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Why Morals Matter in Foreign Policy

It is tautological or at best trivial to say that all states try to act in their national interest. The important question is how leaders choose to define and pursue that national interest under different circumstances.

CAMBRIDGE – When I told a friend I had just written a book on morality and foreign policy, she quipped: “It must be a very short book.” Such skepticism is common. An Internet search shows surprisingly few books on how US presidents’ moral views affected their foreign policies. As the eminent political theorist Michael Walzer once described American graduate training in international relations after 1945, “Moral argument was against the rules of the discipline as it was commonly practiced.”

The reasons for skepticism seem obvious. While historians have written about American exceptionalism and moralism, realist diplomats like George F. Kennan – the father of the US “containment” doctrine in the Cold War – long warned about the downside of the American moralist-legalist tradition. International relations is an anarchic realm; no world government exists to provide order. States must provide for their own defense, and when survival is at stake, the ends justify the means. Where there is no meaningful choice, there can be no ethics. As philosophers say, “ought implies can.” No one can fault you for not doing the impossible.

By this logic, combining ethics and foreign policy is a category mistake, like asking if a knife sounds good rather than if it cuts well, or whether a broom dances better than one that costs more. So, in judging a president’s foreign policy, we should simply ask whether it worked, not whether it was moral.