Contemporary western ethical foreign policy, understood as foreign policy designed to contribute to the well-being of others – people(s), states and societies abroad – mostly looks at ways to do more, better or differently. Few accounts consider the need to do less or disengage to contribute to the others’ well-being, thus leaving the principles of ‘ethical retreat’ and ‘first-do-no-harm’ by the wayside in the literature. In the present contribution we seek to do two things: look into the concept of ‘autonomous recovery’ put forth by Africanist and ethnic and civil conflict scholar Jeremy Weinstein; and compare it to the literature on domestic ‘politics of difference’ as developed by critical (African-)American and African democracy theorists such as Iris M. Young, Cornel West and Claude Ake. By engaging these bodies of literature, we seek to contribute to research on viable alternatives to domination and violence in contemporary western ethical foreign policy embodied in hierarchical differentiation and the ensuing homogeny in both agenda and actors. We argue that at the international level, building on the identified merits of autonomous recovery, rather than global governance based on universal principles, a politics of difference amongst international actors might serve as a basis for more ethical foreign policy. As a theoretical and practical form of ethical retreat, we propose a commitment to ‘democratic hierarchy’ in view of self-realization, instead of mere self-management as we see in contemporary ethical foreign policy based on far-reaching international involvement guided by the democratic peace thesis.