Reality politics: three books on America in the world

“Do morals matter?” feels like a particularly apposite question to ask about American presidents during the Trump era. There has rarely been an occupant of the White House who makes less effort to cloak his actions in the language of morality.

The actions and rhetoric of Donald Trump are inevitably changing the perception of the US around the world. They are also forcing American analysts to grapple with difficult questions about the moral purpose of US foreign policy — an issue that Michael Kimmage, Joseph Nye and Barry Gewen all tackle from different angles, in their new books.

In The Abandonment of the West, Kimmage, a diplomat turned professor, argues that the west as a whole has lost confidence in its own morality, and in the values of the Enlightenment. In that sense, Trump is a logical consequence of a long-term trend. As Kimmage sees it, “In his indifference to liberty and contempt for self-government, at home and abroad, Donald Trump is the first non-Western president of the United States.”

By contrast, Barry Gewen, in his sympathetic analysis of Henry Kissinger, The Inevitability of Tragedy, argues that moral purity is impossible in foreign policy. He quotes approvingly from Hans Morgenthau, Kissinger’s friend and sometime critic: “The very act of acting destroys our moral integrity.”

For Joseph Nye, however, the argument that foreign policy is simply about the amoral pursuit of the “national interest” is far too simple. As the inventor of the idea of “soft power” — the idea that the US can advance its interests through the power of attraction — Nye believes that American power is enhanced, if the US is perceived as a moral actor.

Professor Nye, a former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who has also served in government, believes that, in the real world, moral considerations inevitably play a part in the making of foreign affairs. In Do Morals Matter? he quotes a British official, involved in nuclear-weapons policy, arguing that “moral accountability is a central part of what it means to be a human being.”

For Nye, however, good intentions are not enough. He draws a distinction between “moralism” (the use of moral language and reasoning) and morality. But he is not a pure utilitarian — one who believes that only outcomes matter. Instead, he assesses US presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt onwards, on intentions, means and outcomes.

Three books on the moral purpose of US policy

Political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term ‘soft power’, grades US presidents on an ethical scorecard, and Trump surprisingly does not come bottom of the class

Diplomat turned professor Michael Kimmage argues that the west has lost confidence in its own morality, as elites began in the 1960s to question their own cultural narrative

Barry Gewen, in this eccentrically structured but highly engaging book on Henry Kissinger, examines how the statesman’s worldview is bleak but not immoral

In professorial mode, Nye then grades his presidents on an ethical scorecard. Predictably, Trump does not fare well. He gets a “good” rating on the use of force (“proportion, discrimination, necessity”) overseas. (And even that rating would have to be significantly qualified, if Trump uses excessive force on the streets of America itself.) On six other measures — including motives, values and truthfulness — the verdict on the present US president is either “poor” or “mixed”.

Surprisingly, however, Trump does not come bottom of the class. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — one of the presidents that Kissinger served (the other was Gerald Ford) — gets even lower ratings, with Nye rating them as “poor” or “mixed” on all counts. He is particularly critical of the way that Nixon and Kissinger went about ending the Vietnam war, arguing that many thousands of lives were lost unnecessarily, to secure a face-saving “decent interval” between the departure of American troops and the fall of South Vietnam.

On the other hand, Nye does credit Nixon and Kissinger with important achievements in foreign policy — in particular, the opening to China and detente with the Soviet Union.

So perhaps morality is not so important, after all? That is the question that Barry Gewen wrestles with in his eccentrically structured, but highly engaging, book on Kissinger, The Inevitability of Tragedy.

There is a legitimate question about whether the world actually needs any more books on Henry Kissinger. The historian Niall Ferguson has published volume one of his official biography and volume two is in the works. Savage critics like Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens have had their say. So have more balanced biographers, such as Walter Isaacson. Gewen’s book, however, is distinctive in that it is, above all, an account of Kissinger’s intellectual universe.

As Gewen sees it, Kissinger’s worldview is bleak but not immoral. His overriding goal was the avoidance of nuclear war — a deeply moral objective. But Kissinger believes that peace is best achieved through the establishment of a balance of power between nations arguing that “All serious foreign policy begins with maintaining a balance of power”.

The balance-of-power is an amoral concept. It does not take into account whether the nations involved are dictatorships or democracies. It discounts the popular liberal idea that there is a connection between the advancement of freedom and peace. And it even countenances the idea that, on occasion, democratic elections can lead to outcomes that threaten the balance-of-power — a lesson that Kissinger drew from his own life, growing up in Nazi Germany and witnessing the ascent of Hitler.

The FT’s pick of the most essential recent reading

Kissinger carried this wariness of the consequences of democracy into his career as a statesman. Gewen does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of Kissingerian diplomacy. Instead, he examines a couple of crucial episodes in detail — in particular America’s role in the overthrow and death of the democratically elected, socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende.

Kissinger’s cynical wit — which endears him to some, and outrages others — was on full display over Chile. He described the country as “a dagger pointing at the heart of Antarctica” and remarked “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

As Gewen sees it, however, the overthrow of Allende is a complicated story, both morally and in terms of what actually happened. By his account, Kissinger and Nixon were right to be seriously concerned by what Allende meant for American interests in Latin America and therefore, for the broader balance-of-power between the US and the USSR. Gewen also argues that, while the US was involved in an earlier coup plot, Nixon and Kissinger had shifted policy by 1973 and were not directly involved in the overthrow of Allende in that year. Nonetheless, this was a grubby episode, with tragic consequences given the killings and human-rights abuses that followed Allende’s death.

One of the charges often made against Kissinger is that the bleakness of his vision is “un-American”. The most quintessentially American presidents, on this view, are sunny optimists such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.

But, as an American statesman rooted in European culture, Kissinger is certainly an embodiment of “the west”. As Kimmage sees it, a notion of the west as a distinct cultural and political entity, permeated US foreign policy throughout the cold war. It was rooted in a set of Enlightenment ideas that were passed on through the “Western Civilisation” courses that had become compulsory at leading American universities after the first world war.

By the late 1960s, however, Kimmage believes that western elites were losing confidence in their own cultural narrative. As universities changed — and “Western Civ” dropped off the syllabus, in favour of a more global curriculum — so a new political and cultural elite emerged that was no longer grounded in a self-confident view of what the west represents.

As a result, American policymakers before Trump had taken to defending the “liberal international order” — a technocratic concept that was incapable of inspiring either loyalty or understanding among the wider public. Partly in response, the American right “abandoned the Jeffersonian West of liberty, multilateralism and the rule of law, in favour of an ethno-religious-nationalist West” — championed by Trump.

The “America First” nationalists who surround Trump believe that integrating China into the global order was actually a tragic error. As a result, the US seems to have turned definitively against the most widely acclaimed achievement of the Kissinger-Nixon era: America’s rapprochement with China.

Repudiation by his own Republican party is not a new experience for Henry Kissinger. Under George W Bush, the neoconservatives — who believed in democracy-promotion — were in the ascendancy, and they lambasted Kissinger as an amoral pessimist. In the Trump era, Kissinger’s belief in the balance-of-power is once again out of fashion — this time because it is at odds with “America First” nationalism and a policy of confrontation with China. However, Trumpism seems likely to fail even more definitively than neoconservatism. The cynical Kissinger may once again have the last laugh.

Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, by Joseph Nye, Oxford University Press, RRP$24.95/£18.99, 268 pages

The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, by Michael Kimmage, Basic Books, RRP$32, 385 pages

The Inevitability of Tragedy — Henry Kissinger and His World, by Barry Gewen, WW Norton, RRP$30, 480 pages

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Cafe. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.