Inside Story

The morality of presidents

Books | We can never know the consequences of foreign policy, says the man who coined “soft power.” All we know are the means

Graeme Dobell 12 August 2020 2617 words

The best and the worst: US presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at the funeral of president George H.W. Bush in December 2018. Ron Sachs/CNP/AdMedia Photo via Newscom

Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump
By Joseph S. Nye, Jr | Oxford University Press | $38.95 | 272 pages

The idea of morality in US foreign policy might seem like a macabre jest in the age of Donald Trump. Yet the amorality of a shape-shifting American president emphasises the value of moral compass points.

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.

One of the great US foreign policy thinkers, George Kennan, an architect of America’s containment policy during the cold war, argued that the limitations of our knowledge mean precise ends are difficult to define, much less achieve. If we can’t know enough about what will be achieved, then methods are as important as objectives and strategy becomes “outstandingly a question of form and style.” Bad methods deliver lousy ends.

Kennan said he learned as a policy planner that how one did things was as important as what one did. As for bureaucrats and diplomats, so for nations: “Where purpose is dim and questionable, form comes into its own.” Good manners, which might seem “an inferior means of salvation, may be the only means of salvation we have at all.” Now there’s a thought for the modern age: good manners work!

The fundamental question of foreign policy is how to control and direct relations between states. The answer from a realist or conservative perspective is to look to norms (and even manners), state institutions and a balance of power. More optimistic and ambitious liberal internationalists (exemplified by US president Woodrow Wilson after the first world war) turn towards morality and multilateralism.

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

It’s the age that Trump has created that has brought Joseph Nye to ponder where morals fit in the foreign policy of modern US presidents. “The advent of the Trump administration,” he writes, “has revived interest in what is a moral foreign policy and raised it from a theoretical question to front-page news.”

Nye stands with Kennan as a rare foreign policy thinker who changed the understanding and vocabulary of international relations. He gave the world “soft power,” a concept that “caught fire and went on to define the post–cold war era.” Australia’s foreign affairs department now has a soft power division, and its 2017 foreign policy white paper devoted one of its eight chapters to the concept, defining it as the “ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas.”

In Do Morals Matter? Nye analyses the role of ethics in US foreign policy in the Pax Americana since 1945. He works through the presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to now, scoring their foreign policy on three dimensions: intentions, means and consequences.

As he observes, America’s exceptionalism and moralism are embraced by politicians and historians. “Based as much on ideas as ethnicity,” he writes, “America has long seen itself as a cause as well as a country.” But this exceptionalism is avoided by diplomats, who mostly fit into the realist school, and isn’t a good career move for young international relations scholars. Nye cites George Kennan’s warning about the “bad consequences of the American moralist-legalist tradition.”

Realists like Kennan and Kissinger argue that, in the absence of world government, nations exist in a realm of anarchy. “States must provide for their own defence, and when survival is at stake, the ends justify the means,” as Nye describes it. “Where there is no meaningful choice there can be no ethics… By this logic, in judging a president’s foreign policy we should simply ask whether it worked, not ask whether it was moral.”

Yet, he notes, most foreign policy doesn’t concern the survival of the nation:

Since World War II, the United States has been involved in several wars but none were necessary for our survival. And many important foreign policy choices about human rights or climate change or internet freedom do not involve war at all. Most foreign policy issues involve trade-offs among values that require choices, not application of a rigid formula of “raison d’état.”

While Americans constantly make moral judgements about foreign policy, Nye writes, too often these are 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.”

Do Morals Matter? is a normative exercise drawing lessons from the seventy-five years the United States has been the world’s most powerful country. “Since we are going to use moral reasoning about foreign policy,” Nye writes, “we should learn to do it better.” Here is the checklist Nye offers to mark presidents:

Goals and motives

1. Moral vision: Did the leader express attractive values, and did those values determine his or her motives? Did he or she have the emotional IQ to avoid contradicting those values because of personal needs?

2. Prudence: Did the leader have the contextual intelligence to wisely balance the values pursued and the risks imposed on others?


3. Use of force: Did the leader use it with attention to necessity, discrimination in treatment of civilians, and proportionality of benefits and damages?

4. Liberal concerns: Did the leader try to respect and use institutions at home and abroad? To what extent were the rights of others considered?


5. Fiduciary: Was the leader a good trustee? Were the long-term interests of the country advanced?

6. Cosmopolitan: Did the leader also consider the interests of other peoples and minimise unnecessary damage to them?

7. Educational: Did the leader respect the truth and build credibility? Were facts respected? Did the leader try to create and broaden moral discourse at home and abroad?

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 during 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 on both traditions in constructing their mental maps of the world. While believing in American exceptionalism, they were not ideologues or crusaders, and balanced risks and values.

Nye highlights the “enormous moral importance of omission as well as acts of commission.” At the end of the second world war, the United States had half the world’s product and a monopoly on atomic weapons. Some policymakers were tempted by “the idea of preventive war and aggression for peace.” Truman’s willingness to accept military stalemate in Korea rather than use nuclear weapons was an important ethical moment, helping to create the nuclear taboo “as one of the most important normative developments of the past seventy years. It was the dog that did not bark — or bite.”

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 Vietnam-era presidents shared a misleading mental map of the world that overestimated American power and underestimated the power of nationalism and local culture. Even when they expressed private reservations about the domino metaphor, they dug themselves in deeper by using it in their public rhetoric… The presidents saw their goal of combating communism globally and in Vietnam in moral terms, but their personal motives complicated the moral status of their intentions. All feared domestic political punishment for being the president who “lost Vietnam” and were willing to sacrifice the lives of many others to avoid that personal cost. It is one thing to spend lives and treasure on a misguided but well-intended metaphor about preserving American credibility in a bipolar world. It is another thing to sacrifice so many lives for domestic political advantage, or as in the cases of Johnson and Nixon, for a personal image of toughness.

The argument that the war saved the rest of Southeast Asia from communism is dismissed by Nye, who points out that the biggest domino, Indonesia, fell in the anti-communist direction with the Indonesian military takeover in 1965. Indonesia, he thinks, should have killed the domino mindset before Johnson began the troop escalation that Americanised the 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, saying it’s a matter of “compared to what?”:

Given the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, the economic stagflation, and the cultural revolutions of the decade, it may be that the problems lay in the context rather than the leaders. And after the decade of the 1960s where presidential deceit damaged public confidence, it is interesting that both Ford and Carter built their reputations on telling the truth. The consequences for confidence at home and soft power abroad should not be underestimated.

Carter discovered that human rights and promotion of democracy cannot be a president’s sole focus. “Foreign policy involves trade-offs among many objectives, including liberal values,” writes Nye. “Otherwise we would have a human rights policy instead of a foreign policy.”

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 faced few restraints on American hubris. Clinton gets a good overall score for using the unipolar moment to focus on economic globalisation and institutions. Among Clinton’s failures, Nye counts the inability to offer a full vision of the post–cold war world and the fact that “looseness with the truth in his personal affairs undercut trust in his presidency.”

Bush’s invasion of Iraq ranks with Vietnam as a major disaster of the Pax Americana:

Bush was morally brave in the case of the [Iraq] surge, cosmopolitan in his policy toward Africa, and a far-sighted realist in his relations with India, but all this was overwhelmed by his blunder in Iraq. His weak emotional and contextual intelligence undercut his goals, and his use of Wilsonian rhetoric later to justify his action helped to generate a public reaction similar to what Wilson himself had engendered nearly a century earlier. Bush set the scene for Obama and Trump.

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 when he refused to intervene in Syria’s civil war.

The Obama doctrine was as much about what the United States chose not to do as about what it did do. Nye says Obama used force “proportionately and discriminately” in his efforts to develop a light footprint for American power:

Obama once told a group of reporters on Air Force One that they focused too much on escalating conflict, and that Johnson in Vietnam, Carter with the Iran hostage crisis, and Bush in Iraq had seen their tenures defined by mistakes. The Obama doctrine, he declared to chuckles, was “don’t do stupid shit.” While hardly a grand strategy, it does signify the realist virtue of prudence. But liberal and cosmopolitan critics argue that excessive prudence can also have immoral consequences.

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 by breaking conventional norms. Unpredictability is a political tool, but too much lying debases the currency of trust:

A president may lie to cover his tracks and avoid embarrassment, or to harm a rival, or for convenience. While some of Trump’s lies may have been unintended and some were doubtlessly part of his bargaining strategy, a very large proportion were of the self-serving type, and related to his personal behaviour… As a leader, Trump was clearly smart but his temperament ranks low on the scales of emotional and contextual intelligence that made FDR or George H.W. Bush successful presidents.

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… Moreover, his lack of respect for institutions and truth produced a loss of soft power, though it remains to be seen if the damage to institutions and reputation will be readily repairable or not.”

Using his model to assess morality and effectiveness in foreign policy, Nye ranks the fourteen presidents since 1945:

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.”

Moral choices are an inescapable aspect of foreign policy, Nye concludes, though cynics 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.” He quotes Kissinger’s line that international order depends not only on the balance of hard power but on perceptions of legitimacy. And legitimacy, Nye says, depends on values.

Summing up, 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 acknowledges the 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.” •