By: Joseph S. Nye, JR   

Reviewed by: Djallel Khechib

Book Review/ July 2023


  1. Book Chapters
  2. Discussion and Critiques: What Does this Book Tells Us?
  3. Between Contextual Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence: The Importance of Personal and Psychological Traits of Presidents
  4. Future Challenges: Toward More Moralistic American Foreign Policy

Joseph Nye is considered as one of the contemporary pillars of neoliberalism in international relations. By a poll that was conducted in 2008 which included 2,700 scholars in international relations, he was ranked as the most influential scholar in US foreign policy. In 2011 the Foreign Policy Journal named him one of the top 100 global thinkers. He published several works, the most famous being “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.”

In addition to his distinguished academic record, Nye held many official positions in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations, which provided him with professional experience and the ability to get direct contact with the top policy-making institutions in the US. Additionally, he gained the opportunity to influence them with his theoretical approach, or what became known as “liberal internationalism” especially in the post-cold war era until the election of President Trump.

The book was published in English by Oxford University Press-UK in January 2020. It contains 254 pages. The book came as a result of the author’s professional experience on the one hand and as an extension of the theoretical approaches that he established and championed since the end of the 1970s on the other hand. This includes the “liberal internationalism” whose advocates argue that it was not only a product of the “unipolar moment” (1991) but rather a natural extension of the foundations that the U.S. established since the end of World War II with President Franklin Roosevelt At a time when liberal internationalism is experiencing a sharp retreat, Nye seeks in this book to defend one of its most important foundations, namely liberal values, by explaining the great importance of values and morals in foreign policy and tracing their impacts since the era of President Roosevelt to the present.


Keywords: Morals, 3D Scorecard, Contextual Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, the US Presidents, the US Foreign Policy

Book Chapters:

The book consists of nine chapters, including the introduction and conclusion, but we can re-divide it into three main parts. The first part (Chapter 1 and 2) represents a theoretical introduction in which Nye explains everything related to morals in global politics and his propositions to evaluate the behavior of presidents and judge the extent of their ethics, putting here some practical tools and a particular scale that enables him to make an objective assessment as much as possible.

The second part (Chapters No: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) is an examination of the degree to which these morals are present in the thoughts and behaviors of American presidents, especially in their personal and psychological characteristics inherited from parents and acquired through family upbringing and the socio-educational and professional environments in which these presidents lived and interacted. His aim is to show how this reflected in their foreign policies and the crises they dealt with during their ruling periods, shedding light on the contexts in which the most prominent decisions of their foreign policies came. This part is considered as a “historical and psychological laboratory” which enabled the author to draw his theoretical and ethical approach to foreign policy, which he formulated in the first part of the book (Chapters 1 and 2).

The third part (Chapter No: 9) includes a comprehensive moralistic evaluation of US foreign policy from the Roosevelt to Trump administrations according to the established foundations of the first part and the examples detailed in each president’s era in the second part. He tries to capture the rise and decline of morals in the country’s foreign policy and its contexts, as well as the challenges that a more moralistic American foreign policy would face, especially in light of the changes that the US is experiencing both at home and abroad.


Discussion and Critiques: What Does this Book Tells Us?

It is self-evident that states choose to act according to their interests, but the most important issue here is how leaders choose to define and pursue national interests under different circumstances. In this book, Nye wants to illustrate the critical importance of morals in foreign policy by tracing their impacts from the President Roosevelt era to the current US President, Donald Trump. His aim in this book is not only explanatory, as much as he calls for a recipe for commitment to the values factor in a world dominated by international Anarchy, suspicion, and self-narrow interests. By focusing on morals and values (the liberal ones, of course), he will give liberal philosophy a longer life, given that values are the central pillar of this philosophy, most importantly, he will give liberal internationalism in foreign policy and international relations a lasting impact on the US elites and high politics institutions, especially in this period in which this current and its advocates stand at the stake, with the sharp criticism to its ideas that is coming from its opponents (Realists, in particular) and due to the new world transformations.

Above all, Nye uses in this book the terms “Ethics and Morals” interchangeably to refer to judgments of right and wrong. According to him: “Ethics are more abstract principles of right conduct, while morals usually refer to more personal judgments that may be based on formal ethics or personal conscience.”

It is so hard for any scholar to present an objective judgment about the ethical level of external behavior or foreign policy in general for one of the presidents given to the complexity that characterizes the foreign policy-making process and its internal and external circumstances, as well as due to the influence of personal judgments, political and ideological tendencies of the person who try to make such judgment or evaluation. So, Nye offers here a “theoretical recipe” in the form of an evaluation scale that enables us to formulate a less biased and more objective assessment of any foreign behavior or foreign policy, applying this scale to the presidents of the United States from Roosevelt to Trump. Therefore, it is important to emphasize here that this book is not a history book aims to narrate the morals and values of the US presidents and trace their roots, but rather it is a book based on “the laboratory of history” to build an explanatory and guided theory at the same time, by drawing abstract and general conclusions which can travel between times and places, based on experimental positivist rules like any other positivist theory in International relations.

Nye’s proposed scale of evaluation (Scorecard) requires the necessity to focus on three main interrelated dimensions and make a balance between them:

Intentions: He measures here the moral vision of the leader.

Means: He measures here necessity, proportionality, and the degree of distinction between the use of force and liberal respect for rights and institutions.

Consequences: Here, he measures the degree of long-term success achieved for US interests, the minimum harm that the president causes to others, as well as his sincere moral discourse.

At each step, Nye tries to answer some questions that will aid in the evaluation, as shown in the following figure:

As for the ethical scorecard for each president, it fluctuates poor, mixed, or good. All this is to confirm that morals are important in foreign policy, but on condition that they are judged in light of intentions, means, and consequences combined.

Nye stresses the need to establish a balance between these three dimensions. This is what would give us an objective assessment of political behavior, whether it is ethical or not. Accordingly, he believes that American presidents should establish a balance between Wilsonian liberalism (idealism) and Machiavellian pragmatism (realism), warning against the absolute inclination of one at the expense of the other.

However, Nye tends to favor presidents who adhere to liberal values (liberal internationalism), especially President Obama who adopted during his administration Nye’s approach to soft power and smart power as an essential means of success in foreign policy. So, despite the disastrous mistakes made by liberal presidents such as Obama or Clinton in their foreign policies, their evaluation was positive and higher compared to their counterparts, according to Nye’s ethical scorecard. Therefore, he gives a greater score to Truman and Clinton, then Obama and Carter, followed by George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford. After that, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Roosevelt converge in their evaluations, followed by Kennedy, Trump, George W. Bush, Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson. The author did not conceal his personal bias in this assessment.


Between Contextual Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence: The Importance of Personal and Psychological Traits of Presidents:

In addition to the above, Nye’s approach includes a set of key concepts to help assess the performance of presidents and the ethical extent of their foreign policy decisions, especially during crises. Two concepts are notable: contextual intelligence and emotional intelligence. According to Nye, the evaluator must pay attention to the context in which the president’s decisions are made, especially the controversial ones, and note the extent to which the president understands the moment he is going through and makes his decisions. For example, President Truman, who dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saw that doing so was a correct choice (despite the victory of the United States in the war before this decision) because the world was not yet aware of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons. He is the same president who later refused to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War to save himself from the specter of losing the war. The American experience in Japan contributed to Truman’s decision in Korea and gave him the contextual intelligence to make a moral decision.

As for emotional intelligence, it is related to the personality of the leader and the extent of his ability to accommodate the psychology of “friends and opponents.” This ability plays an important role in the extent of his commitment to moralistic behavior in foreign policy. In this regard, the author expresses great admiration for the personality of President George H.W. Bush who established a good balance between the moral action and American interest while Washington was living the moment of absolute victory with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is exactly what Nye means by emotional intelligence which Bush expressed spontaneously when he said: “I won’t beat on my chest and dance on the wall.” This emotional intelligence later helped him to pave the way for the success of the Malta Summit with Gorbachev.

The book attaches great importance to the president’s personal and psychological characteristics (humility, vanity, confidence, fear, embarrassment, patience, wisdom, etc.) and to the primary sources that contributed to the formation of these characteristics, such as the family environment in which he grew up (rich/poor), the education he received and the university where he studied (prestigious/ordinary), and the political legacy enjoyed by his family or enjoyed by himself before his arrival to the White House (for example, high political positions/a modest political career in a modest state). All of this has some effects on the decisions a president takes, especially during crises, and therefore considering these features during the analysis helps us to evaluate the ethical nature of the behaviors and decisions taken.


Future Challenges: Toward More Moralistic American Foreign Policy:

The third part of the book includes a comprehensive moral evaluation of US foreign policy from Roosevelt to Trump, trying here to monitor the rise and decline of morals in the country’s foreign policy and the contexts of this process. The author wonders about the fate of the American status and the liberal international order after a hundred years of the Wilsonian era, which is considered an example in moral policy for him. He acknowledges that both US status and the US-led liberal international order are clearly declining, especially in the Trump era, who is merely a symptom rather than a fundamental reason for this decline. Trump represents an “anti-Wilsonian moment” in the history of the United States, as Nye put it, which is apparent in his distaste for multilateral international institutions and his opposition to globalization and democracy.

Finally, the book discusses the challenges that a more moralistic American foreign policy faces in light of the changes the country is experiencing at home and abroad. He believes that the next US presidents will face two types of global power shifts that will shape the context of US foreign policy in this century. While the first is horizontal, related to the Asian recovery and the rise of China, the second is vertical and related to the technological and information revolution that the world is witnessing today.

Moreover, Nye is more worried about the threats coming from within than the threats coming from outside to US hegemony, and he means especially the rise of nationalism and populism within the United States at the expense of liberal and democratic values, as well as the growing political polarization and the dogmatic tendency of leaders in foreign policy.


In conclusion, the author believes that the US should move towards strengthening the mission of global leadership, not imperialist hegemony, by using its Wilsonian moralistic legacy. Also, it should (despite the US’s declining global supremacy) take the lead in many contemporary issues such as climate change and global financial stability because it is the only actor capable of sparing everyone from the negative impacts of these issues, especially because these issues have a universal moralistic nature that would elevate the country’s status domestically and internationally.

The article was first published in Geopolitical Bridges (GPB), published by the Center for Islam Studies and Global Affairs (CIGA), Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2023.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.:

He is University Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard considered as one of the contemporary pillars of neoliberalism in international relations. He is a prolific researcher, who has published 14 books and more than 200 articles in prestigious professional and policy journals, among his most famous books: “Soft Power: The Means to Success In World Politics”. In addition to his distinguished academic record, Nye held many official positions in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations, which provided him with professional experience and the ability to get direct contact with the top policy-making institutions in the US. Additionally, he gained the opportunity to influence them with his theoretical approach.

Djallel Khechib:

He has been Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), affiliated with Istanbul Zaim University –Türkiye since December 2019.  His main fields of interest are Geopolitics, IR theory, Political Philosophy, Great Power Politics and International System, Geopolitics of North Africa, Eurasia, and the South China Sea, Turkish Foreign Policy, and Algerian Foreign Policy. He is the author of many books, studies, translations, and academic summaries published in Arabic and English. His books include: “The Liberal International Order: Rise or Fall? John Ikenberry VS John Mearsheimer”. (2021), “The Struggle for Independent Will: The Effects of International System Changes on Turkish Foreign Policy”, (2017), “The Prospects for Democratic Transition in Russia, a Critical Study for Structures and Challenges”, (2015).  

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