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From the bookshelf: Do morals matter in US foreign policy?

Posted By on August 26, 2020 @ 13:27

The idea of morality in US foreign policy is a macabre jest in the age of President Donald Trump.

Yet the amorality of a shape-shifting American president emphasises the value of moral compass points. By taking us to dark places, Trump shows the value of ethical points of light in steering a nation’s course.

In foreign policy, as in the life of a country, it’s not merely a case of who has the power and who doesn’t. A policy that says the ends justify the means starts from a false premise. We can never know the ends. All we have are the means.

Power is as much about frame and form and philosophy as it is about force. Whether you prefer to think in terms of principles or morality, there must be reference points to navigate across the spectrum from the seven deadly sins to the uses of the Seventh Fleet.

The fundamental question of foreign policy is how to control and direct relations between states. The answer from the realist or conservative school is to look to norms (even manners), state institutions and a balance of power. More optimistic and ambitious liberal internationalists turn towards morality, international law and multilateralism.

Trump doesn’t follow either of those intellectual schools. His temper and tantrums as much as his tweeting prove he’s no conservative, with no understanding of how a foreign-policy realist views the mix of forces and interests, capabilities and ambitions.

The age of Trump has brought Joseph Nye to ponder where morals fit in the foreign policy of modern US presidents. Nye is a rare foreign policy thinker who changed the understanding and vocabulary of international relations, through his concept ‘soft power’.

Nye’s new book, Do morals matter? Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump, analyses the role of ethics in US foreign policy from 1945. He works through the presidents from Franklin Roosevelt, scoring their foreign policy on three dimensions: intentions, means used and consequences.

Each president had choices. They could shift the system, as the 45th president has dramatically demonstrated: ‘The advent of the Trump administration has revived interest in what is a moral foreign policy and raised it from a theoretical question to front-page news.’

While Americans constantly make moral judgements about foreign policy, Nye writes, too often they’re haphazard and concerned with the headlines of the moment (hello, Donald!). Enter Nye’s three dimensions for judgement: ‘A moral foreign policy is not a matter of intentions versus consequences but must involve both as well as the means that were used.’

The ‘founders’ of America’s international era were Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. They had ‘no grand design’, Nye says, but all three regarded US isolationism in the Great Depression as a serious mistake. Having won the war, the founders would build on the lesson learned by the broken peace of the 1930s.

The three were liberal realists who drew upon both traditions in constructing their mental maps of the world. While believing in American exceptionalism, they were not ideologues or crusaders, balancing risks and values.

The founders get better grades than the three presidents of the Vietnam era: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who were trapped by the domino theory and broader concerns about the credibility of US global commitments in the Cold War.

The post-Vietnam presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, get good grades on ethics. Nye pushes back at those who see this as a weak period in foreign policy. After Vietnam and Watergate, he says, Ford and Carter ‘built their reputations on telling the truth’ and that boosted confidence at home and soft power abroad.

Nye gives most of the credit for the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union to Mikhail Gorbachev, while still ranking it as a major accomplishment in American foreign policy. The Soviet empire ended without a war because of both luck and skill.

Ronald Reagan’s harsh language initially frightened Soviet leaders. But once Gorbachev took power, ‘it was Reagan’s personal and negotiating skills, not his rhetoric, that was crucial. And Reagan was guided by his moral vision of ending the Cold War and removing the threat of nuclear weapons’.

The foreign policy record of George H.W. Bush ranks near the top, Nye judges: ‘Bush’s contextual intelligence, prudence, and understanding of the importance of not humiliating Gorbachev were crucial. Some people say that in life, it is more important to be lucky than skilful. Fortunately, Reagan and Bush were both.’

The unipolar presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, didn’t have to worry about the balance of power and there were few restraints on American hubris. Clinton gets a good overall score for using the unipolar moment to focus on economic globalisation and institutions. Bush’s invasion of Iraq ranks with Vietnam as a major disaster of the Pax Americana.

Nye sees Barack Obama and Donald Trump as ‘power shift’ presidents, reacting against George W. Bush by ushering in ‘a period of retrenchment’.

Obama, flexible and incremental, cycled through liberalism on the campaign, realism on entering office, optimism in the Arab Spring, and a return to realism by refusing to intervene in Syria’s civil war.

Trump is the wealthiest and oldest US president, Nye writes, ‘unfiltered by the Washington political process’, with the top job his first elected office. Doing politics as reality television, Trump—‘populist, protectionist and nationalist’—hogs the camera with outrageous statements and breaks conventional norms. Unpredictability is a political tool, but too much lying debases the currency of trust.

Trump rejected the liberal international order, questioned alliances, attacked multilateral institutions, withdrew from international trade and climate agreements, and launched a trade war with China. The promise to restore American greatness translated as transactional, disruptive diplomacy.

In a judgement penned before the Covid-19 pandemic, Nye writes that Trump showed ‘an immoral approach to consequences in which personal political convenience prevailed over lives’.

Using his model to assess morality and effectiveness in foreign policy, Nye ranks the 14 presidents:

Best: Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush

Middle: Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama

Worst: Johnson, Nixon, George W. Bush and Trump

Looking at the worst category, Nye writes that Johnson, Bush and Trump were ‘notably deficient on the dimension of contextual intelligence, sometimes teetering on the edge of wilful ignorance, reckless assessment and gross negligence’.

Nye observes that moral choices are an inescapable aspect of foreign policy, though cynics may pretend otherwise. He dismisses the realist line that ‘interests bake the cake and values are just some icing presidents dribbled on to make it look pretty’. Icing says a lot about the idea as well as the taste of the cake, as Nye argues: ‘Humans do not live by the sword alone. Words are also powerful. Swords are swifter, but words can change the minds that wield the swords.’

Concluding, Nye reflects that the important moral choices for future presidents will be about where and how to be involved in the world. American leadership, he says, is not the same as hegemony or domination or military intervention. America now has less preponderance in a more complex world.

His final sentence has a Trumpian shadow: ‘The future success of American foreign policy may be threatened more by the rise of nativist politics that narrow our moral vision at home than by the rise and decline of other powers abroad.’

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/from-the-bookshelf-do-morals-matter-in-us-foreign-policy/

[1] ‘soft power’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_power

[2] Do morals matter? Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/do-morals-matter-9780190935962?cc=us&lang=en&

[3] role of ethics in US foreign policy: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/what-is-a-moral-foreign-policy/

[4] moral judgements about foreign policy: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/american-exceptionalism-in-the-age-of-trump/