Experts, Ethics and the International System

Jun 13, 2018

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on June 13, 2018.

We had a fascinating conversation on Monday with Kori Schake and Colin Dueck about the role of experts and expertise in engendering trust (or lack thereof) in U.S. foreign policy–an event that took place right at the midpoint between two very consequential meetings for President Donald Trump that could reshape the current international system: the G-7 conclave in Canada, and the summit with North Korea. It was followed by several hours of discussion among the members of the study group, which is examining the need for a coherent narrative to explain U.S. global engagement in the world.

One theme that I extracted from the rich discussions was that we are viewing a clash of ethics. There is an approach, one that many American voters embraced in the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns, where foreign policy is to be judged by the immediate and direct impact it has on people (voters, workers, etc.). It is an ethic of persons. Most of the expert community in both U.S. political parties, on the other hand, tend to view foreign policy through a more abstract lens: we are comfortable talking about an "international system" and a "rules-based liberal order." For those familiar with the work of Kenneth Waltz, one group is interested in the individual level of analysis, while the other is focused on the systemic level. The problem is how to talk and engage in discourse between the levels. To travel to a region that has been hard hit by economic difficulties and preach the virtues of free trade in the abstract will not be convincing. At the same time, crafting effective policies cannot rest on assessing whether every specific individual has been disadvantaged. Building on the previous post about the "Ethics of Triage," policymakers cannot avoid creating winners or losers–but instead must find ways to ease the transition of those negatively affected by a specific policy choice while locking in longer-term gains for a greater number.

Policies that end up doing significant systemic damage will end up harming individuals–this is a critical argument. At the same time, however, there has to be attention paid to the short-term costs and who is paying those costs. One of the reasons, I believe, that there has been a growing backlash against free trade and support for alliances among Americans has been because promised domestic and international burden-sharing never quite materialized.

One last point. A takeaway I took from the day is that Americans, for the most part, support continued engagement in the world for both idealistic and parochial reasons: to harness American power to their own prosperity and security, and to do good in the world. The reality, for many, is that current U.S. foreign policy seems to do neither. Hence, the sense of disconnection.

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