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Open Access Debate

Cosmopolitanism and foreign policy for health: ethics for and beyond the state

Raphael Lencucha

Author Affiliations

Faculty of Medicine, School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, McGill University, Hosmer House, 3630 Promenade Sir William Osler, Montréal, QC H3G 1Y5, Canada

BMC International Health and Human Rights 2013, 13:29  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-13-29

Published: 8 July 2013



Foreign policy holds great potential to improve the health of a global citizenship. Our contemporary political order is, in part, characterized by sovereign states acting either in opposition or cooperation with other sovereign states. This order is also characterized by transnational efforts to address transnational issues such as those featured so prominently in the area of global health, such as the spread of infectious disease, health worker migration and the movement of health-harming products. These two features of the current order understandably create tension for truly global initiatives.


National security has become the dominant ethical frame underlying the health-based foreign policy of many states, despite the transnational nature of many contemporary health challenges. This ethical approach engages global health as a means to achieving national security objectives. Implicit in this ethical frame is the version of humanity that dichotomizes between “us” and “them”. What has been left out of this discourse, for the most part, is the role that foreign policy can play in extending the responsibility of states to protect and promote health of the other, for the sake of the other.


The principal purpose of this paper is to review arguments for a cosmopolitan ethics of health-based foreign policy. I will argue that health-based foreign policy that is motivated by security interests is lacking both morally and practically to further global health goals. In other words, a cosmopolitan ethic is not only intrinsically superior as a moral ideal, but also has potential to contribute to utilitarian ends. This paper draws on the cosmopolitanism literature to build robust support for foreign policies that contribute to sustainable systems of global health governance.