U.S. Foreign Policy
“James is somebody whom I admire for his many virtues. It is appropriate that we appear here tonight under the banner of “ethics.” James is a virtuous character. I would like to use this occasion to share a few of those virtues with you, although the list could be much longer.”
Election seasons are a time of bromides—easy claims of moral clarity and virtue. Yet elections can also heighten our awareness of important issues, encouraging sharp debate on contested principles. To take the debate beyond the usual platitudes, the Carnegie Council offers a shortlist of questions focusing on current policy choices and the tradeoffs they entail, as well as future standards for America’s role in the world.
For me, the way into the study of ethics and international affairs begins with the concept of choice. Ethics is a reflection on the choices one makes and the values that come into play when making those choices: how do you justify your decisions? It’s the weighing up of competing moral claims.
I can get up here and say, “Peace is better than war,” “Life is better than death”—such aphorisms are relatively easy to deliver. And while it’s important to remind ourselves about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—doctrines like this are a kind of touchstone—in terms of the Carnegie Council’s work, ethics is more of an untidy process.
Carnegie and Morgenthau make an instructive pairing. Carnegie, an idealist, stood for “never again war,” while Morgenthau stood for “never again genocide.” Nobody wants to go to war, yet genocide is also intolerable. How do you choose between these competing moral claims? This is where ethics comes in. “Many people think that ethics means the Ten Commandments, but in fact it is a process of reflection in the effort to choose between two goods—or, more often than not, the lesser of two evils,” Rosenthal said.
The projection of American power inspires the great debate of our time. Is the United States a twenty-first century empire, and if so, what kind? If “empire” is not the right term, what is?
The debate arises from simple observation. American military might has turned from quick, lethal regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq to the long-term responsibilities of nation-building. American economic and political muscle has created and maintained an integrated world economy and the political institutions that support it.