New Books Network

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

In Do Morals Matter?

Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump

Oxford University Press 2020

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in National SecurityNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Political ScienceNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network March 23, 2020 Charles Coutinho

Americans since the beginning of their history, have constantly made moral judgments about presidents and foreign policy. Unfortunately, many of these assessments are poorly...

Americans since the beginning of their history, have constantly made moral judgments about presidents and foreign policy. Unfortunately, many of these assessments are poorly thought through and assessed. An American President is either praised for the moral clarity of his statements or judged solely on the results of their actions.

In Do Morals Matter?: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (Oxford UP, 2020), Joseph S. Nye, Jr., one of the world’s leading scholars of international relations, as well as someone who has served in prominent positions in both the Carter and the Clinton Administrations provides a concise yet penetrating analysis of the role of ethics in American foreign policy during the post 1945 era. Nye works through each presidency from FDR to Trump and scores their foreign policy on three ethical dimensions of their intentions, the means they used, and the consequences of their decisions. Alongside this, he also evaluates their leadership qualities, elaborating on which approaches work and which ones do not. Regardless of a president’s policy preference, Nye shows that each one was not fully constrained by the structure of the system and actually had choices. He further notes the important ethical consequences of non-actions, such as Truman’s willingness to accept stalemate in Korea rather than use nuclear weapons.

Since we so often apply moral reasoning to foreign policy, Nye suggests how to do it better. Most importantly, presidents need to factor in both the political context and the availability of resources when deciding how to implement an ethical policy-especially in a future international system that presents not only great power competition from China and Russia, but a host of novel transnational threats: the illegal drug trade, infectious diseases, terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change.


Charles Coutinho Ph. D. of the Royal Historical Society, received his doctorate from New York University. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written recently for Chatham House’s International Affairs.