Morality and Foreign Policy

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations.

This article is adapted from U.S. Foreign Policy and Christian Ethics, of which he is coauthor with Harvey Seifert. Copyright 1977, the Westminster Press. Used by permission. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 14, 1977, p.778. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The moral objectives of U.S. foreign policy have been too one-sided: the defect in our traditional scale of values is that we rank liberty much higher than distributive justice.

Is there a place for morality -- for any humane and universal morality -- in the making of foreign policy? Lately many people seem to be thinking that consideration of this question began with President Carter’s declaration about human rights. That has a very high moral priority, but certainly there are many other fundamental issues -- such as the prevention of war and greater economic justice between nations -- that raise this critical matter of morality in foreign policy. Would the survivors of nuclear war in any stricken country be likely to enjoy human rights?

Barriers to a Moral Policy

The obstacles to morality’s becoming a significant factor in foreign policy are so obvious that I need only mention them. The human relations between people across national boundaries tend to be very thin, ranging from ingrained hostility to the more comfortable relationships between people who share a common culture and many common purposes. It is also difficult for Americans to see the international situation as it appears to people in Cuba or Bangladesh or the Soviet Union. In this dangerous world, moreover, nations fear for their very existence -- if not apprehensive of invasion then of blackmail by other nations -- and it becomes easy for governments to justify any policy for the sake of national security.

In the United States responsibility for foreign policy decisions is diluted because those who make policy are often intimidated by a well-organized minority among the voters, while the rest of the citizens are often content to pass the buck to policy-makers supposed to be in the know. One result of this situation is that, with its eye on the politics of national opinion, an administration is tempted to postpone foreign policy decisions until after the next election.

Perhaps greatest of all the obstacles is the dilemma implied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s statement that “patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism” (Moral Man and Immoral Society [Scribner’s, 1932], p. 91). Individuals of fine personal character may receive their own moral satisfaction as active citizens while they are being used by a government in the implementation of narrowly nationalist, callous and even inhuman policies. This is made all the easier by governments’ use of ideals to disguise the immorality of what they do. “Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation,” Niebuhr said, “is its hypocrisy” (p. 93). This may not be always true, but it is so general that morally concerned citizens, loyal to their country, need to be on guard against it.

The most perplexing problem with morality in foreign policy lies on a somewhat different level. There is much experience to show that when nations become crusaders for moral goals, they often become intransigent or cruelly destructive in the process. In an article published in Harper’s in 1971 with the startling title, “The Necessary Amorality of Foreign Affairs,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote:

“The compulsion to see foreign affairs in moral terms may have, with the noblest of intentions, the most ghastly consequences.” Many of us believe that was part of the story especially in the early years of the war in Indochina; after 1967 we were no longer fighting to win a moral victory but to avoid defeat and the loss of American credibility. This general tendency has been very much emphasized since World War I. Moral stances which may be sincere may make policies rigid and may prevent compromises which are necessary for living with other nations; they also make it difficult to bring a disastrous war to an end. In fairness to those who share Schlesinger’s point of view it should be said that most of them do recognize moral limits. They often exalt the virtue of restraint or of the national humility that does not claim to know what is best for all other nations. Schlesinger himself says that moral values should be decisive “only in questions of last resort” and that “questions of last resort exist.”

‘National Interest’: Moral Considerations

These many obstacles to morality as an ingredient in foreign policy are formidable, but the problem is confused still more by the shortcut that is often advocated: foreign policy should always be controlled by the national interest. This argument cannot be summarily dismissed because there are ambiguities about it that need to be considered. The national interest in terms of the real welfare of the people of any nation is a part of a wider human welfare for which governments are the trustees. This real welfare does include freedom from attack, subjugation or destruction. It involves the economic viability of a nation, the protection of its citizens against poverty and hunger. But there are many real national interests which are shared with other nations -- the prevention of war, the achievement of greater decency, and justice in international relations generally. It is surely in the interest of the United States to avoid being a prosperous oasis in a world of misery.

We can push this matter further: it is in the national interest that most citizens be able to live with their consciences. Some of the thinkers who most stress national interest as a guide for policy make room for this. George Kennan, for example, writes that “we should conduct ourselves at all times in such a way as to satisfy our own ideas of morality.” He adds a strange sentence: “But let us do this as a matter of obligation to ourselves and not as a matter of our obligation to others” (Realities of American Foreign Policy [Princeton University Press, 19~j4], p. 47). I cannot believe that Kennan assumes that our own ideas of morality involve no obligations to others; but this way of putting it underlines my point that citizens should be able to live with their own consciences, and that this cannot be separated from our national interest. So, while governments are trustees for their respective national interests, it makes a great difference who interprets those interests -- whether they be nationalistic chauvinists or people who perceive that their country’s interest embraces global concerns as well as the quality of the moral life of citizens.

Hans Morgenthau, who is known chiefly for his emphasis on national interest, in many contexts emphasizes moral values. In a remarkable article entitled “The Present Tragedy of America” -- on the tragic moral incongruity of the Indochina war in relation to American values -- Morgenthau writes that “the United States, in a unique sense, is being judged by other nations, and it is judged by itself in terms of its compliance with the moral standards which it has set for itself.” A world-famous scientist with whom he had discussed Vietnam as early as 1967 told him, “You Americans don’t know how we have looked to you as the last best hope, and how we feel betrayed.” Morgenthau adds: “It is this betrayal, not only of the ethos of America but of the trust which, you may say, the best representatives of humanity have put in the United States, that constitutes the tragedy of America today” (Worldview, September 1969). It is important that Morgenthau, widely known as a political “realist,” makes such room for a broad and morally sensitive view of the national interest.

A sensitive, humane and universal morality should be related to foreign policy in three ways.

1. It should influence motives and the subjective side of decision-making -- the sensitivities, imagination and perception of those who wield power. The melding of moral concern with perception is central.

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in his confirmation testimony before the Senate made a very frank statement about American policy in Indochina: “In the light of hindsight I believe that it was a mistake to have intervened in Vietnam.” Then he said:

“U.S. involvement was not based upon evil motives but on misjudgments and mistakes as we went along.” It is surprising that a statement that repudiated the policies of at least five predecessors and of as many presidents did not cause a ripple.

I agree that the persons who were originally responsible for policy believed that they were preserving freedom and self-determination in South Vietnam and that their policy was a contribution to world order, as Dean Rusk used to say. We may raise a question as to the status of these good motives when people persisted in the mistake for so many years, long after its disastrous human consequences were revealed. How far had they acquired a vested interest in the policy so that they could not reject it since they had been identified with it for so long?

Here the emphasis on perception becomes crucial for morality. There was a failure to perceive the full human significance of what we were doing both to people in Indochina and to the people of this country, especially to the sons of the minorities and the poor who bore so much of the burden of the war.

The Location of Morality in Foreign Policy

2. Morality should be related to goals -- short-run and long-run. In 1964 Dean Acheson in a famous speech at Amherst College stated clearly the declared goals of American foreign policy since World War II: “The end sought by our foreign policy, the purpose for which we carry on relations with foreign states, is to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish.” I quote from this speech because in it Acheson’s main emphasis was to criticize people who think of foreign policy in terms of morality. He dismissed a number of moralistic slogans which he felt to be one-sided and to hamper the conduct of foreign policy. Yet the objective he set forth is itself, as far as it goes, a moral objective. It is also “one-sided.”

One of the most important criticisms of U.S. foreign policy is that its moral objectives have been too one-sided. Not enough is said about justice. There is a defect in the traditional American scale of values in that we rank liberty so far above distributive justice. In our own society we rationalize this by assuming that justice will be a by-product of free enterprise; but gradually we have had to modify that assumption and take direct compensatory steps for the sake of justice. Even so, this basic rationalization with some modifications has not worked for 25 or more million of our people. We take moral satisfaction in committing ourselves to equal opportunity without ever taking seriously enough the fact that equality of opportunity is unreal if inequalities of condition are extreme.

In international affairs we have smiled upon free societies while we have tried to block efforts for revolutionary change that have had as their goal economic justice for a nation as a whole. We did all that we could, until very recent. years, to undermine or thwart the revolution in China, where the freedoms in our Bill of Rights are lacking but where there have been great achievements in the overcoming of massive poverty. In Latin America we have consistently opposed revolutions from the left, most notably in Cuba. In a summer 1976 Foreign Policy article, Zbigniew Brzezinski shows that the United States is becoming isolated in the world because it puts freedom so high above all other values, whereas most of humankind places equality above freedom. Were we to put on the same level with freedom not equality but justice that is always under the pull of equality, our foreign policy would be transformed. We cannot expect freedom to flourish wherever most people, no matter how politically “free” they are, face poverty and hunger as dominant realities.

There is great irony here. For all of our declared support of free societies, we so often favor governments which care nothing for either freedom or justice, which deal brutally with dissent and do very little for the vast majority of their people. (President Carter’s initiatives for human rights are bringing about some changes.) In practice we have had two criteria by which to determine policy in relation to Third World nations: Are they anticommunist? Are they receptive to American business?

What Is Not Permitted?

There are other goals to be emphasized. The prevention of nuclear war is already a declared objective of American policy, and gradually it has come to have a higher place than the prevention of the spread of communism. But much more than nuclear war should be prevented. Today there should be -- and to some extent there is -- a heavier burden of proof on all use of military force among nations. For the United States this has special bearing on our tendency to intervene militarily in the internal conflicts of other nations when there is a threat from the left. We should allow other nations to have their own revolutions.

The emphasis should also be on positive peacemaking, on the use and strengthening of multilateral institutions. Foreign policy objectives take on a new dimension with our responsibility to protect the global environment and to cooperate in the use of such unallocated resources as those in the ocean beds for the benefit of all the world’s peoples.

3. Moral limits must be set in regard to means. Ends do justify means, but there is no end that justifies every means. This is where we have the most difficult moral quandaries. Even with general agreement that everything is not permitted, where is the line to be drawn? There was great moral revulsion in the United States when it was revealed that the CIA had been involved in plots to assassinate Castro and other foreign leaders. Surely we can draw the line this side of assassination as a covert method of conducting foreign policy. When I first began to think of this I was reminded of the fact that I admired the Germans, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who were involved in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. It is not enough to say that Castro is no Hitler, although this is emphatically true. The formally more important point is that the plot against Hitler was an inside German act of rebellion and that such acts may at times be justified in extreme cases of oppression if one is not an absolute pacifist. When assassination takes place as an episode in foreign policy, however, not only does it raise the questions and arouse the revulsions which we should associate with all such acts of violence against persons, but also there is no way of containing the spreading distrust and the international poison which would follow it.

The Second Vatican Council stated a principle which has had a high place in the Western moral tradition and which sets limits to what is permitted. It said: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself” (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, par. 80). I remember that at the time the statement was watered down because of pressure from American bishops who did not want the Council to appear to condemn the policy of nuclear deterrence. But our policy of deterrence raises a profound moral problem. The missiles of the United States and the Soviet Union are aimed to destroy indiscriminately entire cities. Whenever it is proposed that this strategy be changed and that such weaponry be aimed only at missile sites or armed forces of the potential adversary, this proposal is criticized on the ground that the strategy is believed actually to be more threatening, suggesting a “first strike” capability, and more likely to bring about the war in which the missiles would be used.

This is a horrendous moral issue which is seldom discussed. The strategy of deterrence is defended on moral grounds, for it is assumed to be the surest way of preventing nuclear war. This probably has been true in the past and in the short run it may still be true in the future. It is highly doubtful that it will remain true in the long run. But even in the short run we should try to estimate the moral effect of a people’s becoming accustomed to the idea that its government is poised to destroy populations. Must this not be morally corrupting? How long can we live with it? It puts upon us and upon the Soviet Union a moral responsibility of highest priority to find other means of preventing war. These should include both a radical reduction of armaments and reconciliation between the powers that may destroy not only each other but all the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

The Church and the Good of All Nations

I have spoken about a sensitive, humane, universal morality. What does Christian morality contribute? I assume that no nation is a Christian nation, that governments have responsibility to the people of a nation in the light of the morality which that nation can recognize as having a claim. I believe that there is overlapping between the highest morality which has roots in the American tradition and Christian morality. The Christian citizen and the church should make the most of that area of overlap and should seek to strengthen the sources of national motive and national discipline which can give that highest common morality greater impact in the national life and among those who make decisions about policy.

Certainly there are and should be tensions between church and state on this subject, but we may see these tensions in terms of the following pattern. The church as a universal community should begin with the widest possible concern about the moral effects of national policy in the light of what it does to people in other nations, and it should help its members who are also citizens to share that broad perspective. The state begins as a trustee for the real welfare of the nation for which it is the political structure. But the wisdom that it may have about the conditions for that welfare and the moral sensitivities of many citizens and policy-makers may broaden their view of where the national interests lie. The perspective of the state will not coincide with that of the church; but there may be enough interaction between the two perspectives to reduce the tension between church and state and to raise the moral level of foreign policy. For this kind of development to take place, however, the independence of church and state and the distinctiveness of the perspectives of each should be maintained. One sure way to maintain them is for the church within the nation to keep alive the awareness of its membership in the larger church, which includes people in other nations affected by our policies and which is committed to the good of all nations.