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A framework for effective moral reasoning in foreign policy

A framework for effective moral reasoning in foreign policy
UCLA Burkle Center Kal Raustiala (left) in conversation with Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. (Photo: Todd Cheney/ UCLA.)

“Good moral thinking in foreign policy must be three-dimensional,” said Joseph Nye in his presentation of the Burkle Center's 2019-20 Bernard Brodie Lecture on the Conditions of Peace. He defined those dimensions as intentions and motives, means, and consequences.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, March 11, 2020 — “I don’t think we do a very good job of thinking about morals in foreign policy,” said Joseph Nye, university distinguished service professor and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, at the Burkle Center for International Relations on March 4.

Introduced by his friend Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor emeritus of public policy at UCLA, Nye delivered the 2019–20 Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace at Korn Convocation Hall of the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“Do morals matter?” asked Nye. “Yes, morals matter.” In his view, the post-World War II foreign policy of U.S. presidents cannot be understood without accounting for a morality. For example, the moral reasoning behind President Truman’s decision not to drop a planned third atomic bomb on Japan and to avoid using nuclear weapons in the Korean War placed a taboo on the future use of such weapons. The problem, insisted Nye, is that Americans think about morals in a shallow way, relying on what he called the “nonsequiturs” of American exceptionalism and good intentions.

Nye summarized the principal arguments of his latest book, “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump” (Oxford, 2020) in his address, after which he engaged in discussion with Burkle Center Director and Professor of Law Kal Raustiala and then took questions from the audience.

The author of 14 academic books and over 100 articles published in peer-reviewed professional journals, the renowned scholar has served as U.S. deputy undersecretary of state (1977–79), chair of the National Intelligence Council (1993–94) and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs (1994–95).

Applying moral reasoning to foreign policy

Post-World War II thinkers such as Hans Morgenthau and George F. Kennan overdid their criticisms of the moralistic tradition in U.S. foreign policy, particularly that of President Woodrow Wilson, said Nye, noting that Wilson had lacked the means to create a successful League of Nations. Conventional foreign policy wisdom after 1945 held that morals did not matter, only national interests. That hard realist orientation impacted the international relations training of his generation, observed Nye.

“Good moral thinking in foreign policy must be three-dimensional,” he said. He defined those dimensions as intentions and motives, means, and consequences. Nye insisted that politicians must carefully consider the possible unintended consequences of particular actions, particularly the impact that an action could have on the rules and institutions of the international system, including whether the action might make future, similar actions more difficult.

Nye pointed out that St. Augustine’s theory of “just war” in the fourth century C.E., which sanctions killing only in imminent self-defense, is enshrined in the international humanitarian law of the Geneva Conventions and in the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“The basic premises of a just war [require] all three dimensions I mentioned," he explained. "You have to have just cause, you have to have means that [distinguish] between combatants and non-combatants, you have to have proportionality in the means (you can't kill wantonly in self-defense), and in terms of consequences, you also have to have a reasonable prospect of success.” Those criteria, he said, provide a basic framework for thinking about morality in foreign policy.

“Institutions and rules and norms create a ‘long shadow of the future,’” added Nye, referring to a famous game theory analysis conducted by political scientist Robert Axelrod. In that analysis, the shared expectation of players that a game will continue eventually lead to reciprocity in their responses.

The way in which the U.S. is approaching foreign policy today, as a zero-sum transactional game in which one party wins and the other loses, is selling the U.S. future short by discounting institutions, he continued. “[I]nternational institutions create that long shadow of the future, [which] essentially allows great range for morality in foreign policy,” he concluded.

“I think the better analogy for how to think about morality in foreign policy is that used by George Shultz, [President Ronald] Reagan's secretary of state,” continued Nye. "He said it's better to think about foreign policy like gardening: you cultivate, you trim, you weed, you seed, but you’re playing this for [the long term].”

Evaluating the foreign policy of post-war U.S. presidents

Using legal terms of accountability, Nye argued that unless leaders conduct “due diligence” and consider the potential unintended consequences of their intentions, they will be guilty of “culpable negligence.” For example, he found the moral intentions of President George W. Bush to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons reasonable, given a widely held consensus at the time that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and credited the president for the idea that democracy might be a means of addressing the roots of terrorism .

Joseph Nye. (Photo: Todd Cheney/ UCLA.) However, Nye claimed that these “good moral intentions” led to inappropriate means — that is, the U.S. had neither the means to reconstruct Iraq properly nor to bring democracy to the country. This error was then compounded by a failure to assess the risks and consequences of the 2003 U.S. invasion, such as stimulating a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq and laying the basis for a strengthening of Al Qaeda in Iraq (which later became ISIS).

Of note, Nye incorporated an important psychological aspect in his analysis of 14 postwar American presidents: emotional intelligence. “Do [political leaders] have the emotional stability — the emotional IQ — to prevent their emotional needs from distorting their intentions, so their motives are in line with their stated intentions?” he asked.

Nye cited Vietnam War hawk McGeorge Bundy’s contrast between Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who both expressed the intention to save South Vietnam from communism. Bundy believed that Kennedy sought to be seen as smart and, had he lived to be re-elected, would have taken the U.S. out of the war. By contrast, Bundy believed President Johnson feared being seen as a coward — an emotional need Nye said influenced Johnson’s decision to introduce 565,000 combat troops into Vietnam, ultimately leading to 58,000 U.S. deaths.

In his discussion with Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala, Nye said he had revised his opinion of Presidents Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush while writing his book. He found both men to be highly emotionally intelligent leaders, saying of Truman that “he knew who he was … and he wasn’t going to be stampeded [by others].” Nye also lauded Bush for avoiding the temptation of braggadocio at the end of the Cold War. And he credited the 41st president’s ability to bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion with a united Germany in NATO to Bush’s extraordinary understanding of the nuances of international politics, or contextual intelligence.

The Harvard professor also changed his opinion of President Jimmy Carter, for whom he worked and even criticized for his over-involvement in details. Carter, he observed, took tough, costly political foreign policy decisions in returning the Panama Canal to Panama without delay and in raising the profile of human rights in American foreign policy. “I think with time, Carter is going to look better than we assessed at the time,” he commented.

By contrast, Nye came away from his research less impressed with the foreign policy of President Richard M. Nixon, with the exception of his China policy. Specifically, said the scholar, “he did a lousy job on foreign economic policy.”

Nye also questioned the wisdom of the “decent interval” — the time between when the U.S. left Vietnam and when North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam — on which Nixon and the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger insisted. The president’s trade-off for so-called credibility, said the speaker, cost the lives of 22,000 Americans in the two years between the signing of the peace agreement and the North’s takeover of Saigon. 

When asked by Raustiala what was unique about Nye's framework with respect to foreign policy, the scholar answered, “What’s different about foreign policy is the complexity of the situation. … the prospects of unintended consequences are much higher.”

“Does that suggest greater caution, because we have adversaries in foreign policy and those adversaries are going to react, maybe in ways we don't anticipate?” asked Raustiala.

“It does suggest that caution and prudence are more than instrumental in foreign policy,” answered Nye. “It’s better to err on the side of being over-cautious: be careful before you unleash the dogs of war."

“You could argue that there are times when prudence is inappropriate,” he added. “If you are faced with a Hitler and you know it is a Hitler, … then prudence is not a virtue.”

Asked to consider current threats to world peace, Nye reflected, “what worries me most [in the short run] is Americans working themselves up into fervor of anti-Chinese sentiment… that would overstimulate fear and create a climate where there is a fateful miscalculation.

“My long run fear is the failure to master new technologies and their application in cyber and artificial intelligence and what that means for the ability to maintain control not only over nuclear systems… but over many more systems,” he commented.

Nye urged a new approach to considering the moral challenges of the future. “We’ve got to get away from focusing just on power over others, we got to think also of power with others,” he said. No country, he observed, can be safe behind its borders from global challenges such as climate change and the coronavirus crisis. “These are challenges that don’t respect borders,” he emphasized.

Longstanding friends Professor Joseph Nye and UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale.
(Photo: Todd Cheney/ UCLA.)