What Is a Moral Foreign Policy?

Thursday, January 23, 2020
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Timothy Naftali

Clinical Associate Professor of History and Public Service, New York University; Founding Director, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum; Coauthor, Impeachment: An American History

Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and Former Dean, Harvard Kennedy School; Author, Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump

Meena Bose

Professor of Political Science, Executive Dean of Public Policy and Public Service Programs, Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs, and Director of the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, Hofstra University

Panelists discuss the influence of ethics in the creation and execution of foreign policy, and how moral choices will affect future issues like the rise of China and transnational threats.


BOSE: Good evening. Welcome to our session today, a meeting with Joseph Nye and Timothy Naftali to discuss Joe Nye’s new book Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.

My name is Meena Bose. I am executive dean of public policy and public service programs and director of the presidential study center at Hofstra University. And it’s my pleasure to be presiding over today’s session.

We’re going to—we have much to discuss, so I will give very brief introductions of our distinguished speakers. It feels though they need no introduction, but let me just quickly summarize a few highlights.

Professor Nye is the university distinguished professor—service professor emeritus and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is one of the most renowned scholars of international relations in the United States and internationally. In a recent survey he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy, and he was named a few years ago as one of the top one hundred global thinkers by the Foreign Policy journal. Professor Nye has served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and as a deputy undersecretary of state. In addition to his new book, Do Morals Matter?, his scholarship includes The Powers to Lead, The Future of Power, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, and The Power Game: A Washington Novel. Sometimes fiction is a little more appealing than—(laughs)—

NYE: Or fun.

BOSE: —reality. Professor Nye is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Professor Timothy Naftali is clinical associate professor of public service and clinical associate professor of history at New York University, with a joint appointment in both the History Department and the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. Professor Naftali also directs NYU’s undergraduate public policy major. He has written extensively on national security, intelligence policy, international history, and presidential history. His scholarship includes the prizewinning One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, and Khrushchev’s Cold War, which won the Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature in 2007 and was one of the Council’s journal—Foreign Affairs—2014 lists of the ten best books on the Cold War. Professor Naftali was a consultant to the 9/11 Commission and wrote a history of U.S. counterterrorism policy, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. Most recently and pertinent to American politics, he is the co-author of a book called Impeachment: An American History—past and present, I guess. Professor Naftali was the founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, where he developed the library’s exhibit on Watergate and oversaw the release of 1.3 million pages of presidential documents and seven hundred hours of the Nixon tapes. He is a CNN presidential historian, and a consultant on CNN’s series on Richard Nixon, and the Netflix series Designated Survivor. So we will have much to discuss about the Nixon presidency and others, modern presidents from FDR to the—sweep of the presidency from FDR to Donald Trump today.

I’d like to begin, Joe, as we spoke about, by asking you to tell us a little bit about why you chose to write this survey of the fourteen presidents’ morals and focusing on this three-tiered approach to evaluating morality in foreign policy.

NYE: Well, I have long argued with colleagues both in government and in academia that morals do matter. But you know, the conventional wisdom is that interests bake the cake, and then politicians come along and sprinkle a little moral icing on it to make it look pretty, but it’s all national interest and they don’t worry about the rest of it. And I thought, you know, if these people take this view, it’s not only amoral, but it gets history wrong.

So I look at each of the fourteen presidents since 1945 and say if you took that simplistic, cynical view—which is quite common—would you get history right? In some cases you will, but in a number of them you won’t.

So I first wanted to demonstrate that the conventional wisdom was wrong. In fact—(laughs)—the conventional wisdom was—I put this in the preface of the book. I told a friend of mine I was writing a book about this and she said: Good, it’ll be a short book. (Laughter.) And but I want—so I first try to prove the conventional wisdom is wrong.

And then I say, OK, if morals matter, how should we think about it? And very often Americans confuse moralism with morality, and if you say good things—freedom agenda, defending democracy, whatever—you’re moral. Moral clarity, as Ari Fleischer said about his boss, Bush 43, that’s not morality.

And sometimes people take the other extreme and say if it turned out all right then it was moral or it was good, and just don’t worry about the rest of it. And I said, you know, when we make moral judgments, most of the time we want to look at what were the intentions or motives, what were the means, and what were the consequences. And my feeling was that people were taking shortcuts when they did bring morals in. And I use this very simple little homely example of if your daughter was taking the SATs tomorrow morning, and a friend offered to drive her home—get her home early but didn’t notice that the road had iced up, and drove too fast and went off the road and your daughter was killed, you’d say good motives, not so good means—inappropriate means—and horrible consequences. But you wouldn’t say it’s all moral because his intentions were good.

And I think you can make that case, let’s say, for the invasion of Iraq. Let’s posit that George W. Bush had good motives. But if you look at the means, we didn’t have the means to democratize Iraq. And what’s more, the consequences turned out terribly: civil war between Sunnis and Shia, creating a situation where al-Qaida in Iraq metastasized and eventually became ISIS. And in the meantime, there was total disregard for the papers that were produced in the State Department and CIA which warned against this. And if we were to put this through a court of law, we’d call it culpable negligence. We all have to worry about unintended consequences. The question is, did you do the best you could to think through the probable consequences? And I don’t think you would.

So I would say that my little, simple analogy of the car and the road can be applied to foreign policy. In fact, I use this three-dimensional approach—(laughs)—for all fourteen presidents. And people may disagree with the judgments I come up with. That’s less important than thinking in a more sophisticated way about morals.

We’re now going to have more and more of thinking about morals. The current president has raised that issue to a front page, if you want. And we’ve got to get over this sort of either it sounds good or it comes out right. It’s much more complicated than that. And I’m trying to use this book to get people to think in a more sophisticated way, what do we mean is a—what is a moral foreign policy.

BOSE: Well, this layered analysis of kind of motives, means, consequences, and each one is further subdivided—consequences: fiduciary interests, education—provides for a much more nuanced analysis of the presidents—of each of the presidents. And, Tim, when we were discussing this just before the session began we were talking about motives and how you assess a president’s motives. You’ve gone through thousands of pages of documents if we just take the Nixon Library, Nixon and Bush 43, who we were just discussing. How do we-how can we assess—do you think that—do the records give us evidence of a president’s motives?

NAFTALI: Well, the first thing I want to say is that I am not going to talk about a book I haven’t read. (Laughter.) Now, as someone who teaches in university I guess I could—(laughter)—but I’m not going to do that.

But I have to say, you know, for the sake of transparency, Joe Nye was my boss, I suspect, certainly a mentor and someone I’ve long admired. So actually, I look forward to reading the book. I did look at a little bit about it.

In answering this question, I want to remind all of you that our concept of morality evolves; and that, in fact, though there are standards of international morality which I hope we’ll get to, just think about our country’s—how our country’s thinking has changed on assassination. Because from—from the—from 1941, from Pearl Harbor, until the 1970s, presidents believed that they could assassinate foreign leaders and foreign military commanders even in peacetime, and that though they wouldn’t want the world to know they didn’t feel they were somehow engaging in immoral American activity. But in the 1970s, when the public learned about it, not only had there been changes in the way in which Americans thought about the Cold War and about foreign power, but Americans had never been consulted. And their reaction was American presidents don’t do this. And so from Gerald Ford until George W. Bush, presidents signed an executive order that said they would not—not only that they would not engage in assassination, but no executive officer would engage in assassination. Then 9/11 occurs and the public’s view changes. And so the assassination directive disappears—and it doesn’t just disappear for George W. Bush; Barack Obama does not reinstate it. He uses the drone program to assassinate. And now our current president has used the drone program and other means of assassinating, and most recently assassinating a commander of a country with which we are not at war currently, Iran. So the morality of assassination as Americans view it has changed.

So I want you to keep in mind that one of the slippery elements of a discussion about the morality of U.S. foreign policy is that it has to do with generational moments in American history and assumptions at that time. One of the things I try to do with students is say do not project the morality of today, your personal morality, when you are assessing decisions made by previous generations. You can and think about it, but don’t start out by saying, “They were wrong because…” Think about why they made the decisions they made.

To go back to Joe’s cryptic, what were their motives? Now, you asked me how you find that out. That’s really hard. It’s really hard because until President Nixon presidents owned their—well, actually, President Nixon will change this. Until Ronald Reagan presidents own their papers. Richard Nixon would lose his papers because of Watergate. Because they could own their papers, they could destroy papers unless they were subpoenaed or likely to be subpoenaed. I want to get this—Americans—we Americans don’t seem to understand this. There was no requirement that presidents had to keep their White House materials. Most of them in the modern era deeded them the U.S. government, but they set up a system to weed those documents. If they were assassinated, sadly, in office, their inheritors set up a system. The Kennedys, for example, weeded out materials—I have the evidence of this—weeded out materials from the Kennedy record, for example. So we don’t have a complete record for many presidents.

Richard Nixon, because of Watergate, some of his associates did engage in the shredding of documents. Fortunately, they were inept. (Laughter.) And then the U.S. government seized the Nixon record as a crime scene, as if it were a crime scene. And that’s why there’s a special law governing Nixon’s papers.

From Ronald Reagan on the papers belong to all of us, and there are rules by which they are protected. That doesn’t mean that miscreants and malefactors in the government won’t make mistakes, but there is a system in place—a better system—to keep these records.

OK. So the record—the record itself may have holes in it. Secondly, motive is very hard to determine unless your president records himself and engages in soliloquies. John F. Kennedy, for example, used his taping system to collect a very important historical record. But with a few exceptions, he does not engage in soliloquies. He doesn’t sit there and say, “I’m doing this because…” There are few cases where he does, and they’re rich, marvelous.

BOSE: Tim, let me just interject here so that—I want to—I’m curious to see, just so—because I know we’re going to questions soon. Joe, if you could comment on how you evaluated, right, how the evidence, just given the difficulty as Tim just said of discerning motive, what are you using—

NYE: Well, let me—let me point out that Tim is right, but it’s also—he’s looking for primary sources, which as a good historian he should. I’ve largely used secondary sources.

But let me take in example Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy both said that what they were doing, their intentions were to save the South Vietnamese from totalitarian communism being imposed upon them, a good intention. You know, you can argue it, but you know, I’d argue that both had equally good formally-stated intentions. But if you look at the work of people like Doris Kearns, who’ve spent a lot of time talking to Johnson, or you look at the accounts of her discussions with him, or you look at Fred Logevall’s accounts of that period—Fred is doing a study of Kennedy, as well as of the Vietnam period as a whole—and then you look at the—at the comments of McGeorge Bundy, who worked for both Johnson and Kennedy, both—was a hawk on both of these, and what Bundy says—and I think is borne out by these other secondary sources—is that the motives are slightly different from the formally-stated intentions. And motives are colored by your emotional needs, what’s your emotional intelligence, your ability to manage your own emotional needs.

He said Kennedy wanted to be seen—neither wanted to be the man who lost Vietnam, that was a political absolute. But for Kennedy it’s because he wanted to seem smart. He didn’t want to seem dumb. And Bundy’s judgment is—and this is debatable because it’s a counterfactual we can never prove—was that Kennedy would have, if he had been reelected, organized a coup in which some government in Vietnam would have invited us out. Remember, he put in sixteen thousand American troops, big escalation over Eisenhower, but they were all advisors. The total American casualties were about 160, compared to Johnson’s, you know, tens of thousands.

Johnson had a different set of motives. Remember, the same formal statements—I’m saving the South Vietnamese, I don’t to be the man who lost Vietnam because of dominoes and all the rest of that—but according to Bundy and others, Johnson didn’t want to seem a coward. He was deathly afraid of being seen as a coward. This goes back to his roots and his tension between his father and his mother, and so on and so forth. And that meant that Johnson was much less flexible than Kennedy was. So Johnson, of course, got 565,000 American troops into Vietnam. You know, it became a huge fiasco.

And you say, well, formally their statements—preserve the South Vietnamese from communism, don’t be the man who lost Vietnam because of the domino theory and so forth—were the same. The motives actually are quite different because of these differences in their emotional intelligence. That’s what I’ve tried to get at in the book, which is—so when we—when we take this category of intentions and motives, it’s more—it’s important to look at both the formal statements but also to get at what were their emotional needs which led them to bend, if you want, what they did one way or the other. And this is based on secondary sources, but these secondary sources are not bad.

BOSE: Well, it raises an interesting question, I think, of how you—when you talk about McGeorge Bundy as national security adviser—and I remember speaking with Bundy about this, the predictions of what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam—how much do we—do we count that as evidence, right, in weighing decisions about evaluating Kennedy’s motives? I think that’s where the focus on consequences is also instructive, and you bring in the whole process of education and the importance of public communication. If motives in some ways are vision—refers to vision and emotional intelligence, consequences get to how a president educates the public and uses the bully pulpit. And that’s easier to identify. How would you say—out of the sweep of the fourteen presidents, you give most credit to Bush 41, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, right? And then the—and then several—Kennedy and Johnson are mixed. The lowest record—sorry, Johnson, Nixon, Bush 43, and the—and President Trump are ranked at the lowest, though obviously Trump is still a work in progress. How would you—could I ask both of you to comment on which one—which of those presidents, of the best or the worst, do you think is most instructive with consequences, either positive or cautionary lessons?

NAFTALI: Well, you know, George Herbert Walker Bush is an interesting—is an interesting case because, studying him as a presidential historian, some of the methods that he deployed to be elected, to get elected in 1988, were not very good. And so there’s a—there’s a sense—a moral taint—a little bit of a moral taint from the election of 1988. But then—but then you look at how he conducted foreign policy when he had power and you see that the term “prudence” was a real—it was an active, thoughtful concept for him.

I think that he, to the extent that—though he could never really explain it because he had this Yankee inability to explain himself—(laughter)—I’m not casting aspersions on all Yankees because I suspect there are other—many Yankees that can, but he couldn’t. He had a—he had a vision for the way he thought the world should be. And that was, I would argue, Roosevelt’s vision. I think in many ways he was trying to reconstruct the world that Roosevelt couldn’t because of Stalin. He really believed the U.N. had a role to play. He really did. He had—and partly it was a—it was because he had been at the U.N. But he really believed in establishing a world where countries could not change their borders using force. And so the entire Iraq adventure—not adventure, but the Iraq policy was a product of his desire—and also Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser’s, desire—to uphold this—again, a very bad choice of words—new world order. But it really was a belief in a Rooseveltian world.

That, I think, has a moral content to it, and actually explains a lot of the decisions that Bush made. Why doesn’t he go into Baghdad? Doesn’t fit with that worldview. The way in which he dealt with the Soviet Union. There were people pushing him to dismantle the Soviet Union, people like Cheney. He didn’t know. What he wanted was the Soviet Union to change its basic character. And if it was willing to change its basic character, he was willing to do business with it. And that’s why he was willing to do business with Gorbachev and was not going to cast him aside for Yeltsin. So I think in the case of Bush, this vision, inherent in the vision was the sense of consequences.

NYE: I would add to what Tim said. I agree with him.

But had extraordinary emotional intelligence. He didn’t have communicative abilities, but he knew who he was and how to control it and how to—how to manage himself. So when people said after the wall went down in ’89 this is an enormous American victory, we’ve got to crow, we’ve got to—you know, this’ll be great for the party, this will be great for the country, you know, we really got to do this. And Bush’s comment: I’m not going to dance on the wall and embarrass Gorbachev; I’ve got to deal with him. That’s an extraordinary self-restraint. You know, it is—it’s true that as a Yankee he was not able—he said I don’t do the vision thing that Reagan did, but he also knew when to shut up, which is—(laughs)—which his mother had taught him—

NAFTALI: His mother.

NYE: —in his Yankee home.

So I—I mean, I think Bush 41—Tim and I were chatting a little bit before we came in and I said, you know, I remember that in ’88 Richard Haass and I debated, and I was in favor of Dukakis and Richard was in favor of Bush. And now, years later, I’ve written this book and Bush 41 comes out in my top quartile, and that shows you how wrong I was then. Tim was nice enough to say I didn’t have as much information then. (Laughter.) But I do think that the—that Bush 41 had the emotional intelligence and the contextual intelligence to be able to balance motives, means, and consequences, and get us through an extraordinary storm. It’s the end of the Cold War with Germany inside NATO and not a shot being fired. Very few people predicted that in ’89.

NAFTALI: Do we have a minute just to talk about one president who couldn’t shut up? (Laughter.) It is interesting.

BOSE: One minute—(laughs)—and then I have to—

NAFTALI: Clinton is a very interesting and—more work needs to be done on his foreign policy. He also had a vision, and a vision—he understood globalization and that it had a dark side and a positive side. Whether or not his foreign policy reflected the implementation of that understanding is a—is a question for us all to think about. But he had a vision, too, and it’s worth thinking about when assessing the morality of the Clinton years.

BOSE: Well, I think on that note we’ve had one case study in full and references to several others in this period. So why don’t we open it up for questions? We’re glad to have members join the conversation. Please remember the meeting is on the record and please wait for the microphone. If you would stand and state your name and affiliation, and let’s please keep the questions short so we can incorporate as many as we can.

I saw this person right here first.

Q: Hi. Thank you. My name is Nina Schwalbe and I’m a Council member.

And I have a question about Sweden and the feminist foreign policy, which is also being called for now by many NGOs and the U.S. Do you think that has a future, based on your study of American presidents—a feminist foreign policy?

NYE: Well, I think we just don’t know how much difference gender is going to make in terms of political power. If you look back and you ask, what about Indira Gandhi or, you know, the great Margaret Thatcher, women who have had power have not acted all that differently than men who had power.

The question is whether the context has now changed, because these were women who rose to power in a very much male-dominated world. They were women in cabinets mostly of males. And so the question of what would—if you have, as the Nordics do, cabinets which are mostly women, would women prime ministers act differently, and I suspect the answer to that is yes. But the honest answer is we don’t know yet.

NAFTALI: I would just add that one of the things that changes over time is the acceptability of certain means. I mentioned this about assassination. And what will be interesting—because I don’t want to gender the answer—what will be interesting to see if as women come to play the at least 51 percent role they should, right, in governing, whether that will influence the definition of acceptable means.

And I’m going to—and the example I would give is intervention, OK, because I can make an argument—I can make an argument that intervention is both immoral and moral. We talk about intervening and overthrowing a government, OK, like Iraq. The concept of intervention, of intervening in another state, is—it’s a very troublesome concept.

But intervening when you have a—when you have a genocide in a country, what’s the immoral part of that? But it is intervention. It is participating and shaping the political destiny of people that are not—that are not part of your commonwealth. So will definitions about acceptable means change as the—as our—as the composition of governments becomes more reflective of the commonwealth? We’ll see.

BOSE: Yeah. Very much will be seen.

Over there.

Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson, Quincy Institute.

On the question of means and morality, does the—what appear to be selective applications of morality in foreign policy such as the great concern over Iranian protestors while protestors in other countries that are allied with United States are gunned down with nary a raising of an eyebrow, is that selective application of morality a fatal icy road that can never be overcome? Does it just taint the whole endeavor, given the impact on credibility and trust?

And related to that and related to the comment about the evolution of morality, is there a notion that in order to establish a morality that all can agree on international instruments are the best that we have and so the U.S.’s absence from many of those moral foreign policy instruments like the International Criminal Court is—should be a measure of the morality or immorality of the U.S. government?

NYE: Well, I’ve argued it in the past and it’s, again, in this book that the fact that America stands for certain values—human rights, for example—produces an attraction, what I call soft power. Power comes in various forms and sources but it’s the ability to get what you want. You can do it through coercion, through payment, or through attraction, and getting what you want through attraction is soft power.

So when you have values that makes others want to follow you, that soft power is important, and that’s not a question of realism versus liberalism or anything. A good realist understands that this is a form of power. But when you’re hypocritical about the means you use such as the examples you cited, hypocrisy is a great solvent of soft power. It dissolves it very quickly.

I’ll let Tim do the other half. (Laughter.)

NAFTALI: I think it’s fair to say all presidents have engaged in moral compromises and I think when you assess them you have to assess their motives in engaging in moral compromises. We were talking about George Herbert Walker Bush. Here’s one. George Herbert Walker Bush decided not to put pressure on the Soviet Union when the Soviet Union intervened in Lithuania.

He knew that what Gorbachev was doing in Lithuania was wrong. But he also knew that he needed to keep Gorbachev in power and that the direction the Soviets were taking was a direction not only in the interests of the United States but of the world.

So to attack Gorbachev on Lithuania would undermine Gorbachev at a very critical moment. There were many people that attacked him—Bush—for this immorality and for being hypocritical. Here the United States was standing for freedom and self-determination and the Lithuanians wanted self-determination.

He made a moral compromise. He understood what he was doing. But it was a compromise. Is that—is that a right kind of compromise?

One of the things that Joe mentioned was inflexibility or moralism. Are we—are we not ready for pragmatic applications of morality or is that hypocrisy? Is it hypocrisy to engage in compromises for a greater good? I don’t think so. But it’s worth debating.

NYE: If I could just—Tim and I basically agree on this. Tim sort of mentioned a context. It’s very rare that you can have what’s, quote, “a purely moral foreign policy.” You’re going to have to make compromises and tradeoffs. Sometimes people say, what do you do about human rights in X country, and if you have a pure human rights policy you don’t have a foreign policy.

A foreign policy is to try to get as many values as you can. That includes security, economics, balancing power, and values—human rights. And you can’t just say, I’m going to have a pure human rights policy. Jimmy Carter elevated human rights but he didn’t make it a pure human rights policy. It was impossible.

BOSE: What about the question about international institutions—

NYE: Well, I think institutions are critical and that, to me, is one of the great problems of the current presidency is that the institutions create a way in which people can act outside of what might be called lifeboat ethics. Lifeboat ethics means one of us dies. It’s kill or be killed. Morality plays very little role at that stage.

But if you create institutions, you can get away from lifeboat ethics. Not always, not perfectly. But Robert Axelrod once did a very interesting computer simulation in which he took prisoner’s dilemma, which is a game which is zero sum—I win, you lose; there’s no way out of it—and many people say international politics is a prisoner’s dilemma zero sum game.

What Axelrod showed is if you played prisoner’s dilemma enough times, so you and I—if I cheat on you this time and you cheat on me next time, if we learn tit for tat or reciprocity and we keep playing again and again and again, we actually don’t deteriorate to the lowest common denominator. We develop reciprocity. There’s room for morals. And Axelrod had a wonderful phrase for this. He called it the long shadow of the future.

If I know that we’re going to be playing this game always, then we can think about I’ll give you this one but I expect you to give me the next one, and that leaves room for morality. But when it’s kill or be killed, there’s no room for morality.

Winston Churchill, in 1940, bombed the French fleet. He killed fourteen hundred of his allies. But it was a kill or be killed situation. The Vichy government would have given that fleet to Hitler and the Royal Navy couldn’t stand that loss of capacity if Britain was to survive.

So people say this is the ultimate act of immorality. In a lifeboat ethics situation, I think you’d say not anything can be done. But if you have institutions you can relax those constraints so that everything isn’t just survival. Survival still is important, but everything isn’t all about survival. You can bring in these other values. In the institutions you’ll allow a long shadow of the future.

So I think institutions are tremendously important and that’s why I’m so distressed by President Trump’s disdain for international institutions and alliances. I think that’s undercutting America’s long-term security.

BOSE: OK. Quite a lot—so many people. In the back over there, please.

Q: So Paul Richards from Columbia University.

About nuclear weapons, Dean Nye, in your book you mention a taboo, the dog that did not bark or bite. So here we are in 2020 and I ask, you know, what are nuclear weapons for today and is there a good moral basis for spending on the order of a trillion dollars to upgrade the nuclear weapons infrastructure of the United States?

NYE: Well, I think credible nuclear capacity does still serve a deterrent role and the major deterrence is against others using nuclear weapons, and that means if you have nuclear weapons you want to have the capacity. You don’t want them, so to speak, on the front line. And in this question of the history of this it’s quite fascinating that when Harry Truman—this is in the book—when Harry Truman was—became president and decided to go ahead and bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the head of the Manhattan Project, General Groves, said Truman couldn’t do much about it. He was like a boy who was put on a toboggan that was already going downhill.

So it would have been remarkable for Truman to have stopped that. But fast forward five years to Korea where Truman is losing the Korean War and Acheson and others tell him, this is going to destroy your presidency, and Douglas MacArthur, the general in the theater, says, I want the right to use twenty-five to forty atomic bombs on Chinese cities; that’s the only way we’re going to avoid defeat.

And Truman says, I’m not going to kill that many women and children. It was not just prudence in the sense of, you know, I don’t want the war to spread. Remember, the Soviets had the bomb but it wasn’t deliverable. They’d only got it a year earlier. It was—Truman changed his moral position, and Tom Schelling, in his Nobel Laureate lecture, said the single most important thing that has happened since 1945 was the development of the nuclear taboo. Because if Truman had taken that decision in Korea differently and nuclear weapons were ordinary weapons—we used them all the time—this world today would look very, very different.

So I would argue, and this is an evolution of moral views, but I think it’s been a very positive evolution of moral views. So it allows us to think that nuclear weapons today can play a deterrent role because of the taboo. What we have to worry about is will the new entrants, if there’s a North Korean, Iranian, and so forth, nuclear power, will they have the same respect for the nuclear taboo that the other countries have had.

BOSE: Tim, did you want to comment on nuclear weapons with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I know is an area you focus on, but Kennedy’s decision not to take any sort of preventive strike, right, which was raised during the decision-making process, and Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, spoke up and said his brother wouldn’t do that?

NAFTALI: Well, there are a lot of questions. The only thing I’d say about that is that what’s interesting about the Cuban Missile Crisis is that both the Soviets and the Americans had similar values with regard to the use of nuclear weapons. The Soviets didn’t want to use them either and they didn’t put them in Cuba to be used. They were there to scare us.

BOSE: OK. Thank you.

OK. In the way back.

Q: Hi. Andres Small, Partners Group.

Your evolution of moral views in the assassination of opponents I find it very interesting. I was wondering if you could do that for torture or enhanced interrogation and to place Guantanamo in a better historical context.

NAFTALI: Well, I don’t know all of the—all of the data points. We do have evidence that water boarding, for example, which we—I hope we all recognize as torture, that it was used in the Spanish-American War. It was used in the Philippine insurrection. But I’m not—I don’t have evidence that it actually was used afterwards by U.S. forces and although there’s a rich discussion—and I’m not really a military historian, certainly not of World War II.

But I believe the United States tried to avoid using what we describe as torture on—when it interrogated people. I know, having studied intelligence history, that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t think that torture worked. So that’s not really a moral reason not to do it. It was just not effective. And they learned that from the British because a lot of the American intelligence community’s morays came from the British. The British taught the United States how to engage in international espionage.

And so I would—I would argue that what happens in—after 9/11 is that some thinking that was used to prepare American flyers who were being captured and interrogated by the Serbs was perverted into the basis for an approach to using torture against people we captured. They were preparing people for Serb torture techniques. We then flipped it around and made it justification for American torture.

So I’m not sure this is an evolution at all. I think this is a remarkable weird awful story that doesn’t reflect a linear progression.

NYE: Just a quick footnote on that. Teddy Roosevelt, who was a hero of mine and many others, condoned water boarding, and Leonard Wood, for which we have Camp Leonard Wood and Leonard Wood is seen as a hero today, Leonard Wood condoned water boarding in the Philippines and Roosevelt let him off lightly because he was a friend. So this is not entirely new.

BOSE: OK. Thank you.

Right here.

Q: Joe Rose, Council.

BOSE: Oh, just—

Q: So morality is a—(clears throat)—excuse me—somewhat amorphous term and possibly subjective, depending on who’s using it and how. But and there seems to me a clear difference between a set of criteria for evaluating actions retrospectively in terms of did they achieve some objective or did they operate within certain parameters and a code of ethics governing prospective actions on the part of national leaders, and how—which is the—what is it that we’re seeking, a criteria for judging or a code of conduct?

NYE: I think it’s both. You know, I didn’t—and the book doesn’t worry a lot about the—what I call the scaffolding about deontology and Kantian ethics versus utilitarian ethics and Mill and Aristotelian ethics, of character, and so forth. I bury that. I want—because, in fact, in practical terms, when people make moral judgments like this little example I gave of the road accident, we do think in three dimensions.

And if you think of the long traditions that have produced a very important code of conduct for the United States—the Uniform Code of Conduct that the American military has to live by—it goes all the way back to Augustine in the fourth century when they wrestled with the question if the Bible says thou shalt not kill and somebody is going to kill you—an evil person is going to kill you—if you don’t defend yourself the good will vanish from the Earth and evil will prevail.

That was the origins of the just war doctrine, and the just war doctrine evolved over time with all three of these dimensions. And since my three dimensions is copped or cribbed from the just war tradition, but essentially you have to have just cause, you have to have moral means, which means discrimination between civilians and non-civilians, and proportionality, and you have to have a good prospect of success in the consequences.

So we’ve been using this for a long time. It’s built into the Geneva Conventions—international humanitarian law—and as I said, it’s built into the Uniform Code of Military Justice by which some American military have been sent to jail for violating.

So I would argue what I’m urging is rather a common-sense morality and that we do have it. We just—too often when we talk about things we talk about the brilliant moral clarity that Reagan or Bush 43 had when they had the freedom agenda. That’s not morality. That’s moralism. I want people to, basically, take the three dimensions that’s inherent in the just war doctrine, which has informed our codes of conduct, and apply them to other things as well.

NAFTALI: And, Joe, when I—when I write biographies, as I’d said, I try to get students not to project their morality on the past. When I write biographies, the first thing I try to establish is the moral climate of the time and see how the actor diverges from the expectations of his or her community because I think that helps you because they would then know that they’re transgressing.

But you have to be explicit about those moral road—those lines in the sand and you got to—as a historian, you’re a responsible biographer; I think you have to make those explicit. That’s how people thought then. Good or bad, that’s how they thought. Within that moral universe, this actor acted this way. That, I think, makes it interesting. But I do believe that when you start—when you start projecting your own moral world on their moral world, I don’t think it’s intellectually useful at all.

BOSE: OK. Thank you.

All right. We’ll come over here.

Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.

For Americans, isn’t the use of these concepts caught in the fact that we are a democracy? And we can have Joe Nye and his counterparts in the government taking a look at our relationship with, say, Saudi Arabia and saying a stable Saudi Arabia exporting oil to Europe, no longer to us, is very much in our interest and we should do what’s necessary to maintain stability there. And then you can have, in a democracy, a public opinion who says, what, they don’t have any democracy, that women can’t even drive cars except sometimes and I don’t want my—I’m not going to send my son to defend those people. We have no common values.

This goes on again and again in the United States where you can have American leadership, which makes mistakes, but we’re going to have American leadership deciding that something is very much in the national or international interest and then you have a public opinion, which is driven by other things.

We’re getting this right now, interestingly enough, in regard to China where very much in our interest to maintain a decent relationship with a number one or number two economy in the world with nuclear weapons, and then we’re having all kinds of human rights and other organizations go nuts because the Uighurs—nobody ever met a Uighur—while the Uighurs are being mistreated.

I wonder how you handle the concepts you’ve put forward to us in a country like the United States, who’s a democracy.

NYE: Well, I think the important point, Herb, is that it goes back to what I said about human rights policy. You can’t have a purely human rights policy. You won’t have a foreign policy. So to go to your Saudi example, yes, we have strong interests there. But it doesn’t mean you have to shut up, or what Donald Trump said after the killing of Khashoggi was get over it. It’s a tough world out there. He treated that as though it was Hitler bombing the French fleet. It’s not.

There’s no reason we can’t express our values and condemn certain actions at the same time that we still maintain protection of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf and don’t want to see the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. And if you take the case of the Uighurs in China, we should speak out against the violation of human rights in Xinjiang. But it doesn’t mean that you then say, I won’t trade with China. If you think of the—of the consequences of, if you take a facetious example, you embargoed all Chinese trade because of what’s happening in Xinjiang, there would be more poor people hurt, not just in China and the U.S. but around the whole world, than are hurt in the ten million Uighurs in Xinjiang.

So you’re constantly facing with tradeoffs. But the copout is when you treat it as all or nothing—when you say, oh, forget it because it’s a tough world out there, or I’m going to be very moralistic and I won’t do anything with you again ever when that’s not the way the world is. So it means that a lot of these problems are hard tradeoffs and getting exactly how tough you want to be in reinforcing your expression of values is something, in a democracy, we do and should fight about.

NAFTALI: Think about Richard Nixon’s evolution—not that I would provide him as a paragon of morality, but on China how he changed his mind, decided to engage China. He had all kinds of moral reasons and political reasons not to engage China. But he recognized the value of engaging China, despite the fact that its regime had killed so many Chinese, outweighed the moral cost of engaging with Mao Zedong. And the issue of engagement is always a very interesting one.

I want to add, because Joe won’t toot his own horn, but—(laughter)—if you think about the importance of soft power, imagine if you had a president who made it clear that killing people for political reasons was not acceptable to the United States. Do you think Saudi Arabia would have killed Khashoggi? We can’t influence every country’s decision, particularly if it’s a decision about survival. But we can—we can influence those decisions that are on the—on the edge.

We don’t know how many bad government actions the United States prevented in the Cold War because, for good or for bad, it played the role as policeman. But there are many countries that factored that into the internal calculation as to whether to do something bad and they, in many cases, didn’t.

BOSE: OK. Thank you.

I think the last question.

Q: Grace Choi, also a term member.

Thank you so much for taking the time to be here today. My question is related to what’s at hand this year, the 2020 presidential elections, and whether you think there is a presidential nominee that has a legitimate moral foreign policy they’ve put out there or you can choose your own adventure or answer this other question—(laughs)—on Korea on what a moral foreign policy will look like when engaging with Kim Jong-un in North Korea.

BOSE: Let me just say for the first one, because that was my question, too, Grace, and I was resisting, but let me just expand on it to say, Joe, is there a way we can take this ethical scorecard and use it for evaluating likely codes of conduct? Can it be prescriptive as well as a post-event analysis?

NYE: Well, I think it can. You can—you can ask whether a candidate is being simply moralistic or is giving a solid appraisal of what means are available and what are likely consequences. So if somebody says, we should embargo all trade with China until they stop mistreating the Uighurs, I wouldn’t vote for that person. It sounds very moralistic. It’s not very moral because the consequences are going to be disastrous.

So I think, you know, your final judgment is after the fact when you see how did it turn out. David McCullough once said you never know that for fifty years. So even the judgments in my book are tentative, if you want. But there’s no reason if somebody says something that’s simplistic moralism for us to take that seriously. I mean, we should—we should avoid that type of a person as a decision-maker.

NAFTALI: Just think about the debate in this country over isolationism in 1939 and ’40. With the exception of some people, like Charles Lindbergh, on the—on the isolationist side, you had moral arguments for isolation and they were actually deeply American arguments. Went right back to George Washington.

But, of course, you had moral arguments for intervention. And so when assessing candidates, because there are candidates that tend towards isolation and there are candidates toward—that tend more towards globalism, although I don’t think there’s really anyone, maybe former Vice President Biden, but the others it’s a more tempered globalism.

But so you can make moral arguments on both sides of that, and so the question I would ask is what are the objectives either of using power or of not using the enormous power that the United States—even if they started to dismantle the U.S. military from day one the United States will remain a hyperpower. So that’s what I’d ask—what are the objectives of either using or not using American power—and that’s how I would personally assess the morality of their approach to foreign relations.

NYE: I think that’s right and it’s not just an American problem. Remember the great debate at the Oxford Union in the 1930s when a majority of the students voted they would never fight for king and country, and within a few years they did and many of them were dead.

BOSE: Well, I think on that note, it’s a very—

NAFTALI: On that happy note. (Laughter.)

BOSE: It’s very clear that this book has lessons for us both to understand the past of recent American history and how we move forward and as we look at decisions that presidents will make in coming years.

Please join me in thanking our speakers for a most instructive discussion. (Applause.)

NAFTALI: Thank you.


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