Ethical Choices for a Superpower

| June 2015
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Ian Bremmer’s new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, is a sober and clear analysis of the three different directions in which U.S. foreign policy could evolve in the coming years. It is clear that the two decades where the United States could “muddle through” and avoid making difficult choices has come to an end, given the changes currently underway in the international system. What is significant is that the three options presented are based not only on different strategic assessments of what best serves U.S. interests but on distinct visions of what constitutes ethical action by policymakers. In asking his readers to consider what role America ought to play in the world, Bremmer lays out not only contrasting policy prescriptions but challenges that touch directly upon core ethical concerns, beginning with the question of to whom and for what is the government of the United States obligated to act and provide. As such, it sets in motion useful and needed debates—particularly before we enter into the presidential election season—not only about specific policy actions (e.g. should the United States press forward on the Ukraine issue) but also on what ethical standards should be used to judge the morality of foreign policy itself.

Bremmer presents three shorthand descriptors for the different choices: Indispensable America, Moneyball America, and Independent America. “Indispensable America” calls for a much more activist and interventionist approach to world affairs, one where U.S. power is used more consciously to advance the betterment of the world and in defense of universal values (with the understanding that such a world order also brings concrete benefits to the United States as well). It is in keeping with many of the soaring pronouncements issued by U.S. presidents and statesmen in the last half century, particularly about U.S. “indispensability” and “vision.” A morality of good intentions, therefore, helps to legitimize the acquisition, use and exercise of power, and (to paraphrase a recent U.S. Navy recruiting campaign), present the United States as a “global force for good.”

The problem with this, of course, is that rhetoric often runs into the reality of hard costs. Any morality of intentions must be balanced by a morality of achievable results. This ethical consideration helps to inform the second perspective, “Moneyball America”, which focuses attention on goals and outcomes that are achievable. This approach focuses attention on the requirements, as outlined in such guides as Just War Theory, for an action to have a good likelihood of success and to produce better outcomes than would otherwise have resulted if no action were to be taken. It requires an ethical sensibility to deal with real-world limitations, and to avoid the ‘we meant well/our intentions were noble’ lamentations when maximialist solutions fail to meet the mark.

The third option, “Independent America,” is based first and foremost on the ethics of sovereignty: that a nation’s government’s first obligations are towards the citizens under its protection. In defense of universal values, it offers an ethics of emulation rather than one of promotion (or compulsion) and puts the onus on policymakers to fix dysfunctionalities in the U.S. system before heading out (paraphasing John Quincy Adams) to find other monsters to destroy. Given the importance of a strong United States to the maintenance of a liberal world order, it puts ethical premium on safeguarding and husbanding strength rather than expending it on crusades of the moment—of balancing short-term and longer-term time frames for action.

As candidates begin to lay out their visions for U.S. foreign policy, it will also be critical to understand their ethical foundations for their policy preferences and formulations—and most importantly, whether they possess a comprehensive world view or will rely on ad hoc, reactive responses to events. Superpower allows every reader to take up the challenge.


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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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