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.


The basement-dwelling presidents are given their due for whatever accomplishments they reached. Though one of Nye’s least ethical leaders, lbj receives some good words as, apart from Vietnam, he “was a good trustee of American interests in many aspects of foreign policy.”

And then there is Trump. Nye is generous, in my view, calling him “original” for his “innovative skills in political communication,” analogizing them to FDR ’s fireside chats on radio and John F. Kennedy’s open press conferences on television. The better analogy would be if FDR took to the radio to threaten foreign leaders, domestic critics, and ordinary citizens, and if JFK yelled into the television cameras most of the time. Nye says Trump is “clearly smart,” but what is actually clear is that the president’s smarts don’t extend to an interest (let alone expertise) in policy or even, say, in reading a book. Nye suggests that Trump’s policies have “continued the realist theme about the limits of multilateral institutions and global commerce.” But while all realists acknowledge these limits, few seek to unilaterally, spontaneously destroy these institutions at the cost of America’s reputation with its allies.


Even with his compliments, Nye gives Trump poor ratings, although I would have awarded even worse. America’s reputation, legitimacy, and soft power—leading advantages it retained over the Soviet Union and which it needs over China today—will not recover from Trump for at least a generation, if ever. The bloated military has gotten more bloated, relations with China have been wrecked, the stellar nuclear deal with Iran has been shredded, and the menace of climate change has been worsened. 

The final third of Do Morals Matter? reflects on the brief history course Nye has delivered, discerning several lessons. “Imperial swagger and hubris did not pass the test, but provision of global public goods by the largest state had important moral consequences,” he writes. This is an important point, one that I think diminishes presidents like Ford and Carter. Building lasting international institutions, facilitating peace, or rebuilding countries, from the United Nations to Northern Ireland to a reunified Germany, has long-term benefits by legitimizing American power and improving lives simultaneously. Institutions have their expiration date, and the post-Cold War environment would look different had nato not expanded in Eastern Europe, or, better, had it retracted. But international order, such as it exists, is vital for America to prosper and remain secure, and institutions help make that happen. From Eisenhower’s use of the CIA to overthrow governments in Guatemala and Iran to Clinton’s bombing of Serbia without UN sanctions, the United States has not hesitated to violate international law when it wanted to accomplish certain objectives. Still, “prior to 2016, American presidents in most instances supported international institutions and sought their extension,” Nye observes.

Conversely, an obsession with credibility doomed some American leaders. One thing that mystifies political scientists is why great countries waste so much effort and power to defend or conquer small states on the periphery. Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush believed that an America which accepted small losses or displayed hesitations about using force would be fatally wounded. But “there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives,” as Kennan told the U.S. Senate in 1966. America seems determined to learn this again in Afghanistan.

TOWARD THE end of the book, Nye reflects on the “challenges for a future moral foreign policy.” He notes that China will be the great challenge to America in the coming decades, but also observes that the United States is well-positioned in that competition, with hysteria being a greater danger to America. Similarly, non-governmental actors will play a larger role in world politics, with advances in technology leading to changes in everything from climate change to terrorism. Here, too, the United States could be injured not by foreigners but by the country’s own dysfunction, weakening international alliances and discouraging cooperation. 

For all Nye’s reasonability, we are living in unreasonable times. Future leaders may try to emulate Trump’s unpredictability and scorn for basic decency. The president’s nearly universal adoration among Republican Party voters will encourage elected officials to try and replicate the sources of his uncanny political success. That could mean good things for the GOP. It means terrible things for anyone hoping for the United States to be a moral force in the world. Nye’s book asks, Do Morals Matter? They do. Just not now. Maybe in the future. Maybe not.

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost An Election And Transformed The Post-Presidency and a former speechwriter for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Image: Reuters.