Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment of our Values in Foreign Policy symposium. It is written in response to the first article in the symposium, which can be found here

How can states pursue more ethical, value-based approaches to foreign policy amidst competing priorities and strategic realities? This is the question that Amb. Peter Mulrean and Dr. William Hawk grapple with in their proposed “ethical checklist” for U.S. foreign policy.

“Checklists,” write the authors, “are invaluable in ensuring the quality and integrity of processes, even among the most accomplished professionals, such as surgeons, architects, and pilots.” While the authors recognize that the checklist, composed of eight questions, does not necessarily yield easy answers, they conclude that what “makes a decision ethical, however, is that it takes into account the identified areas of inquiry.”

This is a laudable course correction following years of fluctuating foreign policy moral standards. But while the proposed framework starts by asking some of the right questions, following it will not necessarily lead to more ethical outcomes. Instead, policymakers must grapple with difficult moral choices, as well as the assumptions underlying the values they profess to uphold.

Making Moral Choices in an Unequal World

Charting an ethical foreign policy is not simply about asking the right questions; it requires acting in accordance with a set of moral assumptions that undergird the decision-making process. For example, take respecting the sovereignty of other states, as defined by the United Nations (UN) Charter. Following the tenants of international law, including the jus ad bellum and jus in bello rules that structure decisions to going to war and waging war. Respecting human rights and the right for individuals to lead a flourishing life free from oppression.

The checklist questions presuppose these values, which not coincidentally also form the heart of the liberal world order. Yet, holding to these laudable values implies a hierarchy within the international system that can sometimes make acting ethically difficult.

Consider a key passage from the Biden Administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy :

Now, and over the next two decades, we face strategic challenges stemming from complex interactions between a rapidly changing global balance of military capabilities; emerging technologies; competitor doctrines that pose new threats to the U.S. homeland and to strategic stability; and escalation of competitors’ coercive and malign activities in the “grey zone”; and transboundary challenges that impose new demands on the Joint Force and the defense enterprise.

The United States is endowed with remarkable qualities that confer great advantages, including in the realm of national security. We are a free people devoted to democracy and the rule of law. Our combination of diversity, free minds, and free enterprise drives extraordinary innovation and adaptability. We are a member of an unparalleled and unprecedented network of alliances and partnerships. Together, we share many common values and a common interest in defending the stable and open international system, the basis for the most peaceful and prosperous epoch in modern history.

The implicit hierarchies are understandable but glaring: Privileging U.S. interests, citizens, and personnel across the globe. Protecting democracy. Foiling “competitor doctrines that pose new threats to the U.S. homeland and to strategic stability” and responding to “an escalation of competitors’ coercive and malign activities in the ‘gray zone.'” While the rhetoric is a far cry from the Bush administration’s axis of evil, there is a clear line of demarcation between pro-democracy and “competitor” forces.

Essentially, the hierarchy looks like this: liberal democracies on one side, with authoritarian regimes and nefarious non-states actors on the other. And the hierarchy will only grow starker if, as some scholars argue, the world is entering the post-liberal era. Concerns that the United States does not always toe the human rights line when it comes to foreign policy are no doubt valid, and the checklist is aimed to correct past legacies of colonialism and imperialism, which have given rise to various forms of domination and oppression in international affairs.

The proposed ethical checklist obviates these hierarchies, which are essential to making moral choices. The checklist directs policymakers to follow an equitable approach, achieving the best short and long-term outcomes for everyone, while respecting the autonomy, integrity, dignity, and choice of all involved, and reflecting empathy and care for all parties. But foreign policy does not work that way, especially when “competitors” reject the basic ethical assumptions of the liberal world order.

Equity in foreign affairs is hard to come by when the starting point is a legacy of stark inequality.

Ethical standards aim toward the good outweighing the bad. In just war parlance, this is the notion of proportionality which, as the most seasoned military ethicists attest, is very difficult to calculate. Empirical evidence suggests that those on the receiving end of the use of force, at least when it comes to the use of U.S. force in the twenty-first century, may bear the brunt of the bad. Especially civilians. When making proportionality calculations about whether to authorize a drone strike, for example, U.S. officials seem to weigh the expected value of saving American lives more than the anticipated civilian harm to foreigners. This is morally problematic, especially considering the legacy of U.S. imperialism in countries where these strikes are occurring, namely in the Middle East and North Africa.

To begin to address these shortcomings, the Fairness, Empathy, and Outcomes questions in the proposed ethical framework should be further refined, to include:

  • What are legitimate and illegitimate interests?
  • To whom do we show empathy?
  • And given decision X, which parties are predicted to gain, and which will suffer?

At the end of the day, someone usually dies when the decision to use military force is made. Hopefully the intended target, assuming they are a legitimate target, but too often also innocent civilians. The deliberation to resort to force therefore should not be easy, like running through a checklist arguably is.

Consider the U.S. drone strike that killed 10 civilians as the United States was withdrawing from Afghanistan in August 2022. A stark reading of the situation suggests that the moral logic was geared toward force protection. A more generous reading depicts the moral logic as being aimed at protecting U.S. forces and Afghan civilians at the airport, even though at the risk of harming civilians caught in the crossfire. Scholars who study the ethics of war have long debated these issues, exploring issues such as risk transfer, risk avoidance, and due care. Which choice is ethical ultimately depends on the assumptions−inseparable from some sort of hierarchy−that structures the ethical framework employed.

Asking the right question is only the first step. Some frameworks might privilege our soldiers, other times their civilians.

Rather than a procedure that equates to ethics-by-asking-the-right-questions, debates among ethicists point to tensions inherent to the most salient foreign policy quandaries of the day: the over-the-horizon policy, the preventive war option to stop acquisition of game-changing weapons, arming rebels, upholding chemical weapons prohibitions, humanitarian intervention, and more.

The point is that the hierarchical assumptions one brings to the discussion impact how one understands the duties and obligations owed to all parties involved. These may not be evenly distributed, which can have life and death consequences.

Thus, in addition to the Responsibility, Character, and Liberty questions, asking the following questions teases out the assumptions that structure the ethical deliberations:

  • To whom does one have a duty?
  • What risks are morally palatable to take to fulfill that duty?
  • What are the moral costs of inaction?
  • Whose autonomy, integrity, dignity, and choice, are best respected by the foreign policy decision, and whose are not?

Even Justified Killings Likely Fail to Meet Empathy Standard

Having written on military ethics for nearly two decades, I have learned that every new conflict brings moral quandaries. Iraq. Drones. Libya. Syria. Ukraine. And the list will no doubt expand in the years to come. Perhaps the one constant across these debates is that ethicists disagree. Does this mean that there is no objective ethical framework?

The jury is still out, but the competing frameworks offer a range of ethical views, some quasi pacifist, others privileging restraint with various caveats, and a few tapping into the threads of the just war tradition that eschew restraint. The scholarship is vast – the cosmopolitan outlook, the reductive individualist view, the legalist paradigm, the just war tradition and its various interpretations, with scholars challenging the view that the ethical tenets of just war should be seen as a checklist because it can make the use of force too easy.

The takeaway is this: no matter the framework of predilection, there is, more than an ethicist like myself would like, a messy remainder. The ethical use of force is not a clean mathematical equation. Rather than a mathematical formula with round numbers, something is left after the computation is completed. When the use of force is concerned, this remainder is usually measured in death and destruction. Recognizing this is where empathy comes into the picture.

Empathy is a powerful emotion that can lead humans to counter other more destructive emotions, such as fury, anger, vengefulness, and hate, because it allows us to share the feelings and emotions of others. Focusing on empathy can thus restrain impulses to resort to lethal force. To include empathy as a core feature in deliberations about the use of force is a stark turn away from ethicists who, at the beginning of the so-called global “war on terror,” argued that just war should be animated by the ambition of “stopping an unmitigated evil.” And, even in an era of so-called humane warfare when the fight against terrorist threats is waged by drones, incorporating empathy runs counter to justifications based on a more punitive logic to targeted killing. However, support for using force taps into different emotions. Research shows that support for drone strikes as a response to terrorist threats is mediated by these negative emotions. Moreover, empathy is not always reciprocal. Unless foreign policy becomes pacifist, there will be situations when even empathy-driven decision making acquiesces to accepting civilian casualties for a perceived “greater cause.” Most versions of just war theory accept some form of this. But families of such collateral damage would clearly disagree.

Consider the U.S. drone program again. The Biden administration is returning to the near certainty standard concerning the risk that civilians will be harmed. While this shift should be lauded, civilians will still be at risk of being misidentified, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I fail to see how such a policy could be construed as acting with empathy and care because it suggests that the right to life of those living under drones is less than that of the average American citizen drones are presumably meant to protect. By using drones over-the-horizon, the United States imposes war-time standards−the jus in bello rules−on the spaces where foreign civilians live. Such rules diminish the right to life compared to the rules governing peacetime spaces. Even when there ostensibly are no civilian casualties, such as in the August 2022 drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, such “clean” strikes may still terrorize bystanders and fuel terrorist recruitment.

The proposed checklist even allows a procedural way to dismiss moral concerns. Consider the question: “What rights, if any, apply?” Answering this question in the negative−no rights apply to foreign civilians in situations of force protection or supreme emergency−flirts dangerously with the “dirty hands” approach to ethics, that is, whether political leaders accept violating the deepest constraints of morality in order to achieve important goods or avoid disasters for their communities or their allies. Ticking this ethical box, and then acting in ways that flaunt the moral rules restraining the use of force and calling it ethical, seems instead to be an abrogation of moral responsibility.

Thus, while empathy is important in developing an ethic of accountability because, as a lens through which to view decision making, it provides a foundation for addressing moral injury and a common language for discussing the costs of war, policymakers should be attuned to a darker reality where ethical decisions are never clean. Despite good intentions, it is not always possible for actions to reflect empathy and care for all parties. Hence variations on the Empathy question to consider asking:

  • For which parties do the actions reflect empathy and care?
  • For whom do they not?
  • And what are the short- and long-term costs on the least well off in society?


Making ethical foreign policy decisions means taking responsibility for the decision to resort to force, especially when such decisions result in civilian harm. While the proposed checklist asks important questions, it inevitably oversimplifies complex moral quandaries. The risk is being able say, “Well, we ticked all the boxes, therefore we acted ethically.”

But ethics should not be as easy as ticking boxes; this mental process, if it becomes procedural, takes away from the moral grappling that should be part of the decision to use of force. Rephrasing the checklist as I have proposed puts the focus on the intrinsic difficulty of grappling with ethical dilemmas, something a checklist can never fully address.

IMAGE: Military aerial vehicle at sunset. (Getty)