Moralism and Realism

March 26, 2013 Topic: EthicsPublic OpinionTerrorism Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Moralism and Realism

An unethical foreign policy would harm U.S. interests. 

There is a moral deficit in the way much American discussion of foreign policy fails to take account of the perspectives and interests of foreigners that U.S. policy affects. Marc Lynch noted this failure with regard to recent retrospective commentary about the Iraq War, Robert Wright has referred more generally to a chronic lack in this country of “moral imagination,” and Robert Golan-Vilella recently summarized the observations of both in these spaces. If we apply widely accepted principles of moral philosophy to the level of international relations, then taking better account than we usually do now of those foreign perspectives and interests would be the ethical thing to do.

An important further point, however, is that it also would be the right thing to do from a hard-boiled realist perspective that is tightly focused on U.S. interests and that some people might view (however incorrectly) as amoral. Paying insufficient attention to foreign interests, perspectives and sensibilities is wrong on this count as well as being wrong on ethical grounds.

Usually it is those critical of realism—including most conspicuously, but not limited to, today's neoconservatives—who claim to be the ones who understand and practice a convergence between morality and power, and between values and interests. They tend to criticize realists for insufficiently incorporating values into an otherwise empty pursuit of power for power's sake. But these claims rest on unduly narrow interpretations both of values and of the effects on national interests. The values being asserted are more parochially American than is usually acknowledged. The neoconservative perspective, for example, rarely takes account of the value of justice as it usually is articulated throughout the Middle East. This perspective also tends to limit its consideration of effects on national interests to direct, first-order (especially kinetic) effects, while failing to take adequate account of broader, longer-range, more indirect consequences.

Paying insufficient attention to foreign interests and perspectives has multiple negative consequences for U.S. interests. These consequences are no less important for being generally less readily apparent and less measurable than are the kinetic and other direct consequences that get more attention.

This attention gap can make it more difficult for the United States to accomplish whatever it is trying to accomplish overseas, because the support and understanding of a foreign population is needed to make a project succeed. If one is trying, for example, to establish a fairly stable representative democracy, as was the case in the Iraq War, this objective will be undermined by creating disaffection among Iraqis.

Outright resentment of the United States among foreign populations damages U.S. interests in further ways, with a resort to terrorism or other extremist violence by some subset of the resentful population being the most obvious but by no means the only such consequence. Those bearing grudges may extend far beyond the foreigners directly affected by U.S. actions, to include many who are hundreds or thousands of miles away and learn of the actions through mass media and rumors.

Whenever populations acquire strongly negative sentiments, it necessarily affects what their governments do, even in authoritarian regimes. This means in the current instance less willingness by governments to cooperate with the United States in countless other endeavors.

Finally, the credibility of the United States usually gets damaged—especially its credibility whenever it says it is acting in other peoples' best interests. That loss of credibility means still less willingness to cooperate on many other matters that may be important to Washington.

Often there are difficult choices or trade-offs between different practices, but this is not one of them. Morality and realism point in the same direction. The need to pay far greater heed to the interests, perceptions, objectives and sentiments of foreigners than Americans routinely do now is overdetermined.