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The Question of Morality in US Foreign Policy

Some might argue that there is a solid moral justification for US support to Israel, however divorcing morality entirely from action and tying it only to intention is a bar too high, especially for a great power like the United States.
Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Photo: X/POTUS

In a recently published piece in Foreign Affairs, ‘The Age of Amorality, American political scientist Hal Brands argues that there is a dichotomy between American values of freedom and democracy and the American quest to defend the withering liberal international order in the contemporary world. Given the ideological nature of great power rivalry, Brands argues that democracy becomes a liability for the United States since it makes it difficult for the US to find allied partners with the same level of commitment to its foundational values. He gives the example of the United States’ tacit alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler, its series of interventions in Africa and Latin America to contain communism, and, in contemporary times, the US dependence on imperfect democracies like India, Turkey, and Hungary to contain the rise of China. 

This line of argument in US foreign policy circles is not new; it can be traced back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who, by adding a “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, accorded the United States the right to intervene preemptively in domestic affairs of Western hemisphere nations to prevent acts of “wrongdoing.” Woodrow Wilson emphasized that the United States is a different kind of nation due to a divine dispensation. In his famous book World Order, Henry Kissinger argues for foregoing ideological purity to maintain the post-war international order. Hence, the American elite has an element of continuity and consensus on “American exceptionalism” and the inherent virtuosity of American interventions in pursuit of freedom and democracy. 

This trend begs two fundamental questions: whether American interventions pass the litmus test of morality and whether state morality is a self-proclaimed notional entity or an objective that can be achieved only through virtuous actions. Extending Brand’s argument that the United States always finds itself in between Scylla and Charybdis due to its commitment to the values of freedom and democracy and the concomitant responsibility of upholding the liberal international order, which justifies American transgression in orchestrating coups, military interventions, etc, it can be argued that treating smaller states of the global south as pawns in the chessboard by denying them sovereign choices violates the United Nations charter which is the very foundation of post-war international order.

American intervention in Iran to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh or its action in Chile in removing Salvador Allende or support to Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war violates the foundational moral principle of Western civilisation, i.e., “ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even from a utilitarian point of view, US actions failed to pass muster in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan since after the removal of the “oppressive regimes” of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, the United States failed to provide any viable alternative or governance model to citizens of these countries. 

In the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, Brands argues that there is a solid moral justification for US support to Israel since there is no ethical comparison between Hamas as a terrorist group and Israel as a state trying to defend itself. This again put to the test the basic premise of Brands’ argument on the “presumed morality” of the US and its allies. Since October 7, Israel repeatedly violated international law and attacked non-combatants, aid workers, etc, but still shielding its actions through a moral justification of “self-defence” highlights the contradiction between self-proclaimed morality and its attainment by confining state action within the premise of international law. 

From a realist perspective, one can argue that standards of individual morality can not be imposed upon states, and the logic of “self-preservation” overrides any moral qualms. However, this argument negates the foundation of liberal international order, created to tame the anarchical nature of the international system, as witnessed in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

Brands is correct in arguing that contemporary great power competition is ideological in nature, and at the heart of the rivalry is the competing socio-economic models of the United States and China. US attraction as a melting pot society where everyone can have their share of the American dream is colliding with the Chinese model of improving the quality of lives of millions of people through carefully crafted state actions. However, unlike during the Cold War era, this time, the dissimilarity between the two sides is not as stark since both have benefited from multilateral institutions like WTO, which are the product of a liberal international order. Hence, a manageable competition can be envisioned where both great powers play by the game’s rules.

Morality as a pretext for diplomacy in achieving state objectives or as an end unto himself is a debate that has engaged international relations theorists for centuries and for which there are no easy answers. However, divorcing morality entirely from action and tying it only to intention is a bar too high, especially for a great power like the United States. Brands correctly argues that morality is a compass, not a straightjacket, but such a compass can provide correct navigation only in hindsight through state action. For the actors of the state, morality is a lighthouse where one wishes to arrive, although the routes may vary.

Prashant Singh is a PhD candidate at Centre of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research focuses on conflict in Balochistan. 

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