About the Author

Joseph S. Nye Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus and former Dean of the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Princeton University,won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and earned a PhD in political science from Harvard. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. His most recent books include The Power to Lead; The Future of Power; Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era; and Is the American Century Over. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Diplomacy. In a recent survey of international relations scholars, he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy, and in 2011, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 Global  Thinkers.

Book Description

Americans constantly make moral judgments about presidents and foreign policy. Unfortunately, many of these assessments are poorly thought through. A president is either praised for the moral clarity of his statements or judged solely on the results of their actions.

In Do Morals Matter?, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., one of the world's leading scholars of international relations, provides a concise yet penetrating analysis of the role of ethics in US foreign policy during the American era after 1945. Nye 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. Alongside this, he also evaluates their leadership qualities, elaborating on which approaches work and which ones do not. Regardless of a president's policy preference, Nye shows that each one was not fully constrained by the structure of the system and actually had choices. He further notes the important ethical consequences of non-actions, such as Truman's willingness to accept stalemate in Korea rather than use nuclear weapons.

Since we so often apply moral reasoning to foreign policy, Nye suggests how to do it better. Most importantly, presidents need to factor in both the political context and the availability of resources when deciding how to implement an ethical policy-especially in a future international system that presents not only great power competition from China and Russia, but a host of transnational threats: the illegal drug trade, infectious diseases, terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change.

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[Alessandra Seiter] In April 2018, former FBI Director, James Comey, declared that Donald Trump was "morally unfit to be President." Which begs the question: What is moral fitness? What makes a president's actions moral or immoral? And how can we, as the American public, judge presidents along moral lines? It's exactly these questions that Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and leading international relations scholar, Joseph S. Nye, sets out to answer in his new book, "Do Morals Matter? "Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump".

On this episode of Behind the Book, Professor Nye lays out a framework for evaluating the morality of presidents' foreign policy decisions, and discusses the implications of transnational threats that future presidents will have to consider in order to enact moral foreign policy. Having served in the Departments of State and Defense, Professor Nye has long been interested in the moral dimensions of foreign policy, but he sees the gap in the US's conventional wisdom on the topic.

[Joseph Nye] People say, "Oh well, you know, "morality doesn't play much role, "it's all national interest." And I thought that was probably wrong. That there are instances where a president's moral beliefs have changed the way history turned out.

[Alessandra Seiter] In order to judge the morality of presidents' foreign policy decisions, Professor Nye first needed to lay out what morality actually meant. Professor Nye defines morality as "doing things because you feel you ought to". And, in this country, he says that "ought" is shaped in part by American exceptionalism and Wilsonian liberalism.

[Joseph Nye] When Woodrow Wilson took us away from our western hemisphere orientation and sent two million men to fight in Europe in World War One, he said he wasn't doing it for old balance of power reasoning, he was doing it to make the world safe for democracy. So he had to add a moral dimension of it to appeal to the American people.

[Alessandra Seiter] But after World War One, Professor Nye says, US policy took an isolationist approach that contributed to an immoral decade of massive economic downturn and a genocidal Second World War. This led Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower to found what Professor Nye calls the "Liberal International Order," which, he says, has also played a large role in shaping US conceptions of morality. Since, according to Professor Nye, this Liberal International Order began in 1945, that's also where he begins his new book. Starting with FDR, he evaluates each US President thus far along three dimensions of morality. The first is intentions.

[Joseph Nye] Well, most presidents would think that their intentions are good. I mean, very few of us walk around saying "My aim is to do evil." If some of the deeper motives are personal insecurity, or personal gain, then there's a gap between your stated intentions and what's really going on. So, Lyndon Johnson, for example, in Vietnam, basically didn't want to be seen as a coward. And that led him to say good things about saving the Vietnamese people, but it was really more about not appearing to be a coward.

[Alessandra Seiter] The second dimension is means.

[Joseph Nye] Obviously, there are wide choices of means. But if your means don't pay any attention to the lives or the concerns of others, we usually call those immoral means. So you might say, "It's more effective if I cleared the terrorists "out of this building by just blowing it up, "even if I kill 120 women and children." But we say that's not adequate means, that even if you succeeded, in the sense of killing a terrorist.

[Alessandra Seiter] And the third and final dimension is consequences.

[Joseph Nye] What's the ultimate outcome? And did you do well, not only for our country and the national interest, but in a larger sense, did you do well in a way which didn't do damage to others, and may have done some good for others.

[Alessandra Seiter] So, how has Professor Nye ranked the last 14 presidents, in terms of the morality of their foreign policy decisions?

[Joseph Nye] I put four presidents in the top tier. And that would be Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and George HW Bush, who managed to end the Cold War without a shot being fired, which was an extraordinary accomplishment. In the bottom tier, I put Lyndon Johnson, because of his getting us so deeply embroiled in Vietnam. And, along with him, would go Richard Nixon, for some of the same reasons. And, unfortunately, President Trump, though right there, to be fair, as a teacher, I have to give him an incomplete, since his term is not yet up. And the rest fall in various places in the middle.

[Alessandra Seiter] Though Trump has an "incomplete", according to Professor Nye, his negative-leaning ranking is shaped largely by his nationalistic populism.

[Joseph Nye] It's always very easy to complain that others are taking advantage of us, and that we can do better if we go on our own. And President Trump has found that quite effective, in terms of mobilizing a base. The problem is, it doesn't help you solve some of these problems. I mean, when President Trump withdrew us from the Paris Climate Accord, that sounded good to his base. Unfortunately, climate change obeys the laws of physics, not the laws of politics.

[Alessandra Seiter] Professor Nye concludes his book by discussing the potential impacts that the rise of China and transnational threats, like climate change, cybercrime and infectious diseases will have on the ways future US Presidents will be enable to enact moral foreign policy.

[Joseph Nye] The key question for the future President will be, "Can you help to develop a policy "and to convince the public "that we can have both cooperation and competition "at the same time?" For example, should you allow Huawei, the Chinese company, to build the fifth generation telecoms network? My answer to that is no, Because it allows too easy a cyber intrusion into our inner security networks. But if you take the other area, where, instead of competition, you think about cooperation, look at global climate change, which is enormously important to us and to China. And neither of us can solve it alone.

[Alessandra Seiter] In other words, as Professor Nye argues in the last few lines of his book, the US will have to exercise power with, as well as over, others, and rise above the nativist politics that narrow our moral vision.

The book is, "Do Morals Matter? "Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump", written by Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Joseph Nye. It's published by Oxford University Press.

This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at the Harvard Kennedy School. Special thanks to the Hauser Studio. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @HKSLibrary, and visiting our website.