President Biden at the White House, March 2021. <br>CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/51033292536/">Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz</a> (<a href="https://www.usa.gov/government-works">U.S. Government Works</a>)
President Biden at the White House, March 2021.
CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz (U.S. Government Works)

Grappling with Competing Ethical Demands: The New Biden Administration

Mar 25, 2021

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

Politico reporter (and friend of the Doorstep Podcast) Nahal Toosi recently asked about how we ought to be comparing and contrasting the current Biden administration's foreign policies with those of its predecessor. To the extent that we want to see the current presidency as the "anti-Trump" administration, this can obscure points of continuity as well as enduring questions that do not change simply because the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has.

Any leader faces competing ethical demands. In particular, policymakers must decide which ethical claims to preference and which to defer. Five years ago, in these pages, I tried to distill two broad ethical approaches—a "long game" versus a "neo-Westphalian" one.

There are two axes for assessing ethical decision-making: whether one is acting on behalf of "humanity" as a whole or whether one sees a specific political community as to whom ethical duties are due; and whether one is acting for the current generation or for future ones. The "long game" views ethics in terms of a broad-based, universal approach whereas the neo-Westphalian prioritizes the current generation of citizens.

The Biden administration rhetorically appeals to the first but tries to walk, in governance, a fine line between both approaches. We've seen it in a type of vaccine nationalism—prioritizing being able to offer every U.S. citizen access to the COVID-19 vaccine—but a willingness to share with non-citizens those vaccine doses that have not been given approval for use in the United States. The migration issue has resurged in the first days of the new administration—as the administration struggles to balance its commitment to offering asylum but rejects the notion of open borders and free entry.

It is also inherent in a foreign policy that is supposed to be both multilateral and supportive of an international order yet must also deliver concrete benefits for the American middle class.

Will a consistent ethical approach emerge? Or will we see a whipsawing between universal and particular claims on a case-by-case basis, and depending on how poll numbers read? To be fair to the administration, the American public itself is divided on this issue and sending mixed signals, which makes sustaining the policy effort that much more difficult. But it does point to the fact that this was not particularly a phenomenon of one administration or presidential figure, but remains an enduring and contested question.

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