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Of Ethics, Power, and Politics

ISSUE:  Spring 1980
Ethics, Functionalism, and Power in International Politics. By Kenneth W. Thompson. Louisiana. $10.95.

Kenneth W. Thompson brings a unique background and an extraordinary range of experience and expertise to his lively and provocative new book, Ethics, Functionalism, and Power in International Politics. Raised in the mid-West as a minister’s son, Professor Thompson was profoundly influenced in his early life by a mother and father who imbued him with a sense of good and evil, right and wrong, that emanated not from a blind sectarian perspective but from deeper, more introspective, and more intellectual roots. He later studied moral philosophy, history, and international politics under three intellectual giants of the 20th century—Hans J. Morganthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Quincy Wright. But rather than pursuing an academic career—although he remained an influential and prolific scholar of international politics—Thompson became directly involved in the functional dimensions of international relations as a senior officer of the Rockefeller Foundation. During the heyday of its activity and influence in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in helping to mold a new generation of leaders in diverse Third World countries, the Rockefeller Foundation owes much of its success in the social sciences to the wise and humane leadership of Kenneth Thompson. Thompson was able to deal effectively with international politicans, civil servants, and university chancellors in a framework of friendship and mutual cooperation that was and still is impossible in government-to-government interactions. Finally, after 20 years of dedicated service to assisting the development of newly independent nations, Dr. Thompson returned to academic life at the University of Virginia where he now serves as Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and Director of the White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs. At a time when many lesser men would sit back simply to reflect on a life of achievement, Professor Thompson instead remains an even more prolific scholar than ever with eight books to his credit in the past three years.

Ethics, Functionalism, and Power in International Politics explores the contemporary crisis in values in American national and international politics from the dual perspective of idealism and realism. Thompson systematically addresses the basic question of the compatibility of idealism with functionalism and power in the modern world. He draws on his wide range of experience and broad knowledge of the relevant literature to provide a provocative series of essays to demonstrate that morality, power, and functionalism are not only compatible aspects of a viable international order but are necessary to maintain that order. After discussing the problem of values in contemporary society and the role of ethics in war and peace, Thompson provides a provocative and in-depth analysis of the place of functionalism in the world order and skillfully dissects the complex interrelationships between ethics, power, and nationalism in both developed and developing nations. His discussion of values and international education stands out as a stirring reminder of how critical it is that students throughout the world be exposed to the study of values—devoid of a particular ideology and free of cultural dependency—so that when they become leaders and have to deal with such complex issues as poverty and income distribution both at home and abroad, they will be able to view the problem in a perspective that is broader than technology and economics. Thompson provides numerous case studies of successful university programs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in which he played a catalytic role (though his modesty and humility never let him reveal to the reader that he had anything to do with these efforts).

Ethics, Functionalism, and Power in International Politics is thus a unique and stimulating book. It should be read not only by students of international affairs and development studies but by anyone interested in the moral dimensions of modern statecraft. Thompson has done an outstanding job in providing us with a book that is never condescending or preaching, that is rooted in the real problem issues of the day and that encourages—no, forces—us in an age of self-interest and narcissism to harken back to the most fundamental of all issues— our collective humanity and the future of the world community.


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