One reason for starting this blog was my desire to resume analyzing U.S. foreign policy – a career hat I wore for many years. The timing is great for me, if not for the country, because the confusion surrounding this realm at least rivals that created by trade and other aspects of U.S. economic policy. So in this first post on this subject, I’ll tackle an issue with which Americans from President Obama on down are struggling unproductively – the extent to which moral questions should influence the nation’s diplomacy.
A short, and surprisingly helpful answer is “As much as the American people feel like.” After all, the Unied States is a sovereign state, meaning that it is legally and politically accountable to no authority other than its own government (even when it signs treaties). And however imperfect our representative form of government is, its main purpose remains carrying out the public’s wishes. So if the American people want more moral considerations injected into foreign policymaking, they have every right to do so, and numerous means of making these wishes known to their leaders.
Of course, this conclusion raises its own important moral questions. For example, doesn’t morality dictate that this foreign policy be financed in a financially moral way — that is, by paying for at least much of it in the here and now, rather than by foisting heavy costs onto future generations lacking any say in the original decision? And shouldn’t financial and military sacrifices be shared throughout the body politic? Former President George W. Bush sure flunked those tests, when he paid for the Iraq war (which I still broadly endorse) by borrowing (and worse, cutting taxes in the process), and fought it with a volunteer military.
But there are two even more fundamental, and related, reasons to be wary of morality as a guide to American foreign policy. First, the nation needs to answer the question, “Whose morality?” The easy answers are “The President’s,” or “The President’s and Congress'” (depending on your views on war powers issues in particular). But those answers are anything but conclusive. The Constitution, for example, clearly places some checks on the President’s ability to send U.S. military forces into combat and to expend resources on foreign policy. As for Congress, the Constitution denies it operational control over the military, and any authority to carry out the laws it passes (except for the rules by which it governs and regulates itself).
These obstacles throw the question back to the public, which only makes deciding “Whose Morality?” infinitely more vexing. Further compounding these difficulties is figuring out how to decide which version of morality should be selected, and when it applies. Unless the morality camp’s position is that there’s a single variety and a single set of rules for translating it into concrete policy steps in every circumstance?
Often when debating policy, Americans reasonably rely at least in part on expertise – on certain individuals or groups they reasonably believe possess some combination of special knowledge and experience that merits special respect. But who are the morality experts? Clerics? From which religion? And from which sect or denomination of that religion? And when did priests, ministers, rabbis master the public policy side of the equation? Does anyone suppose that elected politicians are morality experts? Academic philosophers? Any academics at all? Media pundits or newspaper editorial writers? Hollywood stars?
Those last few categories understandably invite snickering, but too often, opinions from those quarters are taken with the utmost seriousness in our foreign policy debate. This prominence should be a clear warning: No one’s a widely recognized expert on morality. And therefore everyone is (arguably except for convicted criminals). In other words, it’s certainly interesting that, say, President Obama, or UN Ambassador Power, or Congress’ leaders, or the Pope, or the Washington Post editorial board, or Bill O’Reilly, or George Clooney believe that the United States has or doesn’t have certain obligations to address some particular outrage on the world stage. But their views are intrinsically no more interesting – and certainly no more important – than my views, or my wife’s views. Or your views.
The second reason for doubting morality’s use flows from the first. Since no one has any special expertise on moral questions, it seems impossible to think that enough of a national consensus on morality can emerge to create a useful guide for foreign policymakers. Of course, it will always be difficult to create a national consensus on defining U.S. foreign policy interests – and especially those interests that warrant costs and risks. Just as obvious, those generally considered experts often disagree strongly among themselves on courses of action. But can anyone doubt that it’s ultimately going to be easier to reach consensus on interests than on morality?
After all, calculating interests depends on evaluating information that is reasonably uncontroversial – e.g., about geography, about resource endowments, about size of markets, about the relative strength of different national militaries. These facts rarely speak for themselves to policymakers or the public, largely because actions usually involve tradeoffs among interests, and therefore judgment calls can rarely be avoided. But using the prism of interests at least requires thinking of information that can be mastered and measured with considerable precision. That simply isn’t the case with the prism of morality.
I hope that this kind of thinking on morality and foreign policy strikes you the way it strikes me – as the height of common sense. I also hope that, when you read about current international crises in places like Russia’s neighborhood, East Asia, or South Sudan, you start asking why our political leaders and our supposed opinion leaders either seem so unaware of it, or so determined to wish it away.