U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken &  Vice President Joe Biden in Honolulu, July 2016. CREDIT: <a href="https://dod.defense.gov/OIR/gallery/igphoto/2001574265/">Staff Sgt. Chris Hubenthal/U.S.Department of Defense</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/">Public Domain</a>
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken & Vice President Joe Biden in Honolulu, July 2016. CREDIT: Staff Sgt. Chris Hubenthal/U.S.Department of Defense/Public Domain

Competing Ethics in the Biden Administration?

Nov 23, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Writing in The Atlantic, Thomas Wright outlines three broad "camps" vying for influence over the foreign policy and national security policies of the Biden/Harris administration. There are the "restorationists"—the same term used by the Carnegie Council report for those who seek to return U.S. foreign policy to its broad pre-2016 parameters; there are the "reformers," who are more prepared to embrace great power competition and focus on cooperation with allies and partners (along the lines of the "democratic community" narrative); and the "progressives," who are skeptical of military intervention, want more of a focus on improving domestic economic conditions, but also want to see greater emphasis on values.

What is interesting is that each of these three camps is operating from a distinct ethical framework—not necessarily contradictory, but with different areas of emphasis.

The "restorationists" are guided, per Wright’s article ("They believe in careful management of the post–Cold War order. They are cautious and incrementalist.") by an ethic of prudence, of seeking to avoid major catastrophes rather than pursuing grand projects. To some extent, it seems to be grounded in an ethic of results rather than an ethic of intentions. The progressives seem to take as their ethical starting point a ethical framework grounded in humanitarianism—which would encompass both a shift away from military force as an instrument of statecraft but also the emphasis on betterment of the standard of living of both Americans as well as others in the world. The reformers seem to be guided by an ethic of responsibility: that American power needs to be harnessed to shape, not simply mitigate, the international order.

Wright points out that these camps, certainly between the reformers and the restorationists, are not implacably hostile but comprised of "people who get along with each other." He also makes the important caveat that these camps are not monolithic: a person might embrace a restorationist view on one policy question but align with the "reform" perspective on another.

But we will see how these divides open up if and when there is a question of military intervention. These different ethical frameworks take different starting points (an "avoid wherever possible," a very cautious approach based on concerns about failure, versus a "better to act and fail than not to have acted at all.") Similarly, the climate change question may create divisions—whether to compromise with authoritarian states and accept, say, human rights violations, in order to get a working agreement that promises to make a real difference.

Wright makes this appeal to the incoming president-elect:

Biden's governing goal should be a genuinely intellectually honest process in which fundamental assumptions and policies of restorationist, reformist, and progressive ideas are constantly stress-tested and assessed with an open mind.

This includes not only the policy propositions and strategic assessments, but ethical frameworks as well.

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