What is the role of moral values in the conduct of foreign relations? Although many answers have been given, three major traditions predominate: realism, idealism, and principled realism.

Realism, the dominant perspective in global politics, assumes that international relations are fundamentally conflictual and guided by national self-interest rooted in power. According to this tradition, morality is not an essential consideration in governmental action. Rather, what motivates and guides diplomats are the vital interests of states. According to George Kennan, the noted Cold War diplomat, a statesman’s primary duty is to secure such national interests as security, political independence, and national wellbeing. In his view these interests have no moral quality.

The second tradition is idealism. According to idealists, foreign policy involves the pursuit of moral ideals, such as peace, human rights, and global justice. According to this view, the goals and means of foreign policy should be based on morality. Because idealists assume a benign view of human nature and an optimistic approach to political life, they believe peace and prosperity can be advanced when statesmen are rational and cooperate toward common goals. According to the noted British historian E.H. Carr, the idealist tradition is premised on the optimistic assumption that interests can be easily reconciled. He termed this belief “the doctrine of harmony of interests.”

The third tradition is principled realism, which is based on a combination of the first two. According to this perspective, foreign policy involves the pursuit of interests based on power as well as fundamental moral values, such as freedom, human dignity, equality, etc. The noted political ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr identified with this tradition, declaring that “politics will, to the end of history, be an arena where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”

In my view, the tradition of principled realism has helped structure much of US foreign policy, especially since the end of the Second World War. While the balance between power and morality has varied over time, our government has consistently sought to base foreign policy initiatives on both material interests and moral values.


If we assume that morality can play a role in foreign policy, how should values be integrated with decision-making? In my view, there are at least three ways that morality can be integrated into policymaking. These are ends-based action, rule-based action, and tri-dimensional ethics.

The tradition of ends-based action, often called consequentialism, assumes that action should be judged by its outcomes. An example is the reliance on nuclear deterrence during the Cold War when the US sought to deter Soviet aggression with the threat of nuclear retaliation. Nuclear weapons, however, pose a moral challenge. Because nuclear arms are weapons of mass destruction, they cannot be reconciled easily with wartime ethics. According to the just war tradition, the only legitimate targets in wartime are combatants. And since nuclear arms cannot easily discriminate between combatants and civilians, they challenge accepted rules of war. This is why political theorist Michael Walzer observes in his classic Just and Unjust Wars that nuclear weapons “explode the theory of just war.” Despite the moral problems posed by deterrence, however, this strategy was implemented as a means of inhibiting aggression and keeping the peace throughout the Cold War.

The second approach to decision-making is rule-based action. Philosophers who typically identify with this approach define it as deontological ethics because it gives primacy to moral duties. According to this perspective, morality is fulfilled when action is inspired and guided by fundamental moral obligations. US famine relief to the Soviet Union in 1921–22 illustrates this type of action. Although the US government was seeking to undermine the new Soviet Communist regime, the US government nevertheless gave humanitarian aid to relieve the hunger of millions of Russians. In the 1990s, the US government again relied on this approach in justifying food aid to the North Korean people to deal with a severe famine, even though we regarded North Korea as an enemy state. Both of these cases show that moral values can sometimes trump strategic considerations.

The third tradition of decision-making is tri-dimensional ethics, an approach that seeks to overcome the limitations of both ends-based and rule-based decision-making by integrating both. According to this tradition, in order for foreign policy decision-making to be fully consistent with political morality, the goals, methods, and results of action must be moral. This is a tall order. Few decisions can ever hope to fulfill these three conditions. Perhaps the best that can be achieved is to advance some good at one or two of these three levels. The following cases are illustrative as to the perils and the possibilities of applying this ethical approach.


My first case is the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). President George W. Bush announced the PEPFAR initiative in January 2003. The program aimed to prevent the spread of AIDS, treat at least two million persons with life-extending drugs, and provide care to children orphaned by the disease. At the time that PEPFAR was announced, some 20 million Africans were infected with the virus, thousands of persons were dying daily from the disease, and close to 14 million children had been orphaned. The initiative, which was focused on 15 African countries, called for an original expenditure of $15 billion over five years. Since then, the program has been reauthorized several times, resulting in a total expenditure of roughly $70 billion.

Judging PEPFAR from a tri-dimensional ethical perspective, we can say that the humanitarian goal of halting a dangerous, rapidly spreading pandemic was wholly moral. In my view, the specific program goals of preventing the spread of AIDS, caring for those who are infected, and meeting the needs of orphaned children was completely just and praiseworthy.

When we assess PEPFAR at the level of means, however, some ethical tensions arise. Some critics contend, for example, that an excessive amount of funding was devoted to HIV/AIDS, shifting medical resources away from other diseases, such as malaria. Similarly, other critics have contended that, given the high cost of anti-retroviral drugs, more lives could have been saved at lower cost treating intestinal and respiratory diseases. But PEPFAR critics generally fail to take into account some of the social and economic costs families and communities victimized by AIDS endure. Despite the criticisms focused on alternative uses of funds, I believe that PEPFAR was morally defensible.

Finally, at the level of outcomes, PEPFAR was totally moral. At a minimum, millions of people are alive today because of the program, while 2.2 million babies have been born HIV-free to infected mothers. Additionally, more than 14 million persons have received anti-retroviral life-saving drugs, and care and support have been given to more than 6.5 million orphans.

I believe that PEPFAR, which human compassion inspired, was a legitimate program. The initiative was morally unassailable at the level of goals and ends and despite its critics was also morally justified at the level of means. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that PEPFAR will be remembered “as one of the greatest acts of compassion by any country in history.”

Now to a more challenging foreign policy case—President Ronald Reagan’s laying a wreath at the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. In early 1985, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited President Reagan to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the defeat of the Axis powers. The visit’s aim was to demonstrate to the world that it was possible to overcome evil and establish a new political order, one with peaceful, productive ties between the two countries. In effect, the aim was to honor West Germany’s consolidation of democracy and strong bilateral ties with the US. The trip became problematic, however, when it was discovered that the president planned to lay a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery to honor German and American soldiers who died in World War II. The problem was that among the two thousand soldiers’ graves were those of 49 SS troops. Despite significant congressional and public opposition, the president stood fast in his decision to honor US-West Germany ties of political reconciliation. He justified his decision by stating that it was important to honor West Germany’s transformation and to celebrate the two countries’ close ties. For Reagan, the success of political rehabilitation trumped past evil.

Let us apply the tri-dimensional framework to assess Reagan’s decision. From the perspective of goals, there can be little doubt that the aim of celebrating the consolidation of democracy and the development of close bilateral ties between West Germany and the US was morally justified. At the level of means, however, the presence of SS graves presented a major moral obstacle. Nevertheless, Reagan believed that it was important to honor West Germany’s political rehabilitation. Not only had the country become a stable democratic state, but it had also sought to make amends for the genocide by prosecuting thousands of guilty Germans and providing substantial financial reparations. Finally, at the level of outcomes, we can say that the visit was beneficial to US-West Germany solidarity and was therefore moral. In short, while visiting the cemetery was morally problematic, the goals and outcomes of the German trip were morally unassailable.

Our final case is a more recent one—the military intervention in Libya. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the UN General Assembly and the Security Council adopted a principle known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Basically, R2P says that a government is responsible for protecting its people’s basic rights. When a government is unwilling or unable to do so, sovereignty can no longer be used to shield egregious human rights offenses. This does not mean that states have a right to intervene but rather that the international community has “a responsibility to protect.”

In December 2010, a revolt in a small town in Tunisia unleashed a political uprising throughout the country. Through the technological miracle of social media, the revolt spread quickly to other nations in the Middle East. In mid-February, the political awakening—known as the “Arab Spring”—reached Libya, where rebel groups began to openly challenge the long-standing dictatorship of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. The political unrest began in Benghazi, some 600 miles east of Tripoli, and spread quickly to other cities. As the revolt gained momentum, Qaddafi loyalists responded by consolidating their operations, hiring mercenaries, and unleashing extreme violence against the rebels. Qaddafi, who compared the rebels to rats, promised to show “no mercy” to the opposition. By mid-March rebel forces were retreating, and Qaddafi’s armored columns were within 100 miles of Benghazi. A growing number of world leaders feared that if the international community did not respond to Qaddafi’s threats, Libya’s security forces would inflict mass atrocities—not unlike what had happened in Bosnia in 1995 when Serb forces killed some seven thousand Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. Given the possibility of a massacre, the challenge for world leaders was how to respond to the Qaddafi threat.

In March 2011, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, which authorized military force to protect people in the Libyan conflict. Soon after, the military forces of the US, the UK, and France carried out an air war that dismantled Libya’s air defense system and air force while destroying a large part of its weapons depots and military installations. Within six months, the anti-government forces controlled most of Libya. After Qaddafi was captured and killed, an interim government announced that Libya was now free.

Let’s now apply the tri-dimensional framework to this action. From a standpoint of intentions, the aim of protecting civilians is completely morally justified. Although the number of deaths from the fighting was limited before NATO’s air war, the threat of mass killing in Benghazi and elsewhere was real. When President Barack Obama announced US military operations against Libya, he stated that the aim of the intervention was to stop a massacre. To be sure, the defense against a massacre is morally defensible, even morally necessary. The ethical problem with the Libyan operation, however, was not with the original mission but with its expansion. Had the air war remained limited, it is doubtful that a full-scale war would have erupted. But by dismantling and destroying Qaddafi’s forces, NATO also destroyed the Libyan state. At the level of means, the military operation was justified in providing limited, discriminating force to thwart government military forces from carrying out revenge against rebel forces and civilians. The problem with the means, however, arose when Western forces continued their military operations, in effect supporting rebels who were seeking to topple the Qaddafi regime. Regime change had not been authorized by the Security Council, nor was it a legitimate goal of the R2P operation.

Finally, at the level of outcomes, the Libyan operation presents the most difficulties. When the NATO military operation began, fewer than 500 soldiers had been killed. But after the rebellion became a civil war, the conflict led to more than 30 thousand deaths. The most damaging outcome of the conflict, however, was the destruction of the state and the unleashing of tribalism. To some extent, the evolution of Libya was foreshadowed by the tale of Humpty Dumpty: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.” The dictatorship of Qaddafi is over, but Libya is now a collapsed, failed state. In short, while the protection of civilians was morally just, the dismantling of the existing regime was counterproductive, leading to widespread killing.

Thus far, the three cases demonstrate how the role of such moral norms as human dignity, compassion, solidarity, individual rights, and political order to guide and assess decision-making. I now turn to the values of truth-telling, mercy, and forgiveness—norms that generally are considered more relevant to interpersonal relationships than to public affairs. I do so by addressing the problem of systemic human rights offenses.

How should the US approach the problem of regime injustice and collective violence? What moral principles should guide us in confronting widespread human rights abuses and restoring civic order? When I began exploring this subject in the late l980s, concepts like mercy, reconciliation, and forgiveness were largely absent from international relations discourse. After my book The Healing of Nations was published, a friend, a former ambassador, called and asked, “Mark, what’s happened? Have you left the realist fold?” When I began working in this area, the concept of political reconciliation was largely unknown in political discourse. Fortunately, that is no longer the case.                                                                       

Fundamentally, democratic states assume that the most effective strategy in confronting criminal behavior is to identify and prosecute offenders. This approach assumes that human rights are best protected through the rule of law. According to the legalist paradigm, when people commit offenses, they should be held accountable. For the legalist, there is no such thing as collective wrongdoing. Culpability is always individual, even when working for the state, and justice demands that perpetrators be individually accountable for their offenses.

Legalism is the dominant global paradigm for dealing with regime atrocities and war crimes. It is the perspective that animates the work of war crimes tribunals and the International Criminal Court. This approach proclaims, “No justice, no peace.” Is this claim justified? Is justice a precondition for peace and the restoration of society? Could it be, as theologian Miroslav Volf argues, that the pursuit of justice can only be carried out when the ethic of inclusion or “embrace” is a priority? In his encyclical Rich in Mercy, the late Pope John Paul II reinforced this view by making the extraordinary claim, “No justice without forgiveness.”

Rather than relying on legalism, I believe that a more effective way of dealing with systemic atrocities is through the strategy of political reconciliation. Whereas legalism is backward-looking and based on retributive justice, political reconciliation provides a forward-looking strategy that seeks to rebuild trust among enemies. While current scholarship on restorative justice provides few principles and norms for pursuing political rehabilitation, the following practices are generally considered important in pursuing this strategy: truth-telling, acknowledgment, reparations, apologies, and forgiveness.

What does the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation have to do with international ethics? The issue is a challenging moral dilemma because it pits legal accountability versus forgiveness, backward-looking retribution versus forward-looking political rehabilitation. I believe that more attention needs to be given to the healing of nations and that leaders should shift their focus from a reflexive retributive ethic to an ethic of truth-telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu has it right: “There is no future without forgiveness.”

The most compelling illustration of this strategy in the post-Cold War era is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. In 1995, the Parliament of South Africa passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, which called for the establishment of a truth commission. Building on the prior work of truth commissions in Chile and Argentina, the South African TRC made truth-telling a priority. The TRC’s logic was that truth, not punishment, was the necessary precondition for political reconciliation. To encourage truth-telling of past politically motivated crimes, the TRC promised amnesty to those who confessed fully their offenses. Once the commission got underway, it held more than 160 public hearings throughout the country, involving some 1,200 victims. Additionally, the TRC received statements from more than 22 thousand persons. The TRC’s final report was published in late 1998.

When I first visited South Africa in 1985, I thought that a civil war was inevitable. In my view, the fact that South Africa has transitioned from an apartheid regime to a struggling democratic country is due in no small measure to the work of the TRC.

Let us assess the South African strategy using the tri-dimensional framework. At the level of goals, I believe the aim of reconciliation is morally legitimate. Who can be against the healing and rebuilding of political society? Some critics argue, however, that pursuing reconciliation is inconsistent with democracy. They argue that democratic participation should be the goal, not the restoration of communal solidarity. According to democratic theorists, the only legitimate way of pursuing healing and restoration is through political participation.

At the level of means, the granting of amnesty to those who disclosed their offenses fully is morally problematic. Whether or not one supports amnesty as a way of pursuing truth will depend in great part on whether or not one is committed to a retributive or restorative ethic. As one who supports the restorative justice model, I think the TRC approach is wholly justified morally. But I also recognize that human rights lawyers are likely to consider the South African approach deeply flawed.

Finally, at the level of results, I believe that the successful democratic transition justifies the strategy taken by South Africa—that is, a strategy of political reconciliation based on the disclosure of truth. Not only was a civil war avoided, but some progress has been made in increasing non-racial political participation.

Moral values have an important role to play in public life in general and foreign policy in particular. While moral values provide direction and inspiration, developing and implementing just policies is difficult since actions rarely can fulfill the demands of morality at the level of intentions, methods, and outcomes. Thus, in seeking to advance morally worthy actions, it is imperative that the policymaker pursues his or her calling with humility. This statement from Reinhold Niebuhr captures the challenge of pursuing moral action:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. 

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. 

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Mark R. Amstutz, a Providence contributing editor, is professor emeritus of political science at Wheaton College. He is the author of a number of works, including Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy; Just Immigration: American Policy in Christian Perspective; and Ethics: Concepts, Theories, and Cases in Global Politics, now in its fifth edition.

This essay was originally a Department of State Lecture that Amstutz gave on November 8, 2018.