Robert Kaplan argued in December for “The Virtue of Amoral Foreign Policy,” (originally published at Stratfor): “When we think seriously about foreign policy we think amorally.” I would suggest when we think seriously about foreign policy, we think morally.
Like Kenneth N. Waltz, Kaplan compartmentalizes international politics into a separate, “anarchic” world, “where there is no referee or night watchman in charge.” The United States is locked in an “amoral struggle for survival,” albeit for a noble purpose:
In a word, the United States engages in the amoral struggle for power to defend a liberal international order. The end result is in a large sense moral, but the means, if not immoral, are often amoral—that is, they belong in a category separate from the one involving lofty principles.
As Kaplan says, there is no night watchman, but the anarchic world of international politics is not a separate, amoral world. It is simply the world—the same world in which we live, move, and have our being. In this admittedly dangerous and complex world, we must make moral decisions about what ends justify what means.
No legal authority with a monopoly of force governs relations between states, but that’s true of many cities and states in countries like Mexico, where criminal networks wield influence, corruption is prevalent, and legitimate legal authority is incompletely established. Actions, especially large-scale military and economic actions, have consequences, and any action with consequences for another person can be considered just or unjust, moral or immoral.
Thinking morally need not preclude strategic savvy or amount to sentimentalism. This is what Kaplan wrote fifteen years ago in an intriguing piece that contrasts with his recent comments in December. In “The Return of Ancient Times,” he argues for a renewed appreciation of “pagan virtue,” which emphasizes the results of actions, not the moral purity of actors. The “ancient morality” Kaplan extols, revived by Machiavelli, emphasizes “political necessity rather than moral perfection.” Yet, he argues: “there is nothing amoral about Machiavelli's pagan virtue” because it insists on using the “minimum degree of cruelty required to further a virtuous cause.” Further, “ancient morality need not undermine Judeo-Christian ethics. Rather, the sophisticated use of the one in foreign policy may help to advance the other.”
Paul Johnson declared in his magisterial history of the twentieth century, Modern Times: “It is of the essence of geopolitics to be able to distinguish between different degrees of evil.” Unlike Kaplan’s depiction of moral thinking as black-and-white, Johnson’s acknowledges the complexity of choices on the world stage—but suggests moral thinking is an art to be honed, rather than a distraction to be sidelined.
In the end, moral thinking is not less serious or more “lofty” than amoral thinking. If anything, it's more serious because it forces us to stare “unsentimentally at the human condition” and to make choices without ever ignoring the consequences our choices have for actual human beings.