Do Morals Matter? Presidents & Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, with Joseph Nye

Feb 4, 2020

How much do morals matter for U.S. presidents when it comes to international affairs? What are the ethics of "America First" or 2003 invasion of Iraq? Joseph Nye, former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, works through each presidency from FDR to Trump and scores their foreign policy on three ethical dimensions of their intentions, the means they used, and the consequences of their decisions.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council. Thank you all for turning out tonight. It's a real pleasure for me to welcome Joe Nye back to the Carnegie Council, and it's great to see such an enthusiastic turnout for the discussion.

We have an especially strong showing of our trustees, and I would like to begin with a special thanks to our sponsor this evening, Robert Shaw. Thank you, Robert. Robert's our immediate past chairman. As many of you know, Robert led our Council's Centennial commemoration, which was an ambitious series of programs and activities over the past several years, and this was a very important chapter in the life of this Council, renewing our mission and setting new goals for the future. So, thanks to you, Robert, we're well launched on our next hundred years.

I also want to thank the trustees who are present, Brett Buchness, Aine Donovan, Michael Doyle, Anthony Faillace, Jonathan Gage, Haris Hromic, and Kristen Edgreen Kaufman. You can tell from that long list that we have a very loyal group, and we are really grateful to you for your stewardship of this organization.

"Do Morals Matter?" What could be a more important question on this January evening, and who better to answer than Joe Nye. All of you know Joe for his scholarship at Harvard and for his leadership of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. You also know him for his public service as an assistant secretary of defense, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and deputy undersecretary of state.

At Carnegie Council we know Joe as a kind of modern founding father. In 1987 the Council launched a new journal called Ethics & International Affairs, and it was no coincidence that the editors turned to Joe Nye to write the lead article for the opening symposium. Do you remember the title, Joe?

JOSEPH NYE: I'd forgotten that.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: The title is "Superpower Ethics."

JOSEPH NYE: Now I remember.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: In that brief piece—you're too modest, Joe, because it set the tone for the scholarship to follow, 30 years of it, much of it generated here and sponsored by our Council.

The themes from 1987 are familiar. I understand that there was some doubt back in those days about the staying power and relevance of a new enterprise in Ethics & International Affairs, but here are some of the titles of the articles in that first issue, and you tell me if it was a fad or something deeper. After Professor Nye's "Superpower Ethics" essay, we had titles such as: "Is Democratic Theory for Export?," "Some Christian Reminders for the Statesmen," "Is there an Ethic to NATO?," and "Living with Iran."

With Joe's help we made significant contributions to the academic literature and to public discussion through the Cold War and post-Cold War periods, and we are now in a new period, and the need for reflection on ethics has never been more urgent. Tonight Professor Nye is going to talk about his new book Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. This is such a timely and important contribution to the arc of Joe's work that began here years ago, and it takes on new urgency given the gravity and speed of current events.

Thank you, Joe, for all you've done for us and all that you continue to do for our country, for the world, and for everybody. Thanks for coming.

JOSEPH NYE: Thank you, Joel, for that very kind introduction. I must say it's a bit daunting because of those topics that you listed we haven't made much progress on any of them, particularly the Iran one. Imagine that that would be where we are today, but that's the world.

What I am also pleased about is that even though the world continues to become more and more difficult the Carnegie Council keeps its mission. As bad as the world becomes, that's bad news, but the good news/bad news story, that's good for the Carnegie Council. You're needed, and I'm delighted that you're fulfilling that mission.

What I would like to do tonight is to explain a little bit about why I wrote this book about presidents and ethics and foreign policy. I explained this to a friend a couple of years ago when she asked me what I was doing and I told her that this was what I was focusing my next book on, and she said: "Well, good. That'll be a short book."

There is a tendency in both academic studies of international relations and sometimes in government to basically say, "No, morals don't matter all that much." Another way of putting it is that it's national interests that matter. In international relations there's no government, it's survival, it's self-help. There is international law but no enforcement of international law. Yes, there's a court, but that court can't do anything with its decisions. Therefore, it all comes down to just national interests. I put this little aphorism in my book that international relations people say, "Interests bake the cake." Then politicians come along and dribble a little moral icing on it to make it look pretty, but interests bake the cake.

I try to do two things in the book. One is to show that if you have that view, you're going to get history wrong, that in fact morals actually are an important ingredient in the cake in some instances, not just icing dribbled on to prettify it. That's one of the purposes of the book, which is to say you have to take morals more seriously because they are causally very significant.

I look at case studies of the 14 presidents since 1945, and I think there are several of them where I can show you that the moral views of the president made a large difference. Let me just give you one example of that because then I'll go on for most of the time to the second issue of the book, which is: "Okay, if they're important, how should we judge them? How do we think about them?"

But just to make the first point about why are they causally significant, let me take Harry Truman and nuclear weapons. Many people would say, "Oh, Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Inexcusable." There was a famous philosopher at Oxford who refused to go to the ceremony giving Harry Truman an honorary degree in [1956] because he had so violated just war theory by killing all those innocent people.

Truman himself, of course, famously said afterward, "I didn't lose much sleep on that decision." So people have often said that this shows that Truman's ethics or whatever are irrelevant. To some extent on the original dropping of the bomb, there's something in that.

General Groves, who was the director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, once described Truman as "like a boy who was put on a toboggan that's already going downhill." He in principle could have stopped this, but in reality the toboggan was down the hill or the train had left the station. It would have been extremely difficult.

People stop the story there. But then, if you go a little further, it's interesting. There was a third bomb, and it was recommended to Truman that he drop it, and he said, "No, I'm not going to kill any more women and children."

Then, even more important, if you go forward five years to the Korean War, after the Chinese crossed the Yalu and drove the Americans back down to the south, the Pusan Perimeter, it looked like the Americans were going to lose the Korean War. Dean Acheson and other advisors told Truman that that would destroy his presidency.

General MacArthur, the great World War II hero who was on the scene as the commander, said to Truman, "You have to give me permission to drop 25–40 atomic bombs on Chinese cities." And Truman said no and he was punished for it. He was punished politically in terms of his thoughts of possibly running again in 1952—which had been possible for him but was now out of the question—and he withdrew. The Americans, of course, wound up with a stalemate in the Korean War.

What's interesting about that is if you think that morals don't matter in baking the cake, not just dribbling icing on it, think if Truman had said out of political expediency, "I gotta do this; go ahead, MacArthur," what would the world look like today if nuclear weapons were treated as normal weapons? It would be a very different world.

Tom Schelling, the Nobel Laureate, said in his Nobel Laureate address, "The development of the nuclear taboo was one of the most important things that has happened in the 70 years after World War II." That's an instance I would submit to you where morals were tremendously important in baking the cake and not just providing icing.

I have I hope some other examples in the book that will convince you, but the point I want to get across is that on the title of the book, Do Morals Matter?, I hope I have demonstrated not merely with this one example but with others in the book that the answer to that is yes. But if morals matter—as I just tried to argue—then how should we judge moral decisions? How do we think about them? What are the criteria by which we say, "This was good, bad, or indifferent"? What's the way in which we rank people?

There's a tremendous tendency, particularly for Americans, to answer that question in very shallow ways. One is American exceptionalism: "Because we're Americans and we know we're good. If we did it, it's good." Obviously, if you believe that, tell it to a Mexican or a Filipino who looks at how America behaved in the 19th century. So that one won't wash.

The other thing that sometimes we find Americans will say is: "Well, so-and-so spoke so brilliantly about our important values. That makes a very moral foreign policy." People often say, "I want a Reaganite foreign policy because Ronald Reagan really knew how to express our values." Well, yes, he expressed values well, but that's not the same as a moral foreign policy. That's part of it, but it's not the whole.

The other times, sometimes people say: "Well, we can never know. If it turned out well, it's good." For example, Nixon got us out of the Vietnam War, so therefore that's a moral policy. But remember, Nixon took basically almost three years or more to get out of the Vietnam War because he wanted what he called a "decent interval." He didn't think they were going to win in Vietnam, he knew it was a losing proposition. But he also knew if he got out too quickly, it would be bad for credibility. So he wanted a "decent interval," which was the phrase they used.

The "decent interval" cost 22,000 American lives and countless Vietnamese lives. How do you find out what's the moral price you pay for a decent interval? It turned out that a decent interval meant two years before Hanoi finally took over all of South Vietnam. And that question of were there alternatives, could he have done this at a lower cost, and so forth, means that just to say it came out right—we got out of Vietnam—is not enough to say it's a moral decision or not.

My complaints are that the way in which we often judge whether morals matter or not are very superficial. I try to make the case that we have to go beyond these approaches.

President Trump has said that his philosophy is "America First." You could make a case that "America First" is what every country does, just change the name of the country. For President Macron, it's got to be "France First." For England, Boris Johnson is going to say, "England First," and so forth. So what's different about this? Isn't this just the way it is?

The answer is that what matters is not whether a statesman is acting in the national interest in democracies. That's what they're elected to do. The question is, how are they defining the national interest? How do you define what is "America First"? So it's not that you say "national interest" and "America First," but how do you define it, and what does it lead to in terms of actions?

Let me give you a simple example. Right now there's a great debate that many people are engaged in about various forms of populism and the argument that we have a world that's divided between rootless cosmopolitan globalists and real American nationalists. If you think I'm giving you a caricature, just look at the speeches of Steve Bannon, who is close to Trump, or listen to some of the things you'll hear at a Trump rally.

The problem with that is that it misrepresents who we are as Americans but also as human beings. Evolutionary biologists will tell you that humans have evolved as a species by being capable of altruism. It doesn't mean we're always altruistic, but the fact that we are concerned about each other sometimes allows us to organize and to do collective actions that, let's say, a group of giraffes or polar bears or lions don't do as a species. We also do terrible things, but that ability to pull together into larger groups does depend on this ability to have altruism and sympathy and moral feelings toward each other.

Just to give you a very homely, simple example to illustrate this, it means that this view that we're either/or—you're either a nationalist or a cosmopolitan—is not what we are. We are capable of having feelings toward others at the same time that we have national feelings. You might think of it as a set of concentric circles of community rather than a sharp dividing line.

If you were at the beach some nice summer afternoon, reading a good book—say, mine—and you were at a very exciting chapter and wanted to finish it, and you heard somebody cry, "Help, help!" out in the surf, and you said, "Oh, no, I want to finish the chapter"—of course not. You would put the book down and go and try to save the person.

But suppose they didn't cry out, "Help, help!" but said, "Ayúdame, ayúdame!" Would you say, "Oh, foreigner. I can finish the chapter"? Of course not. You would put down the book and try to help them. The point is, it's not the nationality, it's the common humanity there. In that sense, almost all of us are cosmopolitan as well as national.

There are limits on that, however. Suppose you're reading the book and you hear cries for help, and in the surf 20 yards out are two children, and one of them is yours. Would you flip a coin if you knew you could save only one as to which one you would try to save? No. You would try to save your own because there is another set of moral duties and obligations that go with the role of parent. In that sense, the child has expectations from you, and you have moral duties to them.

In that sense we have these concentric circles of community, and our moral obligations vary, but they're not exclusive. We can still say, "Yes, I have a duty to my child, to my fellow nationals, but it doesn't prevent me from helping those who are not my children or my fellow nationals." This whole question of "America First" just strikes me as a travesty in terms of describing what we are as human beings or as Americans.

So the question is not "Should America be put first?" A democratically elected president should put America first, but he should not define America narrowly, and that is where we find the big differences. What I try to show in these studies of the 14 presidents since 1945 is that many of the early presidents, who I call the "founders" of this post-1945 era, defined American interests in a very broad sense, including providing public goods to allies and developing international institutions. They thought it was in America's interest, and it was, but it wasn't in a myopic view of America's interest, it was in a broad view of America's interest. I think that's one of the sad comments about today.

Still there are questions about whether what we see today is unprecedented in American history, and for the answer I cite Maggie Haberman, the New York Times journalist who has studied President Trump since he was in New York. She once told me, "President Trump is not unique, he's just extreme." This is essentially a way of saying that you can look back in American history at these other presidents and find some things that are very similar. The difference is the degree and the quantity.

In that sense that brings us back to this question of how should we judge these presidents? I argue in the book that what you need is what I call "three-dimensional ethics." Three-dimensional ethics means you don't look just at the intentions and the motives; you don't look just at the means, or just at the consequences; you try to look at all three and try to weigh a balancing among them to get a judgment.

Just to illustrate that with a domestic simple example and then apply it to international relations, suppose your daughter was at a high school dance and she had SATs the next morning, and a friend said, "Oh, I'll drive her home and get her home early because she needs rest before the SATs." You say, "Well, thank you." Good intentions. But suppose the friend, in the effort to get her home early, speeds but doesn't pay attention to the fact that the roads have become icy, skids off the road, and your daughter is killed. Would you say, "Ah, but his intentions were good"? Of course not. It was horrendous. Inappropriate means and a failure to properly do due diligence about possible unintended consequences could be highly immoral.

To translate that to international politics, Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush's press secretary, said, "You had to admire Bush 43 for his moral clarity, and therefore his actions in Iraq—which were well-intentioned, to democratize the Middle East—were moral."

Well, no. Isn't that just like the road accident I described? Let's grant Bush 43 good intentions. That's sometimes debated, but grant him the good intentions. But in terms of the means, he didn't have the means to accomplish his goals, and with the means he did use, he was not able to make distinctions and the consequences were terrible: You unleashed civil war between Sunnis and Shias, you reinforced al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and everything was worse.

You say, "Yes, but unintended consequences happen all the time to all of us." But that's where this idea of due diligence comes in. Did he pay proper due diligence to looking at the prospects for immoral unintended consequences? If you look at the accounts we have of State Department studies about the problems of reconstruction in Iraq and CIA warnings and the fact that the White House discarded them and paid no attention to them, that's not due diligence. That's what in law we call "culpable negligence." If you take my little example of three dimensions from a road accident to a major event internationally, I think you can say that that was an immoral decision.

So how do we look at these different dimensions? I have mentioned, regarding intentions and motives, the idea that moral clarity is not enough, it's not an excuse. But what's more, very often politicians will state something which sounds very good in terms of their intentions. Let me give you the example of Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam. Both of them said that their intention was to save South Vietnam from totalitarian communism—freedom for South Vietnam—and that they were not going to "lose" Vietnam, they were not going to be the man who lost Vietnam.

But there's an interesting difference, which is the emotional intelligence of these two leaders was somewhat different, as was their contextual intelligence. Johnson, who was quite good in contextual intelligence about domestic politics—some people say did the most for African Americans since Abraham Lincoln—had very little contextual intelligence internationally, and his emotional intelligence, his ability to control his own emotions, was not very strong.

McGeorge Bundy, who was a hawk on Vietnam and served as national security advisor for both these presidents, was asked, "Do you think that Kennedy would have made the same mistake as Johnson" if he had been reelected in 1964 rather than assassinated in 1963? Would he have escalated as Johnson did by putting 565,000 American troops into Vietnam? Bundy said no: "Kennedy wanted to be smart. His stated intentions and Johnson's stated intentions were the same, but in terms of his emotional motives, he wanted to be smart. Johnson wanted to be seen as not a coward, and the fear of being seen as a coward very much distorted his intentions."

For Johnson, the emotional fear of being seen as a coward made him persist in a policy which was like the road accident I mentioned earlier, well beyond what was possible. Because of this fear of being seen as a coward, he wasn't able to make the kind of decisive break that Bundy thinks Kennedy would have made. Now we don't know whether Kennedy would have made it because the assassination occurred, but Bundy was close to both men and I think his judgment makes sense. So as we look at the first of the three dimensions, intentions and motives, we realize that it's a combination of stating good goals but also of having the emotional intelligence and security to be able to implement them.

There are lots of questions we can ask about means. In general we live in an anarchic world, and survival is a very important aspect by which we want leaders to defend us. Therefore, we have long had a focus on means ever since the days of Augustine in the 4th century, which have been codified as just war theory. You will remember that Augustine was faced with this dilemma: If the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill," but if the good don't defend themselves, then evil will prevail, and good will disappear from the earth.

Augustine's solution to this was that killing in self-defense is justifiable, but you can't just stop there. You have to say, "Okay, what is self-defense?" And it has to mean an imminent threat. In that sense, if a soldier is rushing at you shooting, you can shoot back, but if he drops his gun and puts up his hands, even though he was trying to kill you 30 seconds ago, you can't shoot him. That's an important distinction which we get into when we ask, "What is imminent self-defense?" which we've seen in the last month or so.

But the important thing people say is, "Aren't these just impossible means?" And the answer is no. The distinction between noncombatants and combatants and the sense of proportionality have come down through the ages. Today they're enshrined in not only international humanitarian law that we see in the Geneva Conventions, but in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which the American military has to live by, and you can be put in jail for violating that. So means are important.

Sometimes people will say, "Yes, but if it's a matter of survival, you can't pay attention to means." The case that is often given as an example here is Winston Churchill and the French fleet in 1940. After Hitler took over France, Churchill bombed the French fleet and killed 1,300 of his allies, French sailors, because he feared that if Pétain and the French Vichy government gave the French fleet to Hitler, it would seal the fates of the Royal Navy and of Britain. So he did an action which most of us would say was highly immoral, killing 1,300 of your allies. But if the survival of the country was at stake—which I think it was—and he was elected democratically to protect his people, is that a situation where you say he had no choice, that we were in the area of what is sometimes called "lifeboat ethics," kill or be killed? There are some extreme circumstances where survival is at stake, in which you can say we wind up accepting means that we would never accept under normal circumstances.

But notice the danger of political leaders trying to stretch everything as matters of security and survival. When the Saudis killed Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Istanbul and President Trump was asked about it, he replied: "Get over it. The world's a dangerous place." That essentially is treating this killing of a dissident in an embassy of a country with which you are currying favor, as if it's the French fleet about to be given away to Hitler, and that's a travesty.

In other words, sometimes the appeal to survival and extreme security blurs the fact that there are all sorts of tradeoffs. Even The Wall Street Journal, a conservative paper, criticized Trump for not standing up and protecting American values. It doesn't mean that you would break off all relations or that you would bomb Saudi Arabia, but it doesn't mean that you say this is like the French fleet.

I think in that sense as we look at means, we have to be wary of situations where we blur the different contexts to say that all means are acceptable. They're not, and that's the importance of just war theory, which requires just cause, proportionate and discriminatory means, as well as in consequences a reasonable prospect of success.

That brings me finally to the third dimension of my three-dimensional ethics—which you may now have discovered is borrowed from just war theory—and that's consequences. What we find in consequences is that it's often hard to know what consequences are going to be. What's more, sometimes political leaders have to take actions which they find unpleasant from their own moral standards. This is sometimes called the "dirty hands" problem.

Leaders are trustees, so they can't think just about their own interests or conscience. They also have to think about those for whom they have a fiduciary responsibility. So sometimes leaders have to do things because of the consequences, even though they are personally repugnant. My Churchill French fleet example is an extreme example of that.

What we find out then is that we judge leaders by the question of: Did they do the best they could in the circumstances? Did they basically understand the circumstances well enough to make a judgment about how to balance these different dimensions? If you go back to my example of Bush 43 and Iraq, I think you can make a case that the consequences were not properly assessed, that Bush did not make the efforts necessary, and therefore we would condemn it as I mentioned as culpable negligence.

So motives, means, and consequences are all important, and what we then find is that when we try to balance these situations, we are left with tradeoffs. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard. But that doesn't mean we don't have to assess all dimensions as we try to make these assessments.

In the book of the 14 presidents since 1945, you will find that I ranked the top quartile as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and the first President Bush, and I rank the bottom quartile—the four worst—as Lyndon Johnson in foreign affairs, Richard Nixon, the second Bush, and the current president, Donald Trump, although in fairness his score is an incomplete until we see the final results; an incomplete but with a note from the teacher: "Needs improvement." The rest of the presidents are stretched out in between.

But I want to conclude with the following point: The way I rank these presidents is not nearly as important as the way you think about it when you do it. I would hope when you read the book and see my scorecards you will disagree with some and quibble. I have changed my own mind on several over time, and I may change it again because I'm not so worried about ranking the presidents in some way that's immutable. We know from history that presidential reputations change over time. We also know that we discover new facts, and we see things in new perspectives, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if you disagreed with some of my scorecards. I wouldn't be surprised if I, five years from now or five months from now, disagree with some of my scorecards.

But what I'm really hoping to do in this book is get people away from "It's good because we did it" or "It's good because it turned out well" or "It's good because it had pretty talk." I want people as they make these difficult judgments and scorecards to think in three dimensions of motives, means, and consequences, and I want people to restore the importance of moral judgments because they do matter in baking the cake as well as icing it.

Thank you all very much.


QUESTION: Jean-Marie Guéhenno, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council.

I want to follow up on what you said on unintended consequences. Certainly I would agree that one has to do due diligence on any decision in international affairs, but due diligence doesn't always give a clear answer. In recent years there has been Iraq, there has been Libya, there has been Syria—a case of massive intervention, a case of light intervention, a case of no intervention or marginal intervention, and all three with bad results. So as you make the decision you can never tell—in some cases you can, but in many situations you cannot.

For the United States, for a global power, this raises specific issues because the downside may be much greater for the people where you intervene, when the United States intervenes in the lives of others, while for the United States the downside may be big or limited. So it does raise important questions on the conduct of foreign policy, whether one should have a minimalist intervention policy in the name of ethics, and what is the degree of risk that you are prepared to take in a situation where you never know where history ends?

JOSEPH NYE: Jean-Marie, you know much more about this than I do since you have been in the middle of this in your job with the United Nations. I accept your point, which is that you can never know. But the question is, how well do you try to make a reasonable decision on it?

Let me give you an example before I get to the ones you mentioned. When Bush 41 was in the last month of his presidency in December of 1992 he decided to send American troops to Somalia to distribute food because the warlords were preventing the food from getting to starving people. It was a very humanitarian thing to do. In fact, it was beyond what he would have done in other circumstances, like for Kurdistan, Bosnia, and so forth.

Within a year it led to "Black Hawk Down." The warlords were not just interfering with food for monetary purposes, it was power. If you controlled the food, you had power, and therefore, if you started to have UN troops come in there and interfere with their control of the food, that was a threat to their power, so they killed a number of the UN peacekeepers.

Clinton then allowed the use of American military force against Aidid and other warlords, and the net result was a fiasco, the shooting down of the Black Hawk and the demand in the American public and Congress for immediate withdrawal, which Clinton managed to stave off for about six months, but basically he withdrew the troops. The unintended consequence of Bush 41 was to create a situation where it was impossible for his successor to keep the troops there.

Then, the next year, you have the genocide in Rwanda, and the immediate reaction from Clinton was: "I can't possibly send American troops into Rwanda. I've just had my head handed to me over what Bush left me in Somalia. I can't possibly do that." And what's more, they didn't want to support the modest number of UN peacekeepers that were in Kigali, and you can say that you could not have saved 800,000 Rwandans, but you might have been able to save 50,000, 100,000, if instead of withdrawing the peacekeepers you tried to beef them up or support them.

But Clinton didn't make that "fine slicing of the sausage," so to speak, and there was a withdrawal. You will remember General Dallaire was despondent as a result of it. You might not have saved everybody, but you might have saved some. [For more on General Dallaire and Rwanda, check out these Carnegie Council interviews.]

What I'm trying to illustrate with this is that if you say all or nothing—all intervene or no intervene—Clinton could not have sent the 82nd Airborne to Kigali in 1993. He would not have had the domestic support for it. He could have supported the UN peacekeepers in Kigali and tried to organize some coalition. He could have offered transport, logistics, and perhaps found one or two African countries to beef up the peacekeepers in Kigali, but that's not what happened.

The moral decisions—I think it was Henry Kissinger—who is not often known as a moralist—who said, "The hardest moral decisions are those ones between 51 and 49 percent." I think that's the case here.

Or, to take it forward to Libya, Obama was faced with the decision of do you try to save the citizens of Benghazi from Qaddafi's impending attack with allies, with support from the Arab League? With a Security Council Chapter VII Resolution, you're able to use force there, but the mission very rapidly expands to what becomes regime change, and the net effect is that Gareth Evans' responsibility to protect is essentially put in the ditch. The Chinese and the Russians will never vote for it when it comes to Syria, where it should have been applied. Then the question is, was there some middle way in which you could have, perhaps, instead of allowing the mission to change or by putting in forces to try to create a stable government after Qaddafi was killed, that you might have prevented what we have today, which is chaos in Libya?

We don't know consequences. But the question is how well have we thought through the potential of these different consequences, and then how do we avoid separating them out into either/or? How do we see that there are some middle positions?

I don't disagree a bit with what you said, but I don't like the view that people say, "Because it may turn out badly, we do nothing." In fact, there may be some things, even though they're modest, that we can do.

QUESTION: I'm Gareth Evans, Australian foreign minister in an earlier incarnation, but I hasten to add I have no allegiance whatsoever to current Australian foreign policy on climate change or anything else.

I'm very tempted to follow you on the responsibility-to-protect dimensions of the Libya thing, but let me ask you something completely different. I was very impressed by the point you made in passing about the nexus between behaving morally internationally and national interest. Running Australian foreign policy, I very strongly took the view—not that it has had much longevity—that being and being seen to be a good international citizen, and being and being seen to be a strong advocate and proponent of global and regional public goods was itself sensibly regarded as a third category of national interest, alongside traditional security and economic interests because of the very hardheaded returns that flow from that perception, reputational returns—and this plays straight into what you have been arguing for years about soft power—but also reciprocity returns: My behaving well on your issue in which we have no immediate economic or security interest can very often guarantee effective support for our issues in which other countries have zero interest.

I just wanted to ask you, does the book pick up that theme, and do you draw the linkage between soft power and the reputational force of behaving morally with all the complications of moral behavior that you have just been describing?

JOSEPH NYE: Yes. Again, I'm in full agreement, but in the amount of time we had tonight I didn't go into it.

I think what's fascinating about the presidents who I rank so high at the beginning, was exactly what you said. They saw a systemic role of the national interest, which is you provide global public goods. It's good for your soft power, it's good for your interests, it's good for others.

What we know is that people often think of international politics because there is no higher government as a zero-sum game. They often model it with this little game of prisoner's dilemma, where if I cheat, then you cheat, and before you know it we're both worse off. That's the tragedy of great-power politics, to use terms from some of my colleagues.

Robert Axelrod at the University of Michigan did a computer tournament of playing prisoner's dilemma, and what he found was that if you played prisoner's dilemma once, the question is, "do I cheat or not?" If I don't cheat on you, you're going to cheat on me, and I'm going to be a sucker. So there's a strong incentive to cheat. He found out that if you play prisoner's dilemma over and over and over again, you discover that the best strategy is reciprocity, tit for tat: You cheat on me, and I'll cheat on you next time, the next time you don't cheat on me, then I won't cheat on you, and so on. He called that "developing the long shadow of the future."

In other words, if this game is going to go on, then we both have an interest in developing a shadow of the future where we're going to be playing with each other. If I got a little from you this time, you'll get a little from me next time. That has to be incorporated in assessments of morality. I didn't get into it tonight, but it's a big chunk of the book.

What's so tragic in my mind about President Trump and his policies is they don't count that. Everything is transactional. Everything is one iteration of prisoner's dilemma. You either win or lose on this transaction. The argument that it could go on and on and on gets dropped out, and that leads to a world without a shadow of the future and without reciprocity. So there's quite a lot on it.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Steve Turner.

My recent research has focused on foreign policy decision-making. You said that, within your three assessments, the first one has to do with what their intentions were.

I'm going to read the book to find out more about this, but my question is: When you're developing a foreign policy from an intention, you start with your ideologies, you go into what your interests are, you define your goals and your fears. But when it comes to what you actually are capable of doing, it requires a lot more things coming together. A decision-making process is done by multiple institutions with a leadership of different ideological backgrounds, and then you have to take into account domestic policies as well and what you think you can get away with in order to keep your political support and your political capital. So I was wondering, how do you differentiate between what they wanted to do ideally and what their intentions were based on, what they actually thought that they could do in your story?

JOSEPH NYE: Most democratically elected leaders will state good intentions. That's how they get elected. You can parse their formal statements but it's very rare that they'll say, "I'm going to do this bad thing to that country just because." There are some exceptions, but I won't belabor those.

But when you actually look at the policies and the choices they made, then you get into these questions of the emotional needs and what they did. So I think you have to take it case by case, and as you dig down into the decision making, is it what they said they were doing, or was there something else going on as well? Good historians spend their time looking at papers and interviews and documents trying to parse that out. It's what political scientists call "process tracing," but historians just call it good history.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Tinatin Japaridze, and I'm one of the student ambassadors here at the Council.

I was wondering to what degree, if at all, in your mind is morality a cultural phenomenon and a cultural idea and concept, or is it less cultural and more political for countries that claim, "Well, in our culture we view morality differently because it's a different construct"?

JOSEPH NYE: There are clearly different cultural interpretations. The work of Jonathan Haidt, who is a social and behavioral psychologist, is quite good on this. He shows that you can find places in the brain which are related to moral impulses, but different cultures will translate that impulse or that intuition, if you want, differently depending on culture. Some cultures place much more emphasis on taboo, others place much more emphasis on what Haidt calls the "harm principle"—do no harm. Some of these are common to different cultures but in different degrees. For some cultures, there is a common "do no harm"—don't gratuitously hurt other people—but the taboo dimension may be far more prevalent in one culture than in another.

So you're right. There are different cultural expressions of this impulse that I referred to earlier. It's genetic, if you want, but culture takes a genetic dimension and then interprets it in very different ways.

My book is not trying to be universal culture. My book is trying to address to Americans how we should, within our culture, judge the presidents we have. Even within the United States there are very different cultures. If you look at the statistics that are developed by something like the [Chicago Council on Global Affairs], it's interesting to see that about a third of the American people have been consistently isolationist and don't care about other peoples and other cultures. There are differences about culture even within the United States.

QUESTION: Hi, Parveen Singh, Carnegie New Leaders.

I know you mentioned earlier in your presentation that you ranked Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon at the bottom tier. You mentioned also George Bush because he extended the Iraq War, and Lyndon Johnson for extending the war with that two-year period. Would you apply that also to Donald Trump and President Barack Obama for delaying the removal of troops or the extension of the war in the Middle East? Would you apply that to President Obama as well?

JOSEPH NYE: No. I think there's a difference there, though I am critical in the book of the fact that Obama drew a red line about chemical weapons and then didn't follow through on it as I think it did have a cost, not just in Syria and in the region, but globally. That's something you can criticize.

But remember Obama, in making his decisions about how much you intervene, was asking questions about the probability of successful consequences. One of the side effects that he was concerned about was, if you destroy Assad by bombing Assad and there is no democratic alternative, are you opening the gates for ISIS to take over Syria, and you can argue that that would be an equally atrocious moral outcome. I don't think that was the kind of reasoning that Bush 43 applied to Iraq.

You can criticize Obama's decision. In reading the memoirs of people in that administration, most of the time that people criticize it, it is that he didn't act soon enough. By the time he got to 2013, it was too late. The democratic alternatives weren't there. But if you take somebody like Bill Burns, who is head of the Carnegie Endowment now but was deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, he has written a very interesting book of his memoirs. He basically would say our problem was we didn't act soon enough.

Also, he makes the point which is similar to what I said earlier, that it's not either/or. It didn't have to be, "You send in the 82nd Airborne or you invade Syria." If we had acted sooner in more modest ways, we might have been more successful. Intervention is not either/or, it's a whole scale of things you can do.

QUESTION: I'm Krishen Mehta with the Aspen Institute in New York.

I'm very intrigued by your analysis of motives, means, and consequences, and I want to bring it to an example that relates to something in the 1990s and today. You may recall a Time magazine cover story in July 1996, which had a picture of President Yeltsin, and the article was "Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win." There was not much criticism about America's role because—Yeltsin was seen as a good guy—it rightfully perhaps, was viewed as an appropriate action on their part.

But having just returned from Russia a few months ago, I was intrigued by a comment I often heard, that if that interference had not happened, if in 1996, a stronger person had come in, it could have been very important for salvaging Russia from the crisis it went through in the 1990s. Then in 2000, this resulted in Mr. Putin coming in, a strong man who then reestablished the rule of order.

Going back to your idea of motives, means, and consequences, are there differences when one country actively uses those values in another country but then there's a different standard when the reverse happens in other jurisdictions?

JOSEPH NYE: There's a long tradition of political leaders expressing preferences for electoral outcomes in other countries. It doesn't always work out the way it's supposed to. Sometimes expressing a preference has counterproductive effects.

There's a difference between that declaratory policy or expression and actually doing something, such as delivering satchels of money to political parties, which is actually what the United States did in Italy in 1948 to prevent the communists from coming to power, or what Russia did in 2016 with its interference with American social media. I think again you have to distinguish different types of intervention.

If you ask again motives, means, and consequences, the first thing, before making a decision on even declaratory policy, would be, "Is this going to be productive or counterproductive?" The next thing is, "If I decide I do want to make some expression or do have some influence, am I going to do it in a way"—with a means—"which is productive or counterproductive?" I've told Russian friends that Putin may have thought it was basically a free good to create chaos in the American election. In fact, he wound up with a president who was sympathetic to his views but who was then hamstrung in his ability to accommodate him. I would argue from a Russian point of view that it was counterproductive.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Ezra Kanarick. I'm here with a Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program course.

You mentioned that Lyndon B. Johnson's motivation in putting troops in Vietnam was not being seen as a coward, but I was wondering, how do you differentiate any sort of political motivation from outside factors? You mentioned Truman decided to not allow military leaders to drop nukes in China. How would you say definitively that that was a purely moral decision isolated from wanting to be reelected or wanting to be seen as a moral figure?

JOSEPH NYE: Most decisions are not purely one way or the other. They're usually mixed. It's rare to have motives that don't have some mixture of interest and morals.

Since Truman's actions were mostly against his interests politically I think that's a little different from Johnson's, though if Johnson had been more perceptive, he would have seen that his actions were also against his interests, but he didn't see it that way.

To me the great tragedy of Lyndon Johnson was that this was a president who really did want to do something about domestic change and civil rights and the Great Society. If you read Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Johnson—she spent a lot of time talking with him after he stepped down as president—he used to say: "I hate this bitch of a war. She's keeping me from my true love, the Great Society." But he didn't have the courage to push her off. The Johnson story to me is a very sad story.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Joe, thank you very much. We're about to adjourn. You are standing here in front of our slogan, "Ethics Matter." I'm often asked by people, "How do you do that?" I refer them to you. Thank you for all the work that you've done over these many years and for keeping at it. Thank you for all of that. We really appreciate you spending this evening with us.

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