In This Review

Ethics and International Relations:  A Tragic Perspective
Ethics and International Relations: A Tragic Perspective
By Richard Ned Lebow
Cambridge University Press, 2020, 270 pp
Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy From FDR to Trump
Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy From FDR to Trump
By Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Oxford University Press, 2020, 272 pp

One of the oldest divides in the study of foreign policy is between realism (the pursuit of power) and idealism (the pursuit of moral or legal ideals). These thoughtful books by distinguished scholars argue that the two traditions actually have much in common. Lebow makes the case that leaders who tell the truth and root their foreign policies in widely shared conceptions of justice tend to be more successful than those who premise their actions on the cynical calculations of power politics. Surveying 26 military interventions in the decades after World War II, Lebow finds that wars and military actions not authorized by regional or international organizations weakened, rather than advanced, the interests of the aggressor states. By contrast, ethically informed policies—such as the United States’ efforts to rebuild the economies of postwar Europe, Mao Zedong’s policy of settling border disputes with China’s neighbors, and Germany’s postwar actions to transform itself into a peace-oriented great power—achieved better results. The book is intriguing in its unabashedly instrumental view of ethics, arguing simply that an ethical foreign policy will be more restrained and better guarantee the long-term advancement of the national interest through the cultivation of friends and influence.

Nye, like Lebow, does not seek to evaluate foreign policy in terms of its faithfulness to timeless universal values or moral ideals. Instead, he examines the quality of presidential decision-making in very specific contexts. For Nye, moralism is the single-minded pursuit of some overarching ideal, whereas what he terms “moral reasoning” is a more sophisticated, three-dimensional exercise in making foreign policy choices that balances ends, means, and long-term consequences. Nye explores the foreign policy successes and failures of U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Donald Trump, searching their records for indications of moral reasoning and situational awareness. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower come off particularly well, building partnerships and institutions that laid the foundations for generations of peace and security. The Vietnam-era presidents, particularly Richard Nixon, were less aware of the limits of U.S. power. Ronald Reagan gets credit for having a moral vision that helped end the Cold War. Trump receives poor marks for the needless damage he has inflicted on the United States’ institutions and reputation. For both Lebow and Nye, the essential insight is that even in the realist world of anarchy and power politics, it is possible to “do well by doing good.”