Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the Motives and Actions of Politicians

On Page 6 of Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau writes, “History shows no exact and necessary correlation between the quality of motives and the quality of foreign policy. This is true in both moral and political terms.

“We cannot conclude from the good intentions of a statesman that his foreign policies will be either morally praiseworthy or politically successful. Judging his motives, we can say that he will not intentionally pursue policies that are morally wrong, but we can say nothing about the probability of their success. If we want to know the moral and political qualities of his actions, we must know them, not his motives. How often have statesmen been motivated by the desire to improve the world, and ended by making it worse? And how often have they sought one goal, and ended by achieving something they neither expected nor desired?

“Neville Chamberlain’s politics of appeasement were, as far as we can judge, inspired by good motives; he was probably less motivated by considerations of personal power than were many other British prime ministers, and he sought to preserve peace and to assure the happiness of all concerned. Yet his policies helped to make the Second World War inevitable, and to bring untold miseries to millions of people. Sir Winston Churchill’s motives, on the other hand, were much less universal in scope and much more narrowly directed toward personal and national power, yet the foreign policies that sprang from these inferior motives were certainly superior in moral and political quality to those pursued by his predecessor. Judged by his motives, Robespierre was one of the most virtuous men who ever lived. Yet it was the utopian radicalism of that very virtue that made him kill those less virtuous than himself, brought him to the scaffold, and destroyed the revolution of which he was a leader.

“Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad polices; they do not guarantee the moral goodness and political success of the polices they inspire. What is important to know, if one wants to understand foreign policy is not primarily the motives of a statesman, but his intellectual ability to comprehend the essentials of foreign policy, as well as his political ability to translate what he has comprehended into successful political action. It follows that while ethics in the abstract judges the moral qualities of motives, political theory must judge the political qualities of intellect, will, and action.”

Comment: This seems obvious and yet much that appears in the press emphasizes motive. Can we evaluate McCain and Obama in terms of what Morganthau wrote about Chamberlain and Churchill? McCain seems a narrower, Realpolitik sort of person. Obama seems full of good intentions, but Morgenthau tells us, “If we want to know the moral and political qualities of his actions, we must know them, not his motives.” But how can we know that about Obama when he has done so little? We can only judge McCain if we want to use Morgenthau’s criterion. We cannot judge Obama.

Lawrence Helm

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