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FPA Live: A Conversation with Professor Joseph Nye - Do Morals Matter?

The Foreign Policy Association hosted an interactive video discussion with Joseph S. Nye Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus and former Dean of the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Professor Nye discussed with listeners the role of ethics in U.S. foreign policy after 1945 with Foreign Policy Association CEO, Noel Lateef.

Dr.Nye brought up the question of moral vs. immoral policies and used United States' former Presidents and the current one as examples. Harry S. Truman is an exemplary choice of a President who abided by moral values as he averted the further use of nuclear weapons onto Japan and China by the United States. His reasoning, according to the Professor, was that he "no longer wanted to kill anymore women and children". The Professor also mentioned the 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the 41st President George H.W. Bush as role models for political leaders abiding by a moral code. Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and the current President Donald J. Trump however, have displayed moments of immoral policy decision making in their terms.

The Professor describes that his book, "Do Morals Matter?", is not judging each of the political figures' actions but to use them to provide a framework on how to think about morality, especially in the current political climate where it can be "challenging".

Another point mentioned by the Dr. Nye was the importance of contextual intelligence as mentioned in the book. According to him, contextual intelligence is the ability for one to understand and evolve their perspectives based on an ever-changing world. George H.W. Bush served in World War II and occupied various positions throughout his life before becoming President of the United States. This allowed him to gain much experience and expand his world view, making him fit for the role as President. Same goes for Eisenhower who also served in the second world war. Barack Obama, who did not serve in a role or take upon many positions before his term, but have a background where his mother was an anthropologist, and father, of African descent whilst growing up abroad in Indonesia allowed him to gain a broader worldview.

When the current COVID-19 crises was brought up, Professor Nye uses the current leader of the US and China as examples of a counterproductive response to the pandemic. Both Presidents are not taking into account the global public goods. Instead, they are engaging in a "propaganda war" where they are blaming each other for the pandemic. This is why, according to Dr. Nye, global institutions such as the United Nations and WHO are so crucial in such situations. These institutions engage different countries in discussion of reciprocity rather in a bargaining context of who wins and who loses. The question that should be discussed is how all the nations can gain from cooperation and solidarity with one another in developing vaccines, effective technology, and understanding the genetics of the virus. Doing this may prevent the vulnerable more impoverished countries to better cope under the crises, so that in turn, will help the world at large.

Multilateral global institutions offers moral frameworks for such crises such as the UN charter which countries signed to ban the use of force and the UN Human Rights Charter which established common moral norms shared amongst the countries. A successful example of instances where the United Nations successfully brought together countries for a common cause was the Paris Climate Change agreement in 2015. US and China were the largest producers of greenhouse gas but they were brought into the same space at the United Nations General Assembly to sign, along with 195 other countries, the agreement. The willingness to negotiate was a big step with the aid of the UN.

Photo Credits: Society & Diplomatic Review

That is why Professor Nye believes that the current crisis is the time for nations to work together for the common good of humanity, where the wealthy nations can pool together a fund to help the vulnerable ones.

Since Trump's position in the White House, America's soft powers have diminished as shown in Gallup polls and the index of soft powers with only about 31 percent approval rating of U.S. leadership. Dr. Nye beleives the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic has not helped this case either. However, according to Nye, the soft powers of the US stems from the civil societies, Hollywood, and private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because these institutions are still seen as attractive and stable in the eyes of the rest of the world serving as a symbol of hope for democracy. Although in these hard times, it may seem to many that democracy is dying, Professor Nye is hopeful for the future of democracy as he explains there are waves of its trials but it will rise again. Quoting Martin Luther King, "We shall overcome.

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