The Immorality of Foreign Policy Moralism

Posted on


Here’s a snippet from a BloggingHeads episode I recorded with Jon Chait late last week, but that only just recently went up on their site. We’re talking about the Russia-Georgia situation:

I sort of prefer to express myself in writing, so to reiterate my idea here the point is that I think a lot of people have a tendency to wave the flag of “morality” or “idealism” in foreign policy as a way of evading responsibility for the consequences of their ideas. At the extreme, I think everyone agrees with this. There would have been nothing “moral” about it if Dwight Eisenhower had taken an “idealistic” stand over Hungary in 1956 and wound up causing a nuclear war. Nor would the fact that the resulting war would, in an important sense, have been the result of immoral Soviet actions really done a great deal to exculpate Eisenhower. There’s nothing new about this idea, it’s all in Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” where he says that in the political domain we need an ethic of responsibility, where you put forth initiatives that actually lead to good consequences.

In foreign policy, this is the animating ideal behind Lieven & Hulsman’s concept of Ethical Realism which despite some disagreements on policy specifics, I think is generally the right way to think about this stuff. When I say that maintaining a good relationship with Russia and China so as to allow for progress on nuclear proliferation, climate change, and international terrorism rather than a new era of cold wars and proxy conflict is so important that we need to let some other stuff slide, I’m not saying we need to set morality aside in order to pursue our interests. I’m saying that, morally speaking, the one course is better than the other. Trying to promote a world in which peaceful cooperation and commerce predominate over coercion and violent conflict is a profoundly moral approach, even if it at times requires people to temper the natural human instinct toward moralistic posturing.