Should morality matter in American foreign policy? The conventional, and cynical, view is that morality doesn’t matter — only national interest does — and that U.S. leaders should be realists in dealing with a brutal, amoral world.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr. argued the opposite on March 4, as he delivered the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations’ Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace. Nye, one of the world’s leading scholars of international relations, has studied the foreign policies of the 14 presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Donald Trump.

Morals matter, Nye said, and they should.

Nye, the former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, noted that St. Augustine, the fourth century theologian and philosopher, wrote that to prevent evil from prevailing, killing can be moral, but only in self-defense. That principle is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, the 20th century treaties that established standards of international law and humanitarian treatment in war.

Nye argued that war can be considered moral and justified when the cause is just, combatants are differentiated from non-combatants, the prospect for success is reasonably good and the consequences have been anticipated and thought through.

“Be careful before you unleash the dogs of war — but if you’re faced with a Hitler, then prudence is not a virtue,” he said, adding that presidents tend to be disparaged both for entering military conflicts and for avoiding them. Barack Obama, for example, said he was criticized for intervening in Libya and for not intervening in Syria, Nye said.

Nye’s new book, Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, was published in January by Oxford University Press.

In a post-lecture discussion with Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Center for International Relations, Nye said:

  • The U.S. spends $700 billion a year on defense, but recently cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The idea we’re safe behind our borders is nonsense,” said Nye, who noted the coronavirus and climate change do not respect borders, and the U.S. needs to work with other countries to address them. He said the coronavirus could prove to be a wake-up call.
  • The biggest short-term risk to our security is that a miscalculation in our relations with China could prove catastrophic. No one expected World War I in 1914, just months before that war began, he said. Cyberattacks are another significant risk, he said.

Among the previous speakers in the Bernard Brodie lecture series are California Rep. Adam Schiff, former Sen. George Mitchell , former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and former President Jimmy Carter. The series was established in 1980 to bring to campus dignitaries and scholars of politics, strategy, peace and warfare.