Morality, Soft Power, and a 21st Century American Foreign Relations Principle

Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, delivered on Monday January 21st 2013, included the following lines:

We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

The foreign policy aims stipulated in this portion of Obama’s address are the aims of what used to be called Wilsonian Liberalism, though today we know these aims better as those of a neo-conservative point of view. The general idea of this view is that the role of the United States in world affairs is to “make the world safe for democracy” (per Wilson), and that we are the world’s “indispensible nation” (per Madeline Albright) or city on a hill (per Kennedy and then Reagan, alluding to a biblical passage quoted by John Winthrop way back in 1630). Kennedy is also known for asserting that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Most, if not all, presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries have echoed these sentiments.

(I do not claim expertise in the presidency, and surely some presidents were not Wilsonian Liberals – I know that some of the presidents’ advisors were not Wilsonian Liberals – Henry Kissinger, who applied liberal ideas to what is called the realist approach (focusing on balance of power, competing interests, etc.). Perhaps Harding and the interwar presidents, as well as Ford and Carter, are the presidential exceptions).

During the Cold War, the Wilsonian approach to foreign policy usually meant embracing an expansive approach to the United States’ involvement with foreign states. The point I’ll make in this article is to suggest that we have compelling reasons to alter significantly the character of our involvement in foreign states’ political and cultural affairs through military strength – hard power, that is. I’m not arguing in favor of strict isolationism. Rather, my view is that we ought to rely more heavily on diplomatic and economic soft power more often than we currently do and less heavily on hard power than we currently do.

Chas Freeman, an American diplomat, has pointed out that, during the Cold War, the lines of demarcation between the USSR and the USA were brightly painted. For people living in the Cold War era, the choice was clear: the United States and the West represented the Free World, while the U.S.S.R. and its allies represented communism, which, for many, was synonymous with a nearly complete absence of self-determination for citizens. When the Cold War ended, those lines became muddied. This is a variant of Freeman’s point.

I maintain that we need a new doctrine regarding foreign relations – one that defines clear principles by which we determine who and what we support. Those principles ought to be of a moral nature, though the morality to which I appeal is one founded most basically on practical, political concerns. Perhaps my view may be spun as realist – but I think there’s a compelling way of seeing it as Wilsonian. In any case, defining these principled positions is necessary for national security, as the lack of definition only leaves room for our enemies to garner support for their cause. Our new foreign policy should follow the following principle: It should be focused, in large part, on making the choice clear: supporting the United States must be preferable to supporting the alternatives, at least insofar as we are able to effect this outcome.

My argument is as follows:

  1. During the Cold War, the United States (as representative of democracy) stood in stark contrast with the Soviet Union (as representative of communism) – consequently, the choice between the two was an easy one for other states and their peoples to make. (I assume this premise here – for brevity’s sake).
  2. During the Cold War, the United States made moral miscalculations in the interests of practical concern for hedging the world system against an expanding U.S.S.R..
  3. Moral mistakes are also practical mistakes.
    1. The miscalculations during the Cold War were such that the clarity of the choice between freedom and communism was not injured severely.
  4. Absent a bilateral competition, moral violations are more deleterious than they would be were such competition present.
  5. On the world stage, there is no longer a clear, moral choice that will lead world citizens to side with the United States.
    1. The rise of non-state actors (or non-governmental organizations – NGOs) provides practical and moral alternatives to the perspectives endorsed by the United States.

I conclude that the United States needs to evaluate its political and military strategies in the light of a principle that ought to govern our foreign relations – namely, that we offer individuals, states, and non-state actors a more appealing choice (as we did – or at least did with more success – during the Cold War).

1. Assumed here for brevity’s sake.

2. Consider a premise: During the Cold War, the United States made moral miscalculations in the interests of practical concern for hedging the world system against an expanding U.S.S.R.. We supported brutal dictatorships because they were friendly to American policies. Though the Cold War did not include direct (conventional or nuclear) warfare with the Soviets, the casualties of this war were largely the products of the shifting sands of the global system.

3. Moral mistakes are also (though not always) practical (i.e. political) mistakes. During the conflict (i.e. war) in Vietnam, political rhetoric often included an appeal to compete against the communists for “hearts and minds.” That is, it was seen as valuable to engage with and appeal to the people whom we were attempting to persuade to promise to fight communism. We were aiming, at the time, to do what we saw as necessary to win the support of demographic groups around the world. We didn’t always do this well – and the costs were practical – that is, they were economic as well as political. When the people of states that had dictators as leaders suffered from the excesses of those leaders, they often blamed (often many years later) the United States for its support of those leads. Other times, they remained complacent at the time because we (and those leaders) were able to sell the people on the idea that right-wing dictatorship was preferable to Soviet-styled communism.

An important caveat, related to premise 3: The moral miscalculations during the Cold War were such that the clarity of the choice between freedom and communism was not injured severely. In part, this is likely due to at least two factors: (1) without lightning-quick and difficult-to-suppress global communication systems, word of these errors was slow to spread (when the news did spread at all); and (2) the U.S.S.R. was so much worse an option that the choice between the East and West remained clear, even after the aforementioned moral errors.

4. Absent a bilateral competition on the world stage, moral violations are more deleterious than they would be were such competition present. That is, given the U.S.’s role as world hegemon, our missteps are more obvious and more objectionable than they appeared to be during the Cold War, even if the real (loss of life, capital, etc.) consequences of such missteps were worse in many regards during that time.

5. On the world stage, there is no longer a clear, moral choice that will lead world citizens to side with the United States. With no clear binary struggle between two hegemonic states, and the United States taking on the role of sole world hegemonic power, the option becomes something more along the lines of the following: Choose the United States or choose [something else].

The “something else,” in this case, includes a broad range of alternative worldviews, economic platforms, social mores, and other social and political accoutrements. This fact, considered by itself, means that the choice is no longer clear for world citizens. With no clear choice between an obviously desirable and an obviously undesirable option, fewer of the world’s citizens are as likely to choose the United States and that which it represents over the plethora of alternatives. The rise of the power and influence non-state actors makes the muddiness of choices more dangerous to the United States and its interests. As Barry Posen pointed out in a recent broadcast of On Point, the cost in real money of the Iraq War was nearly equal to the money the United States spent during the Vietnam War – the significant observation here was that the Vietcong were backed by China, whereas the Iraqi insurgency was backed by non-state actors; one of the consequences of economic and communicative globalization is that destabilizing forces need less money to do more damage. This is unlikely to change in the future.

We were most successful during the Cold War when we were able to draw clear, morally unambiguous distinctions between U.S. and U.S.S.R. positions. Simliarly, today, we must draw similar distinctions between desirable (because stable) state actors and undesirable (because unstable) NGOs. Our new foreign policy should be focused, in large part, on making the choice clear. We have not done a good job of achieving this end in the last 20 years.

What do you think?


Some References:

1. For the interview with Chas Freeman, see:

2. For a transcript of Barack Obama’s 2nd Inaugural:

3. Woodrow Wilson’s speech of 1917, in which he appeals to Congress to join the Great War:

4. One instance of Madeline Albright’s position on the U.S.’s role in world affairs:

5. For a point of view similar in some regard to my own – one that was discussed on WBUR Boston’s On Point radio program, see 2013’s first issue of Foreign Affairs:

6. Here’s the episode of On Point that featured Barry Posen’s web address:

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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