Do Morals Matter? An Exploration Of Morality In U.S. Foreign Policy With Joseph Nye

Ava DeSantis writes on Joseph Nye s hopeful outlook on morality s place in foreign policy decisions and the impact of civilians in American soft power.

Photo: Joseph Nye

Joseph Nye, the former Dean of Harvard s Kennedy School of Government and Assistant Secretary of Defense, spoke at the London School of Economics, about his new book “Do Morals Matter?&;

Nye, in addressing the prevailing theory in international relations, argues that morals are the determining factor of foreign policy decisions, which had two main purposes. He explained, “One [purpose] is to prove existence theory…particularly looking at the 14 case studies I have of American presidents since 1945. I can show you some case studies where the outcome was significantly determined by the moral views of the President … The second purpose of the book, though, was: so what? What do we do about it?”

Do Morals Matter?

Before discussing the content of his new theory, Nye answered the objection that it might be meaningless. Nye began, “many people think I’m wasting my time or did waste my time writing such a book. The conventional wisdom in our field is that morals don’t matter that much in international relations. In fact, one friend when I told her that was what I was writing about said "Well, good. At least it will be a short book."

This objection came from fellow intellectuals, but also from diplomats during his time in government. Nye described an interaction with a French diplomat: “People generally will say things like, it’s all about national interests, and I remember once when I was working in the State Department on some nuclear proliferation issues, talking to a French diplomat after a meeting, and I said ‘Do you ever worry about or think about the moral implications of these issues?’ And he said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Morals don’t matter.’ He said, ‘The only thing I care about is the interests of France.’…that’s pretty much the conventional wisdom.” Nye’s book is a delayed response to the anonymous French diplomat’s claim.

Nye thinks “if you have a cynical view, you’re actually going to get history wrong.” Delving into historical evidence for his theory, Nye described an incident which he believes displayed moral restraint. Nye offered an example from President Truman’s term, saying “many people blame Truman for his arming of Hiroshima and Nagasaki … What people don’t realize that Truman when he participated in the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, he was doing what General Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, wanted.” 

Harry S. Truman Presidential Dollar, USA coin a portrait image of HARRY S. TRUMAN in God We Trust 33rd PRESIDENT 1945-1953

Nye argues that the main moral choice over the usage of atomic bombs made by Truman occurred after the first two bombs were dropped. Truman was “like a boy on the back of a toboggan that was already speeding downhill, possibly could have stopped it, but not very likely, Roosevelt had never consulted him about this and the conventional wisdom of the government as a whole was that he would go ahead. But what people don’t pay enough attention to is if there was a third bomb, which didn’t get dropped. It was sitting on Tinian Island. And it would have taken about a week to have actually prepared it and dropped it. Truman said no. And he said no because, in the words he used, which were morally important words, ‘I’m not going to kill that many children.’”

Another choice Truman made, Nye argued, provides more evidence for his conclusion: “…five years later, in the Korean War, after the Americans pushed back up the Yellow River, and China crossed the Yellow River and pushed Americans back down the peninsula. It looked like the war would be lost, or he stalemated and Truman was warned that would be the end of his presidency and General MacArthur…who was the commander of the Far East, said to Truman ‘If you allow me to drop 25 to 40 atomic bombs on Chinese cities, and win the war.’ And Truman said ‘No.’…the decision he made had a good chunk of moral concern involved in it.”

What should our morals be?

If morals matter, as Nye believes, what should our morals be? What moral framework should be applied in foreign policy decisions? Nye answers this question first by dismissing the validity of American exceptionalism. He defines American exceptionalism as the belief that “we are a moral people. We have good motives, good intentions. When we do something, therefore, it’s moral.”

This reasoning, Nye said, “is very shallow,” and lacks historical evidence saying “anybody who holds that view has to explain to Mexicans and Filipinos, how we behaved toward them in the 19th century. And so, moralism or exceptionalism is not the answer.”

The correct framework to evaluate the morality of foreign policy decisions is a “three-dimensional framework,” which Nye proposes in “Do Morals Matter?” In this three-dimensional framework, we must address dimensions of “intentions,” the “liberal dimension,” and “consequences.”

Photo: Adobe Stock The “liberal dimension,” as Nye envisions it, can be traced “back to John Stuart Mill and British liberalism of the 19th century.” 20th-century philosopher John Rawls “[gave liberalism] its most articulate expression,” by arguing “you can’t have pure liberalism international relations, but you can have some respect for the autonomy and sovereignty, and institutions and rights of other people and roles then add some criteria by which you can achieve that.” For a fleshed-out framework for the liberal dimension, Nye references the Just War Theory, a set of principles which define the moral means and ends of war with reference to liberal values of individual freedom and choice, and a historical basis in Christian moral theory.

Finally, the third dimension of consequences is that “[Americans] have to face the fact that there are always unintended consequences in complex social actions, and that foreign policy is doubly complex because you have not just domestic considerations but the international considerations of differences of culture and power to include as well. So there are bound to be unintended consequences and, at some point, those unintended consequences can have immoral effects.” To be a moral foreign policy decision in this third dimension, “the key question is whether you paid sufficient attention to anticipating the unintended consequences.”

How Do We Apply This Framework?

In this new project, Nye applied his proposed framework to the foreign policy decisions of every president since FDR. Using scorecards, Nye “[looked] in a more refined way at each of those three dimensions.”

Nye rated Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, "pending some change before the end of his term but on the record so far, in the bottom quarter” of morality displayed in foreign policy decisions. When introducing these rankings, however, Nye clarified that he is “much less concerned that people agree with me on how I rank any particular president, then that as they think about morality in international politics.”

A Civilian’s Impact

Throughout Nye’s talk, the moderator, LSE professor Peter Trubowitz, continually pointed out viewers joining the virtual call from the UK, Turkey, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Israel, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Brazil, demonstrating the global interest in American foreign policy and values. Nye argued that this interest is not relegated to U.S. foreign policy, saying “soft power, the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment, how you behave at home, as well as abroad is tremendously important. Nothing dissolves soft power more than hypocrisy.”

This aspect of foreign policy, Nye believes the American citizenry can impact. Nye reminded his audience “soft power comes not just from the actions of the government, but it also comes from the civil society. And that means that there’s potential to recover soft power.”

 

 


 

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