[Joseph S. Nye. Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. Oxford University Press. New York, 2020. 254 pp.]
review / Emili J. Blasco
The question that serves as degree scroll for the new book by Jospeh Nye, known to the public at large for having coined the term "the question of the future". soft powerThe author's argument is not so much a concession to secularist thinking as a lack of boldness in asserting from entrance the desirability of ethical reflection in foreign policy decisions, an importance that, despite the question mark, one senses is defended by the author.
In fact, the question itself is a question core topic at discipline of International Office. A common approach is to see the world scenario as a conjunction of competing states, in an anarchic dynamic where the law of the strongest prevails. Internally, the state can be driven by criteria of the common good, addressing the different needs of its inhabitants and making decisions at the national or local level through democratic processes. But beyond one's own borders, does the legitimacy granted by one's own electorate not require the ruler above all to guarantee the security of his citizens against external threats and to safeguard the national interest against that of other states?
The fact that the state is the basic subject in the International Office of course marks a dividing line between the two spheres. And so the question of whether the ethical discernment that is demanded of the mandatary in the internal sphere should also be demanded of him in the external sphere is fully relevant.
Only from extreme positions that consider the state to be a wolf for the state, applying the Hobbesian principle to international order (disorder) (and here there would be no supra-state to discipline this tendency of the state-individual), can it be argued that amorality rules all against all. On a lower rung is so-called offensive realism, and on a lower rung, defensive realism.
Nye, a scholar of International Office, believes that realist theory is a good starting point for any president when it comes to defining a country's foreign policy, given that he must be guided especially by the ethics of responsibility, as he fulfils a 'fiduciary role'. "A president's first moral duty is that of a trustee, and this begins with ensuring the survival and security of the democracy that elected him. But from here it should also be explored what possibilities exist for partnership and international mutual benefit, not closing the door on entrance to approaches of liberalism or cosmopolitanism.
"When survival is at stake, realism is a necessary but not sufficient basis for a moral foreign policy," says Nye, for whom it is a "question of Degree". "Given that there is never perfect security, the moral question is what Degree security should be assured before other values such as welfare, identity or rights are part of a president's foreign policy". He adds: "Many of the most difficult moral decisions are not all-or-nothing [...] The difficult moral decisions are in the middle. While it is important to be cautious about the dangers of a slippery slope, moral decisions rest on matching ends and means with each other'. He concludes that "the maintenance of international institutions and regimes is part of moral leadership".
From the very beginning of the book, Nye uses the three conditions that have traditionally been used in moral treatises to judge an action as ethically good: that the intention, the means and the consequences are good at the same time.
Using these three yardsticks, the author analyses the foreign policy of each of the US presidents since World War II and establishes a final ranking that combines both the morality of their actions on the international stage and the effectiveness of their policy (because an ethical foreign policy can be the case, but one that does little to further a country's national interests).
Thus, of the fourteen presidents, he considers that the four with the best grade in that combination are Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Bush I. In the middle he places Reagan, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Clinton and Obama. And as the four worst he lists Johnson, Nixon, Bush II and ("tentatively incomplete") Trump. Having done the ranking, Nye warns that he may have given precedence to the Democratic administrations he worked for.
The book is a quick overview of the foreign policy of each presidency, highlighting the presidents' doctrines, their successes and failures (as well as examining the ethical component), so it is also interesting as a succinct history of the US International Office of the last eighty years.
The aspect of morality perhaps lacks a more academic foundation, as it is an discipline especially studied since the scholastic era. But Nye's purpose was not intended to delve into this subject, but to offer a brief study of applied morality.
Reading Nye is always thought-provoking. Among his other reflections might be the idea of the new prospects that would have opened up for the world if particularly propitious times had coincided in the calendar. In particular, he suggests that if Brezhnev and his gerontocratic generation had left earlier and the USSR had been beset by severe economic problems earlier, Gorbachev might have come to power at the same time as Carter's presidency; what they would have achieved together is, however, a matter for speculation.