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Does America Need A Moral Foreign Policy?

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In July 2001, Henry Kissinger was speaking to a packed ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The topic was his new book, “Does America need a foreign policy?” All living secretaries of state including Robert McNamara and George Shultz were seated on the stage with Kissinger.

At one point, a man who was seated not too far away from me stood up and unfurled a banner, “Henry Kissinger is a war criminal.” This caused a stir. Three clean-shaved men in black lifted him up and removed him.

Then came a moderated question and answer session. Questions had been submitted on index cards and the chair of the Commonwealth Club of California read them out. Dr. Kissinger answered them with consummate ease. Then came the last question. The chair said a hundred people had asked this question. She was so nervous that she dropped all the index cards on the floor. Dr. Kissinger had stiffened in his chair by now.

Then came the question, “Are you a war criminal?”

Dr. Kissinger lost his cool. He said anyone who asks this question is a threat to American democracy, that he is a big boy who can take it but how about the average person. It went downhill from there.

The chair tried to calm down the audience by saying that next week Christopher Hitchens was going to speak about his new book, “The trial of Henry Kissinger.” Hitchens had called for Kissinger’s prosecution “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” But the damage had been done. The session with Dr. Kissinger ended on a sour note.

People left thinking of US-sponsored coups in the developing world. The most notorious were the coups that put the Shah on the throne in Iran in 1953 and that deposed President Allende in Chile twenty years later in 1973.

Even if the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq had begun with good intentions, it could not be denied that they had all ended in disaster not only for the other countries but also for the US.  Thus, the critics have long argued that morality plays no role in US foreign policy.

Now, a very widely published and highly acclaimed Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, has made the same argument. Nye gained prominence a while back when he coined the term “soft power” to refer to the ability of a country to gain influence not through the dint of arms and the economy ammunition but through its culture, people, education and ideas. He argued that the US needed to have both hard power and soft power to maintain its preeminence in the globe.

In his new book, “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump,” Dr. Nye examines the role that ethics and morality have played in US foreign policy under the 14 men who have served as president inclusive of the incumbent.

In a recent interview, Nye said it is not enough for a nation to have good intentions.

A moral foreign policy … has 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.

He makes it very clear that all US presidents indulged in moralism, i.e., saying they were doing the moral thing, but that did not necessarily mean they were being moral. In fact, he goes on to document the multiple instances in which US presidents lied to the American people multiple times during their tenure, some more so than others.

He cites the example of Richard Nixon who knew when he took office in 1969 that the Vietnam War could not be won. But he wanted to make sure that he did not go down in history as the man who presided over the biggest defeat the US had suffered since the end of the Second World War. He needlessly extended the war by two years in order to create the illusion that peace was being achieved with honor. The strategy cost 20,000 American lives and thousands more Vietnamese lives. It did not serve the national interest of the US.

Nye says that George H.W. Bush, a one-term president, was a far more moral president. In 1989, he responded with maturity when the Berlin Wall collapsed. People said, “We should be declaring this as a great victory for the West.” Bush replied, ‘I’m not gonna dance on the Wall and make it more difficult for Gorbachev to do the things he needs to do to wind down the Cold War.’ That showed an extraordinary amount of restraint.” He also credits the Bush for going into the Gulf War in 1991 with a coalition of countries and for limiting the operation to the liberation of Kuwait.

By contrast, his son, George W. Bush, went to war unilaterally with Iraq in 2003 with the intention of marching into Baghdad, deposing Saddam, and converting Iraq into a democracy. He presumed that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction. Bush did not anticipate the unintended consequences of his actions. The war cost the US upwards of $2 trillion dollars, ushered in bitter sectarian fighting in Iraq, and created ISIS. It was an unmitigated political and economic disaster for both countries and a very immoral act.

Nye critiques President Trump’s decision to assassinate Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani. By so doing, Trump injected a new type of instability into international relations. “By assassinating a high official in a third country when you are not at war, you are revoking what Gerald Ford had done after Vietnam which says we are not to get into the business of assassination. I don’t think we really want to drop that norm,” Nye says. “What happens for example if Secretary [Mike] Pompeo goes to Baghdad and somebody shoots him? We’d have no right to complain if we’ve shot Soleimani.”

The book makes a strong case for introducing morality in US foreign policy and end all this talk of putting America first. One hopes that US officials will read the book, digest its lessons, and advise the US president accordingly.


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Naya Daur