Can a Country Have Moral Interests?
Can a Country Have Moral Interests?
In the case of the United States, it does. And it must defend them.
Published on: Mar 30, 2022  |  

When a country is determining its foreign policy, how does it decide what its interests are? Any country would consider the defense of its own people from attack to be a core interest. If it is bound by treaty to defend another country, that would also rank highly on its list. Economic concerns are important, especially in an era of global trading networks whose vulnerabilities have come to light during COVID-19. And the pandemic has also shown what a stake every country has in global public health.

On top of those tangible concerns, though, can a country be said to have moral interests? If a country like the United States sees itself as a defender of democracy, freedom, and human rights, should it rank those as foreign policy interests alongside self-defense and economic security? It is certainly easier for a rich and powerful country to concern itself with humanitarian issues than a country whose modest means force it to be mostly concerned with its own survival. Is that, however, enough reason to devote significant resources to those issues?

If the answer is yes, Russia's invasion of Ukraine tests that proposition. The outpouring of sympathy directed at Ukrainians, and outrage directed at Vladimir Putin, give believers in humanitarian intervention a chance to assess how much use of hard power for liberal causes they are truly willing to advocate. If there is any place where the values Americans espouse are under attack, it is Ukraine. The United States will most likely not intervene directly in this conflict, and as it happens, I don't believe it should. But it will continue to support the Ukrainians, with arms and intelligence and sanctions against Russia. And it will do so for moral reasons, by all means short of war. This is as it should be.


I do not believe any country has a moral obligation to aid other peoples to the same extent it aids its own. A government is accountable first and foremost to its own people. If, for example, the Canadian government devoted all its time and resources to non-Canadians while ignoring the needs of Canadians, it would not be functioning as a Canadian government. It would merely be a collection of people, who happened to be Canadian, trying to do good for their fellow man. Moreover, any country that tried to do good everywhere would strain its resources—including its leaders' attention spans—making it very difficult to help anyone inside or outside its borders. Some countries whose governments have difficulty feeding their own populations can't afford to put militant humanitarianism in their foreign policies.

Nevertheless, if a powerful country sees a place where it can do good, I believe it ought to, even if it does not have to. This includes the use of military force to halt massacres. Think of it as a "bonus" achievement for a government, on top of fulfilling its obligations to its own citizens. Common humanity can be motivation enough for the leaders of intervening powers. They don't need to make grand claims of moral responsibility to justify their actions.

Why intervene at all? I've asked myself this question many times when trying to prepare to defend intervention in public. Okay, my internal critic says, it's tragic that people on other continents are being brutally killed. So what? You say we can't save everyone, so why not be consistent and keep the troops at home? If we're not going to use our troops to save Ukrainians from Putin, why should we get people's hopes up that we might save other people when they get massacred by other dictators?

After repeatedly wrestling with this question, my answer is: because foreigners matter, too. They may not be as relevant to us and our leaders as our fellow countrymen, but their lives still have value, because they are human. I don't know how many people this will satisfy, but it's what I believe. As much as I love my country, and want my government to do more to help my fellow citizens, my conscience doesn't allow me to completely ignore suffering overseas that my government is capable of alleviating. To use a phrase that is controversial in some quarters, all lives matter.


I am not a religious person. My desire to see America intervene does not stem from a belief that intervention is God's will. It stems from my belief in the dignity of human life. George Orwell's succinct explanation for his motivations in the Spanish Civil War strikes me as good a reason as any for why a country that can stop a massacre should:

If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: "To fight against Fascism," and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: "Common decency."

It's difficult to find agreement on what "common decency" is in a society as polarized as 21st century America. But I believe that when people are being slaughtered because of what they look like or how they worship, it is decent to step in and save them, if possible. Even if a particular group of people being killed for no good reason are beyond the reach of anyone who can save them, that does not make them any less worthy of sympathy, or their killers any more justified in their actions.

Others may point to Afghanistan and Iraq, to America's hubristic uses of its military, and say the decent thing to do would be to avoid further hubris. I can't really blame someone for equating humility with decency in that way, given the history of the last two decades. There is more than one way to show respect for the value of human life.

Nevertheless, I remain convinced that if a slaughter is underway, the decent thing for a powerful country to do is often to act, rather than be a bystander. A humble outlook, a recognition of our limits, need not lead us to completely lose faith in our abilities. Hubris can kill, but so can inaction.


When it comes to wars for humanitarian causes, I cannot think of any objective standard by which a government can lay down a policy of intervention. Most likely, a country's actions will be ad hoc, subject as much to its own domestic political climate as to the severity of the overseas situation. But that would still be better than not intervening at all. The fact that the United States didn't use force in Rwanda or Darfur, for example, does not mean it was wrong to use force in Bosnia and Kosovo. Possible accusations of hypocrisy—for, in some eyes, choosing to help Europeans but not Africans—are a small price to pay for saving a large number of lives.

There are two writers I find persuasive here. One is Robert D. Kaplan, specifically his 2001 book, Warrior Politics. An exploration of classical political thought and its relevance in the 21st century, it argues for a form of foreign policy realism compatible with humanitarian intervention. In the United States, these questions often pit realists emphasizing the limits of national power against liberal internationalists and neoconservatives eager to use that power in the service of righteousness. Kaplan, by contrast, argues that the mentality of the realist—understanding the dark side of human nature, recognizing that good things often conflict with each other—is necessary for achieving goals realists may not agree with. He places figures like Isaiah Berlin and Richard Holbrooke, liberals who understood the necessity of power in achieving liberal ends, in the same positions of honor as Thucydides, Sun-Tzu, and Machiavelli.

Kaplan does not advocate a blanket policy of intervention, nor does he see it as America's mission to spread liberalism across the globe. Again, intervention is not something any country has to do. "To treat every country and crisis as a clean slate full of hopeful possibilities is dangerous," Kaplan writes, and "what is achievable in one place may not be in another." When circumstances are favorable, however, he urges liberal powers to step in and halt massacres. He advocated this in the case of Bosnia, even as President Clinton was using Kaplan's 1993 book, Balkan Ghosts, as an excuse for staying out of the conflict. Clinton's reluctance is an example of why information alone is not enough to make a political decision. A leader's command of the facts will not help them if they do not have the will to act.

The other writer is Samantha Power, especially her 2002 book "A Problem From Hell." When she worked in the Obama White House, the President famously alluded to this book when expressing exasperation with her hawkishness on Libya and Syria. "We've all read your book, Samantha," he said. But Power was keenly aware of what American intervention could achieve.

In her chapter on Rwanda—excerpted in the Atlantic—she describes how Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general commanding United Nations peacekeepers there, believed he could have curbed the genocide had he been allowed to. With the permission of the UN, and of European countries trying to evacuate their citizens, he could have combined his own soldiers, U.S. Marines in the region, and the European evacuation units into a force capable of fighting off the Hutu extremists. But authorization never came, and Clinton did nothing to help. Even if Clinton had reason to be skeptical—six months earlier, eighteen U.S. soldiers had been killed in Somalia—the idea that such a small force, less than five thousand troops, could have saved hundreds of thousands of innocents is chilling.

Those hundreds of thousands may have had little in common with Americans, but common humanity would have been reason enough to save them. We don't need to believe that all human beings are created in the image of God to believe that they are worth saving from slaughter. We need only remember that they are just as human as we are, allow that to be a good enough reason, and then turn to the practical dimension—how to do it.


My own thinking on humanitarian war goes back to the spring of 1999. I was thirteen, watching news coverage of NATO's campaign of airstrikes to halt Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Alongside footage of planes taking off and missiles hitting their targets, there were Kosovar Albanian refugees saying, "God bless America," and chanting, "U-S-A! U-S-A!" This, I thought, is what American power can do.

NATO's success in Kosovo is why the catastrophic "war of choice" in Iraq has never soured me on wars of choice generally. I supported the alliance's intervention in Libya to prevent massacres by Muammar Qaddafi. And while I see much to respect in Obama's foreign policy overall, I suspect I will never agree with his decision not to use force against Syria's Bashar al-Assad when he used chemical weapons against his own people. When an American president has the opportunity to save many lives, to punish a dictator for their atrocities, I want them to do so.

Fine, says the critic in my head. You were lucky enough to be coming of age when your country (and you were lucky to be born into such a rich and powerful one) saved a particular group of people. What makes you think Kosovo wasn't an outlier, a rare moment when a superpower decided to be generous with its military might? Things are a lot different now. The unipolar moment is over, inflation's back, Americans hate each other's guts. The United States just isn't going to be that generous anymore. Don't live in the past.

My answer: anything that's happened before can happen again. It may be rare in history for a powerful country to use its military to save innocents without some ulterior motive, but all it takes is one instance to set a precedent. Which precedent American leaders choose to follow—intervention or non-intervention—is up to them.


So what about Ukraine? If I'm convinced that saving innocents is a worthwhile use of my country's military, why am I not clamoring for President Biden to send the 82nd Airborne Division to Lviv? Why am I content for the U.S. and its allies to send the Ukrainians weapons and hope they can use them effectively?

Because Russia is too powerful. While some armies commanded by murderous despots can be stopped with few American casualties, Putin's army is not among them. And while I firmly believe the U.S. should keep its promise to defend fellow NATO members if they are attacked, until that happens, I am not prepared to endorse war with Russia. That could escalate to nuclear war, and the deaths the U.S. and Europe could suffer could far outnumber the lives saved by stopping Russia from subduing Ukraine. It is not in the moral interest of the United States to trigger nuclear war.

Kaplan again, writing about the Second Chechen War, begun only two months after NATO defeated Milosevic in Kosovo, when Putin had just become prime minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin:

When reports surfaced of massive atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians in Chechnya, the same officials in the Clinton administration who had so forcefully advanced moral arguments for intervention in Kosovo suddenly went mute. Unlike Serbia, which could be bombed with impunity, Russia was a major power with a nuclear arsenal.

Those of us who defend humanitarian war must remember that sometimes not deploying the troops is not only wise, but moral. If a war of choice leads to far more bloodshed than it prevents, I do not believe we can call it moral. If the value of human life is the justification for fighting wars we can win, it is also the justification for avoiding wars where we are likely to fail. Catastrophic losses are a defeat for common decency.


While any country will naturally care most about its own people, a rich and powerful country can do so while also caring about vulnerable foreigners. Like a rich person who does not help others because they do not "have" to, a great power that does not save anyone it does not "have" to has wasted an opportunity to do good. The fact that we cannot save everyone is not a reason to save no one. Even if we only save the people most convenient to save—the ones closest to our overseas bases, the ones whose attackers we can stop with few casualties on our side—that is a gain. It can be a gain even if the intervening power does not have a comprehensive plan for the aftermath of its intervention. While planning for the aftermath of any conflict is always smart, when there is a limited window of opportunity to stop a massacre, improvisation is better than non-intervention.

I can understand why many people would disagree. I do not blame anyone, American or otherwise, for not wanting to see American troops sent on more campaigns. Even though I've maintained my belief in the value of wars of choice despite the disaster in Iraq, that disaster is a warning for all of us who might be eager to use troops as rescuers or liberators, not just defenders of our own country. I can respect the person who says, "we may want to help, but we don't know what we're getting into." But I don't share their reluctance. I look at the successes in the Balkans, alongside the failure in Iraq, and for me the chance of achieving the former in another country outweighs the risk of experiencing the latter.

Our history as a nation of immigrants means that, more than any other country, America has roots around the world. The wars and atrocities and oppression that make the news in our time are the same kinds of events that brought many of our ancestors to America. We can and should care about suffering outside our borders because that's where we came from, and we have a stake in peace and stability over there as well as over here. Foreigners are our fellow human beings, and if we have an opportunity to save some of them from being massacred, saving them is an honorable thing to do.

When an American president chooses to fight a humanitarian war, I do not believe they need to articulate a full ideological or philosophical argument for doing so. All they really need to say is that they are fighting to save innocent people from being slaughtered. Even if most of their countrymen are against this particular intervention, they know on a gut level that it is wrong for one group of people to massacre another merely because of their ethnicity or religion. Just because a person does not want their country's soldiers to die helping foreigners, it does not mean they are taking joy in foreigners' plight. They may not particularly care, but that doesn't make them completely insensitive to suffering in other countries.

I know America can be just as self-interested as any other country. We can care about people overseas being slaughtered, but we can also choose to focus entirely on our own concerns, to think foreign massacres are a shame while going about our day. However many of us believe our country is "exceptional," we always have the option of being an ordinary country, one that looks after its own and generally leaves the rest of the world to its own devices.

I don't want my country to be like that. I want us to remember our roots around the world, to pay attention to suffering and atrocities in those countries and, if lives cannot be saved any other way, to be willing to step in militarily. I don't expect us to be especially consistent in our interventions. Even if we recognize the value of lives outside our borders, whether our leaders dispatch our troops there will depend partly on other considerations, like their own political futures. But I don't want us to limit our caring about human life to only those living within our borders.

Americans can be forgiven for ranking humanitarian concerns low on their list of important issues, both in foreign policy and in public policy as a whole. Those of us who want our country to halt those massacres have our work cut out for us. Moral interest may not be a widely accepted concept, but for the sake of innocents we can save if we choose, it is a concept we ought to develop and promote.