Measuring Morality in Foreign Policy: Joseph Nye’s Criteria

| February 2021
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Writing in the winter/spring 2019 issue of the American Oxonian, Joseph Nye wrestles with the question: how do we measure the morality of a President’s foreign policy? He notes, “Americans constantly make moral judgments about presidents and foreign policy, but we are seldom clear about the criteria by which we judge a moral foreign policy.” He attempts to set out a “three dimensional” test for making such assessments–balancing intentions, means and consequences–and examining both general consequences and specific actions.

He sets forward the following “ethical scorecard” by which each component can be assessed.

The first basket focuses on intentions, goals and motives. Is there is a moral vision which sets out values and explains motives for action? And how are values weighed against risks–in other words, the assessment of prudence?

The second is to examine the means. Is force (and perhaps in broader terms any tool of compellence that inflicts punishment or pain) proportionate and discriminate and weighed against necessity? And are the means to be employed “liberal” (respecting rights and institutions)?

The final set of criteria are related to consequences. He offers three: a) fiduciary (how does the act support or enhance the interests of the community, and in this specific case, those of the United States)? Perhaps we could link to the concept of domestic stakeholders.  b) cosmopolitan: does the act minimize damage or losses to others outside the community?  And c) educational–which he defines as advancing “truth, trust and broadened moral discourse.”

Nye rejects the notion that “morals are irrelevant” (quoting a unnamed French official encountered during the time when he was assistant secretary of defense) and that it is “tautological … to say that all states try to act in their national interest.” Instead, he seeks to find a way to “define and choose” how that national interest is pursued, in a ethical manner. In other words, to operationalize ethics for use by the policymaker.



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