intersects w highly contentious ‘non-ideal’ issues, be they questions of global economic distribution, ‘democracy promotion’, intervention, the role of political Islam, etc.

  3. This is one of the more exciting posts I’ve read, as well as the exchanges – thank you Mr. Greene! And Mr. Baranowski for doing a nice summary of Rawls, which is never easy. I’ve actually read all of Theory of Justice and I was never a politics nor philosophy major. It is a masterpiece. I really think that we are still having to come to terms with Rawls and haven’t realized just how radical Rawls is, not radical in politics, but radical in his critique of the utilitarian or instrumentalist tendency of the dominant political philosophy to that point. That is, I think he was one of the very few figures to try and construct a grand theory one could call Left wing but was independent of the Marxist tradition which was (is) such a large force. And that was his challenge to us: to try and go back to basics in the way we evaluate political issues, but in a way that preserved respect for liberal democracy, rather, than, say trying to say shuck it and “reinvent the wheel.” Rawls was dissatisfied with approaches that were too materialist or empirical. He was saying facts alone are not enough; one must appeal to some larger principles to know what to do with facts and I admired him for that.

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