As his trial begins in the U.S. Senate, the impeachment of President Trump is, at its heart, a question about ethics. Was it proper for the president to withhold U.S. military aid to a strategic foreign ally to leverage its cooperation in an effort that could undercut a political rival? In a new book, “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump,” Joseph S. Nye Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), examines the role that ethics played in the foreign policies of every U.S. president since World War II. In evaluating each on the moral soundness of their intentions, their results, and the means they used to achieve those results, Nye makes a case for the enduring relevance of American exceptionalism in the 21st century.
Joseph S. Nye Jr.
GAZETTE: What prompted your interest in looking at foreign policy through a moral lens?
NYE: I used to teach a course here at the Kennedy School on ethics and foreign policy and so it has been on my mind. But obviously, the Trump administration has brought a lot of that to the fore in terms of the questions of: Should presidents ever tell lies? To what extent should they risk American lives? And to what extent should they take into account human rights in other countries? These are issues which have become a lot more salient as a result of some of the controversial decisions of the Trump administration.
There’s a big difference between the national interest and the personal and political interest of a president. The two sometimes get blurred, but this [Ukraine situation] seems to be a clearer differentiation than we’ve seen in cases in the past. To give you an example, Richard Nixon knew that he wanted to get out of Vietnam, but he also felt that he couldn’t get out too quickly because it would be damaging for American credibility. So they aimed to get what they called a “decent interval” between when the American troops would leave and when the South Vietnamese government would collapse. They thought it would be about two years. He spent 20,000 American lives to create a decent interval. It was partly his political interest to not be the man who lost Vietnam immediately. But it was partially a national interest to keep the credibility of U.S. guarantees, to make sure that it wasn’t too precipitous a defeat. So how much of that was personal, how much of it was national interest? That’s a hard one to parse. On the other hand, what we’re seeing in this Ukraine case, it’s pretty hard to see a national interest there.
GAZETTE: What is an ethical foreign policy and how can it be assessed in an objective way?
NYE: Sometimes people say if you have good intentions, that’s all that counts. Well, no. I argue that a moral foreign policy, like many moral decisions related to policy, have to combine three dimensions: the intentions, the means that are used, and the consequences. Balancing those three dimensions is what gives you an assessment of whether the policy was moral or not. But it’s not enough just to say, intentions were good, and it’s not enough to say it worked all right so therefore it’s good. You need to think of how you did it, as well — the means that were used.
GAZETTE: Modern presidents are generally thought to be firmly entrenched in just one of two foreign-policy camps, a Wilsonian liberalism or Machiavellian pragmatism. What did you find when you examined their track records closely?
NYE: What we find is, in practice, presidents draw from both. Americans want a certain amount of idealism and value in foreign policy. They also want to have their security protected and their prosperity advanced, and so a president is always balancing those two. Very few are totally cynical and pay no attention to values; very few can pay attention just to values.
GAZETTE: Presidents always have to make very difficult decisions that people will question and disagree with. Very few, if any, of those decisions have outcomes that satisfy everyone, whether it’s Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam or Trump’s response to the Jamal Khashoggi murder. In the Khashoggi case Trump decided that punishing Saudi Arabia was not worth the economic and political risks even as critics said it’s immoral for the U.S. not to have done so. Isn’t the definition often in the eye of the beholder?
NYE: There are always going to be trade-offs like that. Trump’s not the first to face those. People sometimes complained that Jimmy Carter paid too much attention to human rights. People are now complaining that Trump pays not enough attention. But those trade-offs are inevitable. Nixon and [Henry] Kissinger took a very strong view that nuclear arms control and détente with the Soviet Union took priority over getting Jews out of the Soviet Union. Sen. Henry Jackson took the opposite view and tried to torpedo détente. He said that Nixon and Kissinger were not doing enough for human rights. Kissinger’s alleged to have said at one point, “There are no human rights among the incinerated.” So you can have differences about how much human rights or values you want in your definition of a national interest.