Category: Speaking of Diplomacy

Title: Why Morals Matter in Foreign Policy

Author: Joseph Nye
Date Published: January 10, 2020


When I told a friend I had just written a book on morality and foreign policy, she quipped: “It must be a very short book.” Such skepticism is common. An Internet search shows surprisingly few books on how US presidents’ moral views affected their foreign policies. As the eminent political theorist Michael Walzer once described American graduate training in international relations after 1945, “Moral argument was against the rules of the discipline as it was commonly practiced.”

At a press conference following the US drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander and several others, a senior State Department official blurted out: “Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?” In fact, the international rule of law depends on it.

The reasons for skepticism seem obvious. While historians have written about American exceptionalism and moralism, realist diplomats like George F. Kennan – the father of the US “containment” doctrine in the Cold War – long warned about the downside of the American moralist-legalist tradition. International relations is an anarchic realm; no world government exists to provide order. States must provide for their own defense, and when survival is at stake, the ends justify the means. Where there is no meaningful choice, there can be no ethics. As philosophers say, “ought implies can.” No one can fault you for not doing the impossible.

By this logic, combining ethics and foreign policy is a category mistake, like asking if a knife sounds good rather than if it cuts well, or whether a broom dances better than one that costs more. So, in judging a president’s foreign policy, we should simply ask whether it worked, not whether it was moral.

While this view has some merit, it ducks hard questions by oversimplifying. The absence of a world government does not mean the absence of all international order. Some foreign policy issues relate to a nation-state’s survival, but most do not. Since World War II, the United States, for example, has been involved in several wars, but none were necessary for its survival. And many important foreign policy choices about human rights, climate change, or Internet freedom do not involve war at all. [Read more]