Morality and National Self Interest

Last week I was involved in a brief discussion about the concept of morality and what effect it should have on our actions as a nation state.  In other words, are we to be guided more by principles of what is right and just, or must national self-interest be the deciding factor.

The subject was raised because of differing opinions over how we should deal with Saudi Arabia should it be proved that Saudi leaders were guilty of ordering the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  As of this writing the jury is still out.  The Saudis were certainly involved in the murder, but how far up the chain of command does guilt go?  If it is proved that top Saudi leaders are directly involved, how should the United States respond?  National interest would seem to dictate that we retain our close ties with the Saudis since they and Israel are our allies in confronting Iran, our principal enemy in the Middle East.  On the other hand, moral concerns would suggest that we strongly condemn Saudi Arabia and take punitive measures against them, thus jeopardizing the alliance.

The reputation of the United States as a moral nation is very precious to us.  Whenever possible, we take a stand for truth and justice.  Nevertheless, strategic concerns also weigh heavily.

It is interesting to review some of our past history in this light.

From 1939-1941 we gave immense amounts of material assistance to the British, French, and Russians.  This was primarily based on or our moral convictions about the evil nature of the Nazi regime, but after the fall of France in 1940 we were also concerned about our military vulnerability.

We placed a gradually increasing economic stranglehold on Japan from 1937-1941.  This was because of our moral outrage over Japanese atrocities in China, and there was little self-interest involved in our actions in this instance.  In fact, we might have profited economically by playing the part of Japanese friend and supplying them with the raw supplies they so desperately needed, but moral consideration dictated that we act otherwise.

In 1948 we initiated the Marshall Plan to aid in the economic recovery of European nations after World War 2 and to reduce the influence of Communist parties within these states..  It is frequently cited as an example of American magnanimity, and it was indeed magnanimous, but there was little strategic downside to our action and it strengthened the West against the growing Soviet menace. Interestingly, the Soviet Union did not allow eastern European nations to accept our aid and countered with the so-called Molotov plan.

In 1950 we rushed to the aid of South Korea when it was attacked from the north.  This was the morally correct thing to do. We virtually destroyed the North Korean army and were within miles of the Chinese border when China entered the fray.  After being pushed back to the 38th parallel, we made no further attempt to free North Korea from its brutal Communist overlords.  The risks of a general war were too great. At this point, strategic considerations trumped moral concerns over the plight of the Korean people.

Through programs such as the Voice of America, we encouraged peoples of eastern Europe to rise up against their Communist overlords and establish democratic governments. In 1956 we watched as Soviet troops crushed a people’s revolt in Hungary.  Moral reasoning would have suggested a forceful intervention, but military realities caused us to confine our response to words.

We fought in Vietnam from 1964-1973 to protect the South Vietnamese people from Communist incursions from the north. In 1975 the North Korean military overwhelmed  South Vietnamese resistance. After so much travail, and regardless of the right and wrong of the situation, we decided that peace in the American heartland was more important than the seemingly endless battle to protect the people of South Vietnam.

Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war between September 1980 and August 1988.  There were no good guys in this conflict, but we assisted Iraq during several critical phases of the war even though we knew they had violated international agreements by using chemical weapons.

We went to war against Iraq in 1990 after their invasion of Kuwait.  The Iraq aggression deserved to be countered, but the strategic threat to Middle Eastern oil supplies was a great motivating factor in our decision to go to war.

Looking at the entire record, at least since the mid-1800s, it appears to me that the United States always tries to take the right side, the moral side, in any world disagreement or confrontation. We have an excellent record in that context.  We are not out for territorial gains or for other nefarious motives.  We cannot say the same about some of our adversaries.  On the other hand, national self-interest should and does play a critical role in how we respond to a moral dilemma such as that posed by the Khashoggi affair.  For strategic reasons, we must maintain a close alliance with Saudi Arabia while, at the same time, urging the Saudi royal family to make a fulsome apology and bring the actual assassins to justice.  I assume that the Saudi Crown Prince will maintain deniability.

We have nothing to apologize for in taking the stance I propose.  It is only proper that we take the long view and follow a course that is most advantageous to us as a nation. Who else will protect our interests?  As far as our own actions, we must always endeavor to do that which is right; but we cannot always control the actions of our allies.  Even so honorable a man as George Washington found that out while allied with Iroquois tribesmen  during the French and Indian War.

2 thoughts on “Morality and National Self Interest

  1. It’s possible that the Saudi royal family ordered the murder, so bringing those responsible who actually carried out the deed to justice would be punishing someone for doing what they were required to do. They could have been executed themselves if they refused. Speculation of course but possible.


    1. Well written…my mother taught me that you can be guilty because of association. We seem to be doing an effective job managing our Iranian relationship. What’s our true motivation to support the current Saudi action? I’ve obviously not been briefed, I can hope that our decision is morally motivated.


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