Aristotle and Foreign Policy: An Examination of the Common Good and its Effects in International Affairs

The purpose of this essay is not to give Aristotelian warrant for some crude version of Realpolitik. Its purpose is to show the deep significance of the political common good, and that acting morally requires a robust notion of the common good. The implication, I believe, is that we cannot approach international politics from the neutral standpoint of an outside observer, but from the standpoint of citizens and statesmen within real and existing political communities which have their needs, desires, and fears. Abstraction from this standpoint, according to Aristotle, is a kind of abstraction from political and ethical thinking. Likewise, it is difficult to see how one can actually approach the problems of the international system as a citizen of the world, say, rather than as a citizen of a real place. Acting justly and prudently has to do with how we act toward our fellow citizens first and foremost, rather than the great undifferentiated mass of humanity.   Aristotle, then, gives a different account than Morgenthau regarding the place of the national interest. For while Morgenthau himself makes a deeply impassioned argument on behalf of the national interest with an eye toward alleviating the misery of totalizing war, Aristotle would remind us the fundamental purpose of the political community: the achievement of the common good. He reminds us that that pursuing the political common good is not the lesser of two evils, but rather a choiceworthy end, perhaps the most choiceworthy end.

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Julius Caesar, Commentarii de bello Gallico (mid-1st Century BC)

Great generals and statesmen are not always eminent men of letters, but the founder of monarchical Rome was such a man. He is so well regarded as a writer that for a time he was probably more known as a master of Latin prose, rather than the man who reshaped Western Civilization. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), perhaps the most famous Roman of them all, was born a patrician. He rose to power by keenness of intellect as well as a healthy dose of democratic sympathies that made him one of the most popular politicians in Rome. Supposedly descended from Aeneas and Venus, as well as nephew to Gaius Marius, he did not lack an illustrious family. During Sulla’s ascendancy Caesar took the opportunity to gain military experience in Asia Minor, where he showed himself to be a conscientious officer. Caesar, like many Roman statesmen, used his military prowess and experience to his political advantage throughout his life, achieving the consulship in 59 BC. After his consulship he was chosen to be governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum, and Transalpine Gaul. Such extensive political responsibilities came with the command initially of four legions, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 heavy infantry. Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico tells the story of how he used them.

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