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What Is a Moral Foreign Policy?

A foreign policy should be judged not only by specific actions, but also by how a pattern of actions shapes the environment of world politics. Leadership in supplying global public goods, for example, is consistent with “America First,” but it rests on a broader historical and institutional understanding than Donald Trump has shown.

CAMBRIDGE – Many Americans say they want a moral foreign policy, but disagree on what that means. Using a three-dimensional scorecard encourages us to avoid simplistic answers and to look at the motives, means, and consequences of a US president’s actions.

Consider, for example, the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. When people call for a “Reaganite foreign policy,” they mean to highlight the clarity of his rhetoric in the presentation of values. Clearly stated objectives helped educate and motivate the public at home and abroad.

But that was only one aspect of Reagan’s foreign policy. The success of his moral leadership also relied on his means of bargaining and compromise. The key question is whether he was prudent in balancing his objectives and the risks of trying to achieve them.