The Pursuit of Self-Interest In Lieu of Moral Code

Since states started developing their own national identity, morality—the implementation of a code of values that holds human life and its freedoms as sacrosanct—has been superseded by the economic and political self-interest of states. United States foreign policy during the Cold War was not determined by America’s moral code; rather, it was driven primarily by the political goal of containing Soviet communism and the corresponding economic goal of stimulating Western Europe’s economy. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, China developed an export-based economic system devoid of moral considerations that transformed China into one of the world’s premier economic superpowers. States have predominantly placed greater importance on pursuing their own economic and political interests than adhering to a moral code, and as the respective ideologies of states continue to conflict and diverge, the possibility of morality within international relations is becoming increasingly unfeasible.

While the Marshall Plan was enacted to assist struggling Western European states, the real objectives of the Marshall Plan were to contain the spread of communism and benefit the American economy. In the late 1940s, most of Europe was ravaged and devastated by World War II, as the war had left many European states in deep economic downturns. President Truman and his administration feared that an insistence on austerity would prolong Europe’s economic pain and potentially lead to the election of communist governments in major Western powers such as France, Italy and Germany (Tabb 58). By providing American financial aid to boost the economies of Western European states, Secretary of State George C. Marshall enabled the United States to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe and implement its policy of containment. Through the Marshall Plan, the United States contributed two percent of its gross domestic product to war-torn European states, which helped to restore growth and prosperity to Western Europe and consequently strengthened resistance to communism and the Soviet Union (Nye 77). Furthermore, the Marshall Plan fostered sentiments of appreciation and caused Western Europe to be indebted to the United States, increasing the United States’ diplomatic leverage. The utilization of the Marshall Plan to achieve American foreign policy goals demonstrates that United States action was not driven by a moral code, but rather by political necessity.

In addition to facilitating economic well-being for struggling Western European countries, the Marshall Plan was intended to combat economic conditions unfavorable to the United States and thereby stimulate American economic growth. In early 1947, the purchase of U.S. exports was becoming increasingly difficult due to the struggling economies of Western European states that traded frequently with the United States (Painter 360). Many American policymakers feared that a sharp decline in American exports to Western Europe would cause a “serious deterioration of the United States economy” (360). To compound the problem, Western European states lost ready access to the oil of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as the Soviet Union expanded its sphere of influence in the wake of World War II, causing a severe energy shortage in Western Europe (361). This sharp decrease in the supply of oil caused the price to skyrocket, resulting in the cash-strapped Western European states being unable to afford oil.

The Marshall Plan was designed to serve United States economic interests by simultaneously financing American exports and providing Western European countries with the means to purchase the requisite amount of oil—primarily from American companies—to sustain continued economic growth. Oil was designated as the largest dollar budget item of most Marshall Plan countries. Between April 1948 and December 1951, fifty-six percent of the oil supplied to participating states was financed by U.S. government agencies (362). By providing Western Europe with the necessary energy to propel recovery, the Marshall Plan essentially bailed out American oil companies because Western European states would have been unable to purchase oil from American companies without the American capital infusion that spurred their economic recovery. By the time the Marshall Plan was fully implemented and Western European states recovered from the devastating effects of World War II, the United States had created an effective monopoly on the Western European oil market, as Eastern European and Middle Eastern oil sources remained isolated within the Soviet sphere of influence.

In addition to showing that the United States is not motivated by a moral code but rather by political necessity and economic incentives, the Marshall Plan severely compromised American values by turning a blind eye to the actions of Western European nations during World War II. Many Western European nations that benefited from the Marshall Plan had been complicit with Nazi Germany in the roundup and extermination of the Jewish people. Instead of holding these nations accountable, the United States was consumed with stopping the spread of communism into Europe, and provided significant financial aid to bolster these countries. Nations that participated indirectly in the Holocaust were allowed to shirk responsibility for their actions; in fact, it was not until 1995 that France apologized for the deportation of thousands of Jews during World War II (Tabb 102).

For almost three decades, China has been implementing an economic growth model completely devoid of any moral considerations or standards when conducting international business. Current Chinese leaders equate rapid economic growth with domestic political stability, and have consequently focused on economic development through a “harmonious international environment” that will not disrupt China’s growth (Nye 185). In other words, China does not want to antagonize other states by meddling in their internal political affairs and treatment of their citizens for fear that angering these governments could adversely affect Chinese trade. China frequently enters into secretive “government-to-government” agreements that provide economic aid to other states in exchange for raw materials, and these “arrangements” have often been deemed “immoral” by Western observers (77).

Western countries have seen examples of China’s immoral arrangements with states having repressive governments or sanctioning terrorism such as Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Myanmar. China has provided diplomatic protection to these regimes in exchange for a stake in oil fields or other natural resources, further advancing China’s economic self-interest. In 2006, China signed several energy contracts with Myanmar, which possesses the world’s tenth-largest reserve of natural gas. In exchange for access to Myanmar’s natural gas, China used its veto power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to derail a United States initiative to investigate Myanmar for “widespread repression of its citizens” (“China trade helps keep Myanmar regime afloat,” Illegal-logging.info).

The stark absence of moral considerations in China’s pursuit of its economic self-interest is also demonstrated through the drastically different governments with which China does business. The types of governments China trades with range from Western democracies espousing freedom and civil rights such as the United States to communist nations such as North Korea. In 2011, the United States was China’s largest trading partner, receiving over eighteen percent of Chinese exports (“The World Factbook: Exports-Partners,” Cia.gov). At the same time, China was also North Korea’s largest trading partner, as over fifty percent of North Korean exports went to China (“The World Factbook: Exports-Partners,” Cia.gov). China’s policy of doing business with any state that provides economic benefits to China, regardless of political ideology and immoral behavior, sharply contrasts with the more moral, politically conscious policy of the United States. Unlike China, the United States does not grant North Korea full trade rights, and in January 2007, the U.S. Department of Commerce renewed economic sanctions by prohibiting the export of luxury goods to North Korea (“North Korea,” U.S. Department of State).

China’s currency manipulation further demonstrates its ruthless desire to maximize economic growth. The Chinese government keeps the yuan artificially undervalued in order to subsidize its exports and create a competitive trade advantage (Nye 180). Because the yuan is undervalued relative to major currencies such as the U.S. dollar and the euro, Chinese goods are cheaper and therefore more attractive for import by foreign trade partners. In response to China’s currency manipulation, the United States during the elder Bush and Clinton administrations placed U.S. economic interests ahead of morality and took advantage of cheap Chinese goods by increasing trade with China, often at the cost of domestic American manufacturers (Kaplan 104). In fact, economists report that China’s artificially cheap currency is a significant contributing factor to high American unemployment in 2011, and with the world economy struggling to recover from the 2008 recession, United States Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believes that Chinese currency policy is “to some extent hurting the recovery process” (Lichtblau, “Senate Nears Approval of Measure to Punish China Over Currency Manipulation”). Despite the adverse effects of Chinese currency manipulation on the world economy, the Chinese economy is growing at an extraordinary rate, and Goldman Sachs projects that the total size of the Chinese economy will surpass the United States economy by 2027 (Nye 178).

As globalization continues to proliferate during the twenty-first century, the ability of states to prioritize moral considerations ahead of political and economic interests is becoming increasingly obsolete. With the rise of ever-more powerful multinational corporations, international business and globalization will dictate the precedence of economic self-interest at the expense of morality, and states that prosper will be countries such as China that give no consideration to morality in the pursuit of worldwide economic expansion. With the rise of globalization comes the increase in international crime and the development of a “shadow economy” in which the mafia becomes increasingly intertwined with political institutions (Uesseler 140). As historian Robert D. Kaplan eloquently puts it, “Things seem to be moving in a certain…direction toward a minimal international morality” (Kaplan 144). Globalization shows no signs of slowing down, and the types of political and economic self-interest that dictated U.S. policy during the Cold War and Chinese economic expansion will continue to take precedence over universal standards of morality.

Works Cited

“China trade helps keep Myanmar regime afloat.” Illegal-logging.info. Dec.-Jan. 2006. 06 Nov. 2011 . Website.

Kaplan, Robert D. Warrior politics: why leadership demands a pagan ethos. New York: Random House, 2002. Book.

Lichtblau, Eric. “Senate Nears Approval of Measure to Punish China Over Currency Manipulation.” The New York Times 06 Oct. 2011. Newspaper Article.

“North Korea.” U.S. Department of State. 06 Nov. 2011 . Website.

Nye, Joseph S. The future of power. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011. Book.

Painter, David S. “Oil and the Marshall Plan.” 1984. JSTOR. 2 Nov. 2011 . Online Database.

Tabb, William K. The amoral elephant: globalization and the struggle for social justice in the twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review P, 2001. Book.

Uesseler, Rolf. Servants of war. Brooklyn: Soft Skull P, 2008. Book.

“The World Factbook: Exports-Partners.” Cia.gov. 04 Nov. 2011

. Website.

Jason Radin
Age 17, Grade 12
Columbia Grammar-Prep School
Silver Key

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