Does America Need Moral Presidents?

Does America Need Moral Presidents?

Joseph Nye, Jr.'s Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump skillfully examines modern American presidents and ethics.


Elsewhere, Nye observes that “Trump’s speeches lacked the embrace of democracy and human rights that had been espoused by every president since Carter and Reagan.” This absence is consistent with Trump’s contempt for ethical behavior in family life (he cheated on all three of his wives), business, and politics. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump memorably shared with Billy Bush in the Access Hollywood tape. “You can do anything.” Anything. Trump doesn’t eschew morals in foreign policy because he believes in an amoral realpolitik; he believes in amoral realpolitik because he eschews morals.

As Nye points out, America’s promotion of human rights and humane values in rhetoric (consistently) and in practice (less often) was a source of its global power. The country’s standing has plummeted in opinion polls in most of the world, destroying the goodwill engendered by Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency following the similarly unpopular George W. Bush. Approval ratings abroad are hardly the sole marker of a successful foreign policy, but they are not irrelevant either—soft power is indeed a form of power. It’s just one that the United States voluntarily relinquished in 2016.


OBSOLESCENCE ASIDE, Nye’s book is thought-provoking and innovative. There is surprisingly little scholarly research on the place of ethics in foreign policymaking. Nye quotes George F. Kennan’s famous warning in his book American Diplomacy about the perils of a “legalistic-moralistic” approach to international affairs. Nye correctly notes that declaring policymaking to be beyond ethical considerations is itself an ethical consideration, and not a particularly persuasive one. 

But, in fact, realists disagree about the place of morality in foreign affairs. In the same book where he cautioned about America’s self-righteousness, Kennan wrote that, “it is a curious thing, but it is true, that the legalistic approach to world affairs, rooted as it unquestionably is in a desire to do away with war and violence, makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than did the older motives of national interest.” 

For Kennan, countries that pursue policies based on their respective national interests have more modest ambitions and are less prone to military crusades than countries swept up by popular passions. And indeed, thirty-five years after he wrote American Diplomacy, Kennan wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs clarifying that he hadn’t meant by his memorable formulation that “there is no room for the application of moral principle and that all must be left to the workings of expediency, national egoism and cynicism.”

Still, although the sentiment isn’t universal, some realists do indeed believe that nations should pursue their interests heedless of morality. Conversely, Nye seeks to establish a framework to evaluate presidential foreign policy on the basis of their ethics. Do Morals Matter? begins with a short history of morals in American foreign policy. For many in the United States, American “exceptionalism represents chauvinist pride and moral superiority, but for others it simply means patriotism based on shared civic ideals combined with cooperative internationalism,” he writes. 

There is another, rarer perspective, to which Huntington (and others) subscribed. Another Harvard professor fond of three-word book titles that asked rhetorical questions, Huntington argued in his final book, Who Are We?, that America was distinct because of an “Anglo-Protestant culture” that generated the “American creed.” But Huntington wasn’t a chauvinist, and he was skeptical of America’s supposed moral superiority. Still, in describing the main currents in American political thought, Nye’s binary is perhaps appropriate enough. 

As should be clear from his descriptions in his dichotomy, Nye believes in fortuitous exceptionalism. This, he believes, is the wellspring of Wilsonian liberalism. Unlike many other liberal internationalists, Nye has always acknowledged the limits of Wilsonianism—of the prospects of America remaking the world in its image. He favorably quotes Tufts University political scientist Tony Smith, who since the Iraq War has written several penetrating studies about the ease with which unchecked liberalism can morph into a form of imperialism. 

 However, as a good liberal, Nye still possesses a healthy respect for the Princeton president. “Where Wilson succeeded was not as a foreign policy leader, but as what we now call a ‘thought leader,’” he writes. Kennan, like other realists, had scorned Wilson’s utopianism, but he rethought that assessment in 1989—the magical year in Europe when six countries declared independence from the Soviet Union and seemed to embark upon paths to democracy. “I begin today in the light of just what has happened in the last few years to think that Wilson was way ahead of his time,” he admitted to New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Wilson’s ideas about self-determination and collective security were brilliant, appropriate to the twentieth century. But they were implemented disastrously and discredited in the minds of the disillusioned American public for a generation. 

Nye holds the outdated view that America was “strongly isolationist” in the 1920s—a myth which scholars such as Warren I. Cohen and Akira Ariye have dispelled. Despite opting out of the League of Nations, America spearheaded various diplomatic initiatives throughout the decade, particularly around disarmament. Still, Nye is correct that it became clear to American leaders during the 1940s that the country needed to intervene in Europe and Asia to a greater degree than it ever had. He is also correct that “the American order after 1945 was neither global nor always very liberal,” contrary to the hymns delivered by people like David Brooks and Robert Kagan. 

After this brief survey of American foreign-policy moralism, Nye devotes an important chapter to establishing the principles of a moral foreign policy. Evincing a sophisticated blend of realism and idealism, he advocates for his three-dimensional ethical framework. “Judgements based on good intentions alone are simply one-dimensional ethics,” he writes. Otherwise, Jimmy Carter would be considered the greatest foreign-policy president. Similarly, means and consequences are important but not the sole components of judging morality. Nye gives credence to Max Weber’s famous essay elucidating the need for policymakers to be more concerned with the outcomes of their decisions than with their moral purity.

Nye makes two persuasive arguments that separate him from realists. Firstly, he argues that realists take ethical shortcuts in arguing that existing in a dangerous world where survival is not guaranteed absolves states of their sins. “Survival comes first, but that is not the end of the list of values,” he writes. “Most of international politics is not about survival.” In addition, he suggests that American policymakers have duties to people beyond the country’s borders. He understands that cosmopolitanism does not override duties to put one’s nation first, but “one can be a strong inclusive nationalist and a moderate globalist at the same time.”

Do Morals Matter? designs an ethical scorecard with which to evaluate the morality of presidential policymaking. Under the category of “intentions,” he includes “moral vision” and “prudence,” the latter which asks the important question of whether a leader had the “contextual intelligence to wisely balance the values pursued and the risks imposed on others.” Under “means,” he includes the “use of force” and “liberal concerns,” such as respect for institutions and human rights. Under “consequences,” he includes “fiduciary,” “cosmopolitan,” and “educational,” the latter of which measures whether a leader respected the truth and built credibility. 

In addition to its inventiveness, Nye’s schema is valuable for its comprehensiveness and sophistication. For instance, by including the importance of a leader taking actions in his nation’s interests (this is what he means by fiduciary), Nye develops a more realistic and complex way of thinking about ethical policymaking than simplistic evaluators who prioritize only national aggrandizement devoid of morality or, conversely, of humanitarianism devoid of prudence. 

But this nine-point checklist weighs its criteria equally, and in doing so gives the mistaken impression that each consideration is as important as all others. So while George H.W. Bush famously lacked what he called “the vision thing,” that hardly seems like an ethical failing akin to, say, lying about the intelligence community’s certainty regarding Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction. Bush senior’s blurry vision inhibited imaginative diplomacy. The young Bush’s approach led to the deaths of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the squandering of American power and resources. But those two flaws are equally weighed in Nye’s scorecard. 

THE BULK of Do Morals Matter? judges the leadership of American presidents, from FDR to Trump. After brief overviews of each leader’s consequential decisions, Nye grades them with his scorecard, leading to some surprising reviews. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the best foreign-policy leader America has had, loses points for repeatedly and unnecessarily lying to the public, interning Japanese-Americans, and doing little to save European Jews from destruction. Similarly, Harry Truman, another president seen by most historians as impressive on foreign policy, is chided for using nuclear weapons against Japan.

On the positive side, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton receive higher ethical grades than their accomplishments seem to warrant. Ford and Carter are praised for telling the truth to the American public and restoring faith in the country’s institutions. These are good indications of how ethical presidents are not necessarily the best presidents, something Nye concedes. Less ambitious presidents in Do Morals Matter? are rewarded for their restraint and modesty, while more ambitious leaders—even successful ones, like FDR and Truman—receive demerits for their inevitable mistakes. “It is important to remember the importance of nondecisions,” he writes about Obama.