In Defense of Mother Teresa: Morality in Foreign Policy

Mother Teresa of Calcutta arrives in Rome to meet Pope John Paul II, May 16, 1997. Reuters

As a supporter of the Carter administration's ideals who quickly became disillusioned with its performance and denounced the gap between its good intentions and contradictory policies, I appreciate the pithy and pugnacious prosecutor's brief that Michael Mandelbaum, a courageous supporter of Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign, has drafted ("Foreign Policy as Social Work," January/February 1996). Much of what Mandelbaum says about the Clinton team's policies toward the other major powers and its failures or deficiencies in handling the crises in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia is convincing. But the central argument of his essay is, in my opinion, wrong.

Mandelbaum believes that an American foreign policy concerned not with interests but with values, not with relations with countries that have the capacity to affect these interests but with "small, poor, weak" and peripheral countries, is foolish. More than that, it is doomed, both for lack of public support and because turning foreign policy "into a branch of social work" is a recipe for "deep, protracted, and costly engagement in the tangled political life of each country" in which the United States intervenes, in a world "filled with distressed people." I believe, however, that the distinction between interests and values is largely fallacious, and that policy which would ignore the domestic crises that affect so many states and pseudostates today would have disastrous consequences.


The national interest is not a self-evident guide, it is a construct. It is the sum of the objectives that the policymakers have set. Some of these are indeed imperatives, imposed by the nation's location on the map of power or by clear threats and needs. But many of the goals that states, and especially the major powers among them, pursue go beyond such imperatives, and result from preferences and choices. These goals are usually controversial. Those who support them cover them with the mantle of the national interest, and those who do not back them argue, like Mandelbaum, that they deal with developments that "could [

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