Pursuing Peace, BOOKS

A STRATEGY FOR PEACE: HUMAN VALUES AND THE THREAT OF WAR by Sissela Bok, New York: Pantheon Books. 202 pp. $17.95

ATTENDING a small foreign-affairs conference in New England last winter, a retired admiral well versed in international relations was told that the program would feature a session on ethics and foreign policy. ``Well,'' he joked, ``that should take about two minutes!''

The implication - that there is no discernible link between morality and the conduct of foreign affairs - doesn't necessarily reflect a view held by the admiral, now a member of the Bush administration. It's simply a conception so entrenched as to be regarded, in some circles, as fact - or, when reversed, as jest. Not only is ethics said to be irrelevant to modern-day relations among nations - a point explored by thinkers as diverse as Niccolo Machiavelli, Karl von Clausewitz, and George Kennan. It is often seen as positively detrimental, a dangerous naivet'e in a hardball world where global nice guys finish last.

So Sissela Bok has set herself a challenging task. An ethicist teaching at Harvard, she has already written two widely acclaimed books (``Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life'' and ``Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation'') on related topics. ``A Strategy for Peace,'' based on her Erikson Lectures at Harvard in 1985, takes as its goal nothing less than ``to propose steps toward a secure and lasting peace that are practical, nonutopian, and in keeping with widely shared human values.''

That her book succeeds so solidly proves the value of bringing ethics to bear on such an apparently intractable subject. Her thesis is that, in an increasingly interdependent world, governments can ``no longer afford to violate fundamental moral standards at will in their conduct of foreign relations.''

What are those standards? Drawing on Immanuel Kant's essay ``Perpetual Peace,'' she extracts four: the renunciation of violence, an insistence on veracity and accuracy, a fidelity to commitments, and a strict limitation on secrecy. As in 1795, when Kant published his essay, so in the 21st century, she argues, these precepts will form the basis for a moral foreign policy. Their opposites - violence, deceit, breaches of trust, and excessive secrecy - doom a nation's foreign (and domestic) relations from the outset.

Mrs. Bok could have stopped there, right on Kant's doorstep. Her book would then have been eagerly received and widely quoted by the peace movement, New Age types, and idealists of every stripe. But it would have been dismissed by those who, in fact, shape foreign policy. To her credit, she takes up the next and much harder part of the journey: defending her conclusions against hard-hitting objections.

She gives an entire chapter, for instance, to the arguments of Clausewitz - who, she notes, held in contempt ``those who, like Kant, tried to bring morality to bear on debates about war and peace.'' Rather than seeking to demolish the arguments presented in his classic and widely cited text ``On War,'' Bok instead builds on his clear sense of the challenges of war and the need for careful strategy. Finally, in a chapter titled ``Objections from a Practical Point of View,'' she raises and refutes - quietly, pointedly, and often brilliantly - a whole array of arguments purporting to show that ethics and foreign policy don't mix.

The risk of such finely tuned logic, of course, is that it can turn precious. Here, however, there's no hot-dog writing, no intellectual razzle-dazzle. Nor is there any pedantry, any desire to impress. Her reasoning, in fact, is oddly nonlinear: No mere series of syllogisms, this is instead a symphony - stating, restating, amplifying, and playing variations on repeated themes. It is an appropriately short book written with great skill and deep compassion, aimed at those who both care and think. The result is a density of thought that rewards rereading - and a warmth that suffuses a subject too often frigid.

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