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The growing importance of morals in foreign and defence policy

In a world of growing ‘grey areas’, the often black and white of morality is not as distinct – political and hybrid warfare and emboldened authoritarian regimes are a major challenge to the moral authority of the Western world. Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye jnr discusses the importance of morals in directing the Wests foreign and defence policy.

In a world of growing ‘grey areas’, the often black and white of morality is not as distinct – political and hybrid warfare and emboldened authoritarian regimes are a major challenge to the moral authority of the Western world. Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye jnr discusses the importance of morals in directing the Wests foreign and defence policy.

At the end of both the Second World War and the Cold War, the US and its network of liberal, capitalist democratic allies emerged as a force for 'moral good' – having vanquished the tyranny of both Nazism and socialism, the West could seemingly intervene unilaterally to enforce its code of conduct around the world. 

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Despite this seeming victory and what US academic Samuel Huntington described as the "End of History", the increasing rates of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the increasingly emboldened behaviour of authoritarian regimes in Russia, China and their respective network of like-minded nations have in some cases seen Western intervention slowly erode the moral authority of the West. 

Failed and often costly US-led expeditions into the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Africa, combined with delayed UN-led resolutions to curb ethnic cleansing and genocide, or in response to famine, further served as catalysts for the declining morality of such interventions. 

Further compounding these issues is the rising descent from Western populaces who are increasingly frustrated by the costly expeditions, despite initial public support when the costs in blood and treasure become apparent. 

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Each of these factors, combined with a growing apathy and disenfranchisement all combine to undermine the morale legitimacy of the West and its national leaders as they approach a new decade which will no doubt bare witness to rising competition between liberal democratic nations and authoritarian regimes in traditional and new flash points. 

For acclaimed US academic, Joseph S. Nye jnr, author of Do morals matter? Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump and The Future of Power, the question of morals within the foreign and defence policy framework is increasingly important in the era of mercurial political leaders, populism and ambitious, direct and assertive totalitarian regimes.

In a brief piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Nye seeks to distil his thesis and elaborate on why in this age of renewed competition, morals are more important than ever for the Western world to embrace, promote and defend. 

While largely targeted at the morality of US presidents and their respective foreign and, by extension, defence policy approaches, the points Nye identifies and articulates are important for liberal democratic leaders, including Australia's as the nation navigates the rise of an Indo-Pacific in which many nations shun democracy and its principles. 

"By this logic, combining ethics and foreign policy is a category mistake, like asking if a knife sounds good rather than if it cuts well, or whether a broom dances better than one that costs more. So, in judging a president’s foreign policy, we should simply ask whether it worked, not whether it was moral," Nye articulates. 

This holds true for all foreign policy enacted by Western leaders, Australia included, and provides an important measuring post for the efficacy of Australia's own foreign and defence policies moving forward. 

Ruthless pragmatism and foreign policy

Nevertheless, Nye understands the importance of ruthless pragmatism in the often chaotic, convoluted and turbulent world of international relations, foreign and defence policy – in doing so, Nye recognises that most importance foreign policy issues involve "trade-offs" between values and actions in response to emerging circumstances. 

"Indeed, most foreign policy issues involve trade-offs among values that require choices, not application of a rigid formula of raison d’état. A cynical French official once told me, ‘I define good as what is good for the interests of France. Morals are irrelevant’," Nye states. 

"He seemed unaware that his statement itself was a moral judgement. It is tautological or at best trivial to say that all states try to act in their national interests. The important question is how leaders choose to define and pursue those national interests under different circumstances."

Building on this, Nye identifies issues with the moralising judgement of the US public, for example, when it comes to assessing US presidents and their respective foreign policies – a factor successive Australian leaders have been subject to in the age of social media, posing greater challenges when forming coherent, adaptable foreign and defence policies. 

Nye counters, saying, "Unfortunately, many judgements about ethics and contemporary US foreign policy are haphazard or poorly thought through."

Despite these factors, Nye states: "Good moral reasoning should be three-dimensional, weighing and balancing intentions, consequences and means. A foreign policy should be judged accordingly.

"Moreover, a moral foreign policy must consider consequences such as maintaining an institutional order that encourages moral interests, in addition to particular newsworthy actions such as helping a dissident or a persecuted group in another country."

Each of these factors are particularly poignant for Australian and wider Western leaders as they begin to fully comprehend the emerging challenges of ambitious totalitarian regimes, with the ongoing Hong Kong riots, persecution of Uyghars in China's Xinjiang province, the LGBT community in Russia and throughout the Middle East and press freedoms.

Your thoughts

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of increasing both the budget and manpower available to the ADF in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..    

The growing importance of morals in foreign and defence policy
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