Morality and U.S. Foreign Policy

The four post-Cold War presidents have, to varying extents, incorporated moral concerns into their foreign policy considerations. After the conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War for example, President George H.W. Bush turned his attention to more humanitarian missions abroad. After sending thousands of troops to Somalia, President Bush took his last Oval Office address as an opportunity to articulate a moral argument for an internationalist foreign policy: “Anarchy prevails…[and] the people of Somalia, especially the children of Somalia, need our help. We’re able to ease their suffering. We must help them live. We must give them hope. America must act.”[1] The mission in Somalia was about moral concerns and not just material ones.

Other presidents have followed suit. President Clinton conveyed a similar sentiment in April 1999 after choosing to exercise force in Kosovo. The President followed up comments by Elie Wiesel on the “perils of indifference” with his own spirited defense of humanitarian action.[2] “We cannot be indifferent, at home or abroad,” he stated. “That is why we are in Kosovo.”[3] More recently, in November 2003, President George W. Bush articulated his goal of ending “a cycle of dictatorship and radicalism that brings millions of people to misery.”[4] Like his two immediate predecessors, President Bush integrated a moral concern for the well-being of other peoples into his administration’s foreign policy considerations. Perhaps most explicitly, President Obama recently explained that “to brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances” would be a “betrayal of who we are.”[5]

As can be seen from the brief examples above, post-Cold War presidents have embraced the idea that the United States has moral responsibilities abroad. I plan to explore this trend. More specifically, I am studying how these presidents have reacted to humanitarian crises abroad. My research will explore the normative arguments both in favor and against having the United States incorporate moral concerns into its foreign policy. I will also address the ways in which changes in the balance of power can and should affect the extent to which the United States believes it has a moral duty to respond to humanitarian crises. My paper will conclude with a brief analysis of the United States’ current standing in the international system and how it should affect future presidents’ decision-making when humanitarian crises occur.



Jonathan Messing, University of Pennsylvania

     [1] Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 54. For full speech see

     [2] Chollet and Goldgeier, America Between the Wars, 212.

     [3] Ibid.

     [4] Alex Callinicos, “Iraq: Fulcrum of World Politics,” Taylor and Francis 26 (2005): 601.

     [5] Barack Obama, “Address to the Nation on Libya,” 28 March 2011.

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6 Responses to Morality and U.S. Foreign Policy

  1. johnadearborn says:

    Hello Jonathan,

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your topic, as the importance of morality to U.S. foreign policy is definitely a interesting and relevant consideration, especially now with the civil war in Syria, for example. I have a question for you: will you be examining under what conditions the U.S. makes a decision based on moral concerns? In other words, what made the U.S. want to intervene in Libya and Kosovo, for example, versus not intervening in Rwanda and (to this point) Syria?

    • Hi John,
      Thank you for your question. While the topic you bring up is a really interesting one, and one that I would like to discuss, I will mostly be focusing on the ideology of the presidents. As opposed to trying to explain why a president launched one particular intervention but not another, I will be seeking to explore the extent to which these presidents viewed America as morally responsible for acting in these situations whether they ended up doing so or not. The two questions are very related so I am sure that some of what you say will come up. I’m looking forward to discussing this with you and hearing more about your own research too.


  2. jdaskonas says:

    Hello Jonathan,

    Will your study also take into account American policy vis a vis the norms of the international system? While no American leader has had trouble condemning genocide or ethnic cleansing as immoral, it seems that the things preventing American intervention are themselves not only practical concerns but normative ones as well. Specifically, how do you think norms of national sovereignty play into this discussion, particularly given the apparent contradiction that the UN has both established a legal ‘responsibility to protect’ and has in its charter a strong construction of national sovereignty! Will you examine the other normative facets of US foreign policy-making which push back against the specific kind of normative influence you’ve mentioned?

    • Hi,
      Thanks so much for the comment. The norms that you name, especially the norm of sovereignty and the emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect, certainly come into conflict with more interventionist ideologies. I do intend to address this tension, but I plan to do so through the lens of the presidents’ ideologies. In other words, I will discuss these normative arguments if they were a factor in the presidents’ worldviews. I would love to be able to give more attention to the concerns that you mention outside of the four post-Cold War presidents’ ideologies but am worried that doing so would make my paper lose focus.


  3. Hi Jonathan—I enjoyed reading your proposal! Your topic sounds very interesting, and eminently relevant. Just out of curiosity, are you using the “post-Cold War” criterion simply to narrow the scope and focus of your paper into something manageable, or do you think there is a notable difference in the way pre- and post-Cold War Presidents have perceived America’s moral responsibilities abroad?

    Good luck on your research; I’ll look forward to meeting you in DC in November!

  4. Hi,
    I am using that criterion for a number of reasons, one of which is, as you suggested in your comment, to narrow the scope and focus of my paper. I am also using that criterion because the end of the Cold War constituted a significant change in the structure of the international system (from bipolarity to unipolarity). I believe that the significant structural shift that occurred then ought to have changed the way the United States viewed itself in relation to the international community as well as its capability for moral action in the world. While there might indeed be a significant amount of continuity in the way presidents perceived America’s obligations before and after the end of the Cold War, I am choosing to narrow my research to the presidents that have operated within the current global structure.

    Thanks for the question!


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