Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump
Joseph Nye, Oxford University Press, £18.99

During the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War, Woodrow Wilson’s stridently idealistic moralism so exasperated Georges Clemenceau that the French president complained: ‘He thinks he is another Jesus Christ come upon the Earth to reform men.’

Indeed, as Joseph Nye argues in Do Morals Matter? ‘Americans have been exceptional in their taste for moralism in foreign policy’. In the near term, Wilson’s dreams died when the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. But his moralistic liberal legacy has profoundly influenced US foreign policy. That has translated into both the inspired (building the post-war international order after 1945) and the disastrous (attempting to spread democracy by force).

Nye, a Harvard-based international relations theorist and public intellectual, offers an urgent, accessible, and historically grounded prescriptive policy framework for our moment. A veteran of the last three Democratic administrations, he is best known for coining the term ‘soft power’ – the ability for states to get what they want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. In this slim volume, he argues for factoring morality and ethics into America’s foreign policy.

Whatever its faults, the western-dominated and institution-driven ‘liberal international order’ that has defined global politics since 1945 has helped preclude the kind of catastrophic worldwide war that characterized the first half of the 20th century and instead catalysed unprecedented economic growth. But a confluence of events – particularly the growth of nationalistic populism in the West and the rise of China – has led some analysts to declare an end to that era. It is into this breach that Nye steps.

Because this book is meant to inform policy, it is not merely an academic exercise. Nye refuses to be limited by the strict either/or delineations of international relations theories that the discipline often demands. He draws on insights from realism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism to create a ‘morality scorecard’ with which all presidents’ foreign policies can be evaluated. All these theories can contribute to a practical foreign policy approach, each in different proportions depending on circumstances. Real-world crises rarely respect the categories suggested by academic theories.

Good moral reasoning, Nye contends, should be three-dimensional, ‘weighing and balancing the intentions, the means, and the consequences of presidents’ decisions’. The critical question becomes how leaders define and pursue national interests in changing contexts.

Some examples might be instructive. By ‘intentions’, Nye means assessing whether a leader expresses values that are widely attractive at home and abroad and balances these values against the risks imposed in pursuing them. In practice, Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime leadership is a good model. Donald Trump’s narrow, ‘America First’ vision is not. For ‘means’, Nye refers to whether a president relies on proportional and discriminate use of force, and respects institutions and the rights of others.

In other words, more of George HW Bush’s prudent multilateralism at the end of the Cold War, but less of George W Bush’s largely unilateral civilian casualty-heavy invasion and occupation of Iraq. By ‘consequences’, Nye focuses on promoting the country’s long-term interests, avoiding insularity or unnecessary damage to foreigners, and educating followers by promoting truth and trust. Jimmy Carter gets high marks for his innovative human rights approach. Richard Nixon’s cynical Vietnam manipulations not so much.

Using this three-dimensional criteria, Nye places Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and George HW Bush in his top tier of moral foreign policies. Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, George W Bush, and Trump languish in the bottom. The rest exist somewhere in the middle.

But Nye’s historical analysis is a means to an end. In truth, this is a forward-facing critique of how the United States might address contemporary and future challenges. It is a policy memo for America’s next president. 

The US must confront two global shifts, Nye believes. The first is Asia’s – especially China’s – growing economic and political power. The second stems from rapidly changing technology, which empowers non-state actors and crowds ‘the stage on which governments act, creating new instruments, problems, and potential coalitions’.

These challenges do not require an entirely new approach, but rather one that prioritizes the values that animated US foreign policy after the Second World War. Recently, America has weakened its international standing by shredding alliances, instituting protective economic policies and pursuing fruitless and unpopular wars. But power flounders without legitimacy. ‘International order has depended on the ability of a leading state to combine power and legitimacy,’ Nye writes. ‘Morals matter, when seen in all three dimensions, because they are part of the secret of a successful international order.’

Soft power remains key. The next president ‘will face the moral challenge of defining a foreign policy where America provides global public goods in cooperation with others, and uses not only ... hard power but also ... soft power to attract their cooperation’. Nye sees the biggest threat to American primacy coming not from abroad, but from within: nativist politics that ‘narrow [Americans’] moral vision’. Which brings us to Trump.

He is a pro-authoritarian, tariff-loving protectionist, who is sceptical of allies and sees foreign policy as transactional. The ‘unipolar illusion’ – the three-decade period of American supremacy following the Cold War – gave rise to a ‘newfound popularity of a grand strategic approach that is alternatively called offshore balancing, retrenchment, disengagement or restraint’.

The opportunistic former steak salesman saw his chance and rode the wave to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump has damaged institutions – American ones, but also global frameworks – and his elephantine assault on political norms will take years to recover from.

On November 3, Americans will cast judgment on the future of Trumpism. Nye gives Trump low marks, though he concedes it is too soon for a definitive judgment. Whether or not Trump wins again, nothing in his past suggests he will suddenly embrace a moral foreign policy. This is a man whose existence, The New Yorker wrote in 1997, seems ‘unmolested by the rumbling of a soul’.

Nye’s argument that morals should matter in foreign policy is persuasive. But the urgent issue is whether that will matter to voters. A Pew survey in March found that nine in 10 Americans said it was ‘somewhat’ or ‘very important’ to them to have a president who lives a moral, ethical life.  But character and consequences are different. It is not enough for presidents simply to declare they possess good values. Nye instead fixes the locus of morality in policies rather than the performative aspects of personality. Presidents should consider how their policies contribute to stabilizing the institutional framework of world politics, which then helps make the achievement of good values possible. This is what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr alluded to when he wrote: ‘The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.’

The question looming now is whether US voters, who are quadrennially asked to ponder which candidate they would prefer to share a beer with, will care.