Editor’s note: This article is the first installment of our Values in Foreign Policy symposium. 

Values: Easier Said than Done

As the Biden administration approaches the end of its second year in office, it is time to consider whether it is delivering on its promise of pursuing a “values-based” foreign policy. While all administrations stake claim to pursuing American values, President Joe Biden came to office particularly vocal about the need to place values at the core of U.S. policy. His National Security Strategy repeats the word 29 times, with Biden stating up front that, faced with “a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order…the United States will lead with our values.” The term “values” is never precisely defined, and is sometimes preceded by “democratic” or followed by “and interests.” Values are invoked in relation to human rights, economic growth, international finance, the military, migration, and international cooperation. A bit like the air around us, values are everywhere, but hard to pin down.

At first blush, it appears that in its first two years, the Biden administration’s actions have often fallen short of its repeated lofty rhetoric about putting values first. A high-profile example would be Biden’s engagement with Saudi Arabia, despite having promised to treat it like a pariah because of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s (MBS) role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden’s famous fist-bump with MBS seems particularly egregious in hindsight, as he appears to have gotten nothing from the Saudis in return. Another example would be the administration’s handling of the migrant situation at the southern border, and in particular its shifting position on the use of Title 42’s authority to expel migrants on public-health grounds that were no longer extant.

Why is it so hard to pursue a values-based approach to foreign policy? A lot can be attributed to when soaring aspirations meet unyielding realities, both practical (how to manage thousands of migrants in a highly politicized atmosphere and with inadequate tools) and in degree of complexity (the United States has many significant, and sometimes competing, interests in Saudi Arabia). Still, some U.S. administrations appear to achieve better alignment between their foreign policy implementation and their stated ambitions to put core values first. Joseph Nye evaluated the ethics of prior U.S. administrations’ foreign policy in Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (2020). Nye identifies criteria and uses his framework to evaluate presidential administrations’ ethical shortfalls and successes. He embraces the prevalent conception that the role of ethical analysis of foreign policy involves after-the-fact conclusory judgments of right or wrong, good or bad.

That approach is more helpful to the foreign policy academic than to the practitioner. We advocate a different role for ethics, not as hindsight moral appraisal, but rather as forward looking, in which ethical reasoning guides and shapes foreign policy decisions not yet made. In our collective experience as a former senior government official and ethical consultant, we believe that the United States lacks a disciplined process for ensuring that its foreign policy decisions align with its priorities and values. In what follows, we recommend a practical decision-making methodology to do just that.

Three Essential Pillars

Reviewing the record of past administrations, two elements have been essential for pursuing successful, ethical foreign policies: articulating a strategic vision and developing (and maintaining) trust with allies and adversaries. We believe a third element is also required: defining decision-making processes that align foreign policy actions with stated values.

The first element is a fully formed strategic vision that is based on values, focused on long-term objectives, and anchored in an understanding of the foreign policy context, including that of the other interested parties.

Consider the Marshall Plan, the Truman administration’s comprehensive strategy for using large-scale economic assistance to avoid economic ruin and promote development and stability in Europe. Though developed in a short period of time, the Marshall Plan was the result of multiple sets of U.S. officials debating various scenarios to ensure that the process implementing the plan would succeed, such as by allowing each European country to determine how best to use the U.S. funds provided. The Marshall Plan fit into a broader strategic vision for a liberal international order, which would promote rules-based economic global development and work as a pro-western bastion against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Contrast the Marshall Plan with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was also a deliberate and premeditated foreign policy decision, although it was launched on the faulty premise of an active Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program and based on a wholly unrealistic interpretation of the context and interested parties. The Bush administration dismissed warnings about the potential long-term negative consequences, and, beyond the initial invasion, subsequent administrations often substituted wishful thinking for hard analysis about whether they were advancing toward their stated objectives in Iraq.

The second key ingredient to foreign policy success is trust, which is essential for implementing a strategic vision. Predictability and dependability are the cornerstones of trust. Foreign policy is built on a cumulative record, not one-off transactions—the willingness of others to support U.S. policy priorities today is closely tied to its actions yesterday and behavior in general.

Unfortunately, the U.S. record on both counts has been badly tarnished in recent decades. The botched invasion of Iraq not only failed to achieve any stated objectives beyond the departure of Saddam Hussein, but its continuing trail of death, destruction, and instability has been devastating to U.S. credibility and leadership around the world. Even our closest allies openly question American reliability, particularly since the Trump administration. Regaining lost trust takes considerable time and consistent effort. As the Dutch say, trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback.

The record is at best mixed on how well different administrations have upheld the values they profess underpin U.S. foreign policy. The path from rhetorical flourish to a record of foreign policy success is long, perilous, and often obscure. It requires overcoming internal political and bureaucratic roadblocks, as well as external opposing actors and unexpected developments, without losing sight of long-term policy objectives in a flurry of daily distractions. Every administration faces the frustration that its own priorities are in constant competition with a steady flow of foreign policy matters that are not part of the plan, as other countries pursue their strategic interests, crises occur, and global developments play out. These extraneous matters may absorb huge amounts of bureaucratic time and energy, distracting from other foreign policy priorities.

For that reason, we believe there is a third essential ingredient for success that has thus far been missing in U.S. foreign policy— a structured decision-making process for ensuring that values, long-term strategic objectives, and the policy context are consistently factored into all foreign policy decisions. Such a mechanism would provide the administration with the means to keep its eye on the ball, addressing exogenous or unexpected issues that arise in a manner consistent with its strategic vision.

There are examples where Washington has dealt with new developments through the prism of its defined values and long-term objectives, with a solid understanding of the foreign policy context. The resulting action was consistent with its strategic vision and thereby enhanced the overall coherence of its foreign policy and its reputation for dependability. The Kennedy administration’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis is a case in point, as is the George H. W. Bush administration’s approach to German reunification. In both cases, the administrations were clear about the values and principles that mattered, but also understood the context and how to address Moscow’s concerns. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s approach to Libya or the Reagan administration’s handling of Nicaragua were examples where Washington took short cuts on the respect for values and misjudged the context and other actors. The results were harmful to Libyans and Nicaraguans, as well as to the U.S. reputation, and therefore also detrimental to those administrations’ ability to pursue other policy priorities.

The U.S. government has a well-developed wiring diagram designating “who” is involved in foreign policy decisions, through a system of interagency coordination, generally led by the National Security Council (NSC). What is missing, however, is a well-defined procedure for determining the “what,” the factors under consideration in decisions. Given the fast-moving and overloaded foreign policy agenda, the absence of a methodology to ensure the quality of the decision-making substance through a consistent review of core principles can lead to myopic, transactional decisions that define national security interests too narrowly and favor short-term considerations.

A process that casts all decisions in the context of the country’s shared values and long-term interests increases the overall quality and coherence of its foreign policy. Such decision-making methodologies exist and work in the private sector.

Developing an Ethical Checklist

We recommend a decision-making framework, amounting to an ethical checklist, that is based on extensive research regarding human psychology and institutional design. Apart from the specific procedural recommendations that we make, the key is to design, adopt and practice a disciplined methodology for all decisions that is based on values and principles, as well as a deeper appreciation of the strategic policy-making context. Counting on the expertise of even the most capable foreign policy professionals is not enough. Groupthink and blind spots are inevitable even in the most well-functioning bureaucracies.

One might think a “checklist” unnecessary in a policy system that is staffed by foreign policy professionals and already requires various levels of clearances and approvals across the interagency process before reaching a decision point. But, as numerous studies have demonstrated, checklists are invaluable in ensuring the quality and integrity of processes, even among the most accomplished professionals, such as surgeons, architects, and pilots. In busy, overtaxed bureaucracies, expediency lurks at every turn—in bureaucratic cultures that promote consensus, when there is little bandwidth to consider all the angles or seek out all the necessary information, or when employees are discouraged from questioning conventional wisdom or their superiors. Less important issues requiring time-sensitive attention often crowd out identified priorities that are more complex but require no immediate action. The costs of expediency are considerable in terms of policy success and are particularly damaging to reputation, as it is often our more overarching professed values (such as environmental protection, human rights, global health), which suffer most in decision-making processes that favor short-term policy wins.

For students of the psychology of decision-making, the behaviors cited above are familiar. The human brain daily faces thousands of decisions, large and small. Left to its own devices, it will make these decisions on autopilot, often based on incomplete information at best, or misinformation at worst. Human brains seek efficiency and prefer shortcuts, hunches, and prejudices over hard work. Decisions are largely intuitive and emotional, trusting previous experience over new information. Our brains resist information that contradicts both our self-image as well as our prior beliefs and choices. We add to sunk costs, where we maintain an approach in which we have already invested heavily, even when there is information showing that it is not working. In fact, the brain will make decisions based exclusively on the information put before it at the decision point, even if it is aware of additional relevant information. Once an autopilot or near-automatic decision has been made, we build elaborate post-hoc narratives to justify it.

But the brain is also capable of making well-informed, rational decisions, consistent with settled values. There are empirically-demonstrated methods for switching from autopilot to a more deliberative information-gathering approach. For example, the Eight Key Questions (8KQ), developed over a decade ago at James Madison University, enhances university students’ capacities to analyze thorny ethical problems and act on better information. It also has been adopted in business, government and even prison systems to ensure that their decision-making processes reflect the priorities and principles of those organizations.

There are many methods for making better informed decisions. These frequently call for steps such as collecting information, identifying stakeholders, anticipating possible outcomes, and creating action alternatives. These are essential steps to take before making decisions. However, these steps are inadequate for making ethical decisions. The 8KQ process is distinctive in bringing explicit attention to ethical considerations and doing so through a collaborative question-asking method. Catalyzing conscious and non-conscious deliberation on common ethical values initiates dialogue that produces various perspectives and diverse approaches to complexity in real world circumstances.

The 8KQ critical-thinking process is based on extensive research of how the brain actually makes decisions and is designed to disrupt and interrogate quick, “biased” intuitions through reflection at the decision point. Asking questions cues deliberation. The shared values both prime and prompt conscious and unconscious attention. The all-too-common phenomenon of moral “blind spots” is mitigated by calling to mind the shared values which then focus both perception and attention on what might otherwise be ignored. Personal biases may be mitigated by diverse group processes. The tendency to rationalize immediate intuitions is challenged by questioning. These faulty decision sources, features that generate unpredictability and undermine trust, can be mitigated by consistent practice of the 8KQ question-asking strategy.

The 8KQ questions are:

▪ Fairness: What decision results in an equitable approach, balancing all legitimate interests?

▪ Outcomes: What actions achieve the best short and long-term outcomes for everyone?

▪ Responsibilities: What duties or obligations apply?

▪ Character: What actions best express a personal or collective ideal?

▪ Liberty: What actions best respect autonomy, integrity, dignity, and choice of all involved?

▪ Empathy: Do the actions reflect empathy and care for all parties?

▪ Authority: What legitimate authorities should be considered?

▪ Rights: What rights, if any, apply?

Applying the Checklist to Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration has a highly experienced foreign policy team that has made considerable efforts to reach out to countries across the globe to advance administration priorities while rebuilding trust. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks regularly of the importance and the complexity of pursuing a values-based foreign policy. For example, prior to Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, 2022, Blinken outlined the complexity of getting the balance right among different objectives in the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship, stating: “President Biden was determined that we recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia and to make sure that that relationship was serving our own interests as well as our values.” Blinken went on to cite some of the ethical and policy issues in play: the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and human rights more generally, the war in Yemen, counterterrorism cooperation, protecting 70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia, relations with Israel, and oil production in the context of the war in Ukraine. He concluded, “we want to make sure that through the relationship we are addressing the totality of our interests… and take a comprehensive approach to Saudi Arabia as we do with any other country.”

In the end though, Biden’s visit gave MBS the legitimacy he sought from the United States, without achieving a key strategic priority for the United States—convincing the Saudis to delay an OPEC+ reduction in oil production at least until after the mid-term elections. Did the Biden team misjudge the mix of factors at play in the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Was the perception of Washington “giving up” on pursuing accountability for the Khashoggi murder worth the gamble of getting a short-term extension of OPEC+ production levels? These are the types of questions that the 8KQ is designed to raise. The process was not created with foreign policy in mind. However, it could serve as a model for a structured, questioning method to ensure values consistency over the long-term in policy development and implementation.

It is not possible in a few paragraphs to capture the breadth of reflection and interaction in an 8KQ exercise, considerations that would likely have been part of an 8KQ-type process for deciding, for example, whether Biden should have visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman in July.

Under “fairness,” one might first consider the various U.S. interests, certainly those mentioned above by Blinken, but also including Iran, regional stability, and so forth. Next would come “other legitimate interests,” starting with Riyadh’s own concerns (e.g., its autonomy as an energy producer, its economic well-being, or its role in the region), but also the interests of the human rights community, Khashoggi’s family, those supporting strong action on climate change, and more. The later 8KQ questions of “liberty” and “empathy” cover similar ground but examine to what extent one understands and respects the legitimate interests and situation of other parties. By asking explicitly about “fairness,” decision-makers are prompted to explore and investigate a broad range of factors beyond short-term considerations.

The analysis of “outcomes” would review the range of possible results from the visit and which interests were advanced. For example, if Biden’s visit embraced MBS and played down the questions of human rights and the Khashoggi murder, but achieved Saudi agreement on increasing oil production and ending the war in Yemen, it would represent a negative outcome for the long-term interests of justice and respect for human rights; a significant short-term victory for Biden in managing the consequences of the war in Ukraine and its impact on the global energy markets; and a mixed outcome on Yemen, representing an important end to human suffering and destruction, but without much hope for eventual accountability for the atrocities that took place during the conflict.

The key question of “character” provides a different perspective on outcomes, analyzing whether a decision is consistent with the values and self-image one wishes to project and what impact it could have on one’s reputation with different audiences. For example, how does it affect Washington’s claim to global leadership in defending human rights and accountability when President Biden appears willing to downplay the Khashoggi murder as part of a deal on oil-production levels?

“Responsibilities” could include the president’s obligation to protect U.S. citizens overseas; laws and public commitments to uphold human rights and pursue justice, to reduce the use of fossil fuels vs. the duty to prevent economic decline and hardship at home, to reduce human suffering, or to support international humanitarian law. In parallel, the 8KQ questions of “rights” and “authorities” examine whether other legal or moral rights arise in the actions under consideration and whether there are other authorities that could be affected, such as treaties and agreements, but also political or consultative groups with significant standing, (e.g., the United Nations and NATO).

Institutionalizing Ethical Decision-Making

An 8KQ-style ethical decision-making checklist injects values, principles, and shared ethical considerations to guide foreign policy decisions and actions. The eight areas of inquiry have been identified in scholarly research as the range of moral considerations needed to form the basis of an ethical decision. It is not a means of imposing either external moral principles or specific decisions. Rather, habitually raising thoughtfully designed questions provides a disciplined, pragmatic process for ensuring that officials consider different relevant factors, including principles and commitments, before making a decision.

The proposed framework represents a dynamic approach that requires complex judgments—it is not a magic formula that produces one right answer. What represents the “most ethical” decision may be different for different people. What makes a decision ethical, however, is that it takes into account the identified areas of inquiry.

The 8KQ framework can easily be adopted in practice. The framework could be incorporated into training programs for incoming State Department and other policy and intelligence officials, as well as reinforced as part of continuing leadership training throughout their careers. Experience with university students, businesses, and other institutions demonstrates that the ethical questioning process is useful at both the individual level—when facing difficult professional or personal challenges—and at the systemic level, from human-resource management to developing and implementing complex policies.

Following the 8KQ questions would help concretize and implement the lofty goals contained in Biden’s National Security Strategy. A custom question-based methodology could be tailored to the decision-making procedures in relevant U.S. Government agencies and become the basis for consistently ethical decision-making across the Interagency. At first, it may seem either artificial or just one more hoop to jump through, but, as with all new best practices, it would eventually become second nature and produce tangible benefits. Using the ethical checklist, not only when establishing an overall policy, but also during the many big and small decisions implementing that policy over the years, would help ensure that the overall policy approach is consistent with stated values and principles, even when circumstances have changed. A formal ethical reasoning strategy could achieve the integrity in foreign policy that the Biden administration says it aims to achieve.

* * *

The objective of U.S. foreign policy will remain the defense and advancement of U.S. interests in the world. A checklist methodology does not favor a particular outcome, only well-informed, ethically-sensitive, decisions that are not skewed in favor of short-term outcomes. Adopting the framework would naturally bring all eyes back to the ball, anchoring policy decisions to the strategic vision. Like a pilot before take-off, it’s important not to have overlooked anything essential. At that point, a decision still requires policymakers to exercise sound political judgment to weigh various scenarios. Sometimes, their judgment may be to opt for a politically expedient action when there is no suitable alternative. Ultimately, if the overall result of an enhanced decision-making process is a foreign policy that gives greater emphasis to values and avoids misjudgments, misunderstandings, and blind spots, both the United States and the world will be better off. Global leadership depends upon values-driven policy and trust.

IMAGE: Close-up of a handshake of two politicians after negotiations on a blue background with a US flag.