We Talk Niebuhr, Oh Yes, We Do

We’re going back to Obama’s Nobel speech for a moment. David Brooks in NYT:

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

More than usual, he talked about the high ideals of the human rights activists and America’s history as a vehicle for democracy, prosperity and human rights. He talked about America’s “strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” Most of all, he talked about the paradox at the core of cold war liberalism, of the need to balance “two seemingly irreconcilable truths” — that war is both folly and necessary.

He talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.

George Packer in The New Yorker:

The spirit of Niebuhr presided over the Nobel address. Neither idealist nor realist, Obama seemed to be saying that universal values and practical geopolitics exist in the same tension as war and peace. The readiness is all—the ability to discern opportunities and not be hemmed in by rigid abstractions. The President cited Nixon’s overture to Mao during the Cultural Revolution as an apparently inexcusable act that over the long run produced real improvements in the lives of the Chinese people. If something similar comes of Obama’s outreach to Iran, it, too, could be seen as a historic diplomatic breakthrough. At the moment, however, there’s no sign of progress.

In his address, Obama said, “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, or repression in Burma, there must be consequences,” and he added, “We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung San Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” This was the least convincing passage of the speech: so far, there have been no consequences in places like Darfur, and bearing witness—or at least such low-key witness—to Iranian protesters has done nothing to sway the mullahs. The weakness of Obama’s strategic flexibility is that it depends so heavily on practical skill, above all in diplomacy, a field in which America has lost its touch over the past two decades. Failure will seem like a failure of vision and principle.

Obama’s Peace Prize has been fairly called premature—a criticism that the President himself endorsed, first when the award was announced, in October, and again in Oslo. It was given more for who he is and what he says than for anything that he has done. The speech exemplified a quality of wisdom that could place his legacy among those of previous winners, such as George C. Marshall and Nelson Mandela, against whose achievements he belittled his own. On the other hand, the 2009 Peace Prize could end up like the 1926 version, which went to Aristide Briand, the co-author of a pact outlawing war. The results will tell.

Andrew Sullivan:

“A little better than we were yesterday.” Whatever that is, it is not utopian or liberal except in the deepest, Niebuhrian sense. Obama has never been a pacifist. Never. His opposition to the Iraq war, as he said at the time, was not because he was against all war, but because he was against a dumb war. He is, in so many ways, a Niebuhrian realist. And with Niebuhr, there is the deeper sense that even though there is no ultimate resolution in favor of good over evil on this earth in our lifetimes, we still have a duty to try. It is this effort in the full knowledge of ultimate failure on earth that is the moral calling. It is to do what we can, knowing that it will never be enough.

The problem with Bush’s foreign policy was that it was based on a “doctrine” which is never a good thing to base any politics on; that it was far too sanguine about the power of good in the world; far too crude about the role of culture and history in limiting the universal appeal of Western freedom; far too reckless in deploying resources without any concern for their limits; and so convinced of its own righteousness that it could even authorize the absolute evil of torture in pursuit of the absolute good of freedom. Bush was riddled with all the hubris, arrogance, rationalism and utopianism of the worst kind of liberalism. Obama is not a Tory realist; he still believes in the slow, uncertain march of human enlightenment. But he sure isn’t a Bush-style or Carter-style utopian. And he is such a deeper, calmer spirit than Clinton’s always-maneuvring mind.

These are desperately dangerous times. They are dangerous primarily because religion has been abused by those seeking power and control over others – both in the mild version of Christianism at home and the much, much more pernicious and evil Islamism abroad. They are dangerous because the fusion of this kind of religious certainty with the sheer power of technological destruction now available could bring the planet to catastrophe if we are not very, very careful. Very few moments in history have required an Augustinian statesmanship as much as now.

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

Readers here know that I recommended that we not pay much attention to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, mostly because what mattered was not what he said — we all know by now that he’s eloquent on such occasions — but what he did.

Needless to say, the commentariat ignored this advice, with prominent pundits like Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and George Packer praising Obama’s remarks for his Niebuhrian “Christian Realism.” (In his New Yorker comment on the speech, Packer uses variations on the word “realism” four different times.) So having originally decided to ignore it, I decided I’d better go back and read it again (see Whitman quotation above).

There’s no question that realists can find much to agree with in the speech.  Instead of promising a “war to end all wars,” he warned his listeners that “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” He also acknowledged that the use of force is sometimes “not only necessary but morally justified” and made it clear that his role as head of state is first and foremost “to protect and defend” the United States. Why? Because he must “face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Hard to think of a more “realist” notion than that. And surely realists would agree that his position is “a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”

That said, other aspects of the speech were less consistent with realist thinking as well as less convincing in themselves. He suggested that the world “needed institutions to prevent another world war,” even though the case that institutions can or have performed that role is weak. Institutions are useful tools, to be sure, and one can argue that the United Nations has performed valuable peace-keeping roles in a number of places, but institutions cannot prevent great powers from pursuing their interests and did relatively little to prevent another world war.

Instead, as Obama himself acknowledged, what has kept peace among the great powers over the past sixty years is mostly power. Here Obama gave full credit to the United States, saying that it “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades.” Most realists would agree — but only up to a point. As Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall show in their excellent new book, America’s Cold War, the United States did play a positive role in stabilizing Europe after World War II and in containing possible Soviet expansion in that region afterwards. But they also show that America’s role in Indochina, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East was far more destructive, even though the U.S. leaders who conducted these policies undoubtedly thought they are serving a larger moral purpose as well.

Will Inboden at Foreign Policy on Walt:

Christian realism and academic realism do share much.  Both consider power a first-order factor, both are anti-utopian, both caution about unanticipated outcomes of good intentions, both assume human folly and national self-interest, both hold that order precedes justice, and both take the salience of the nation-state as the basic unit in international relations. No surprise, then, that in his day Niebuhr frequently found common cause with more traditional realists such as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau.

But there are significant differences as well. Christian Realism is primarily a philosophy about the individual human being and the meaning of history, rather than of how the international system works. It focuses on the limits of human aspirations and the pervasiveness of human pride, but also the fact of human dignity and the possibility of proximate justice here on earth, even if absolute justice is left for the end of history. Moreover, while Niebuhr harbored few delusions about the capabilities of the United Nations, he and his fellow Christian realists still placed greater faith in such international institutions — even to the point of helping create the intellectual architecture for the United Nations — than traditional realists.

Christian realism also gives more primacy to moral judgments, including about the internal nature of societies, than academic realism. Niebuhr broke from his fellow liberals in the 1930s by condemning Nazi Germany for its categorical evil and urging the United States to take up arms and defeat it. In the next decade he again condemned Soviet communism as evil and urged a robust military posture — including nuclear arms — to resist it. In neither case was it simply about one nation-state balancing the rise of another nation-state or protecting its own interests. His most pointed opposition to the USSR came not because it was a rival power but because of its existential threat and sacrilegious zeal. In Niebuhr’s pointed words, “Hell knows no fury like that of a prophet of a secular religion, become the priest-king of a Utopian State.” Likewise, Niebuhr’s Christian realism sometimes led him to take positions that deviated from the traditional realists of the day — such as his fervent and outspoken support for Israel during its precarious first decade of existence.

And while warning constantly against American hubris or the deification of any nation-state, Christian Realism does allow for a distinctive — even exceptional — role for the United States in the world. Hence Niebuhr’s deep affinity for the American experiment even while cautioning against its ironic vices.  In a related vein, one of Niebuhr’s intellectual projects was to defend democracy as the most viable and most realistic political system, grounded in a particular moral order and philosophy of history. From this comes one of his most famous quotes: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Perhaps the most important distinctive of Christian Realism (evidenced by its name) is the fact that it is irreducibly religious. It contends that the root of the world’s problems is not mere self-interest and conflict but the pervasiveness of Original Sin. While holding that the mind of God is ultimately inscrutable, Christian realism still submits all of human existence to divine judgment, and sees history being steered by the divine hand to an eschatological culmination and new reality. Not the sort of stuff one will find in a political science textbook.

Niebuhr himself is notoriously elusive and resistant to ideological pigeon-holing. Those as politically diverse as Arthur Schlesinger, E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, Andrew Bacevich, Michael Novak, Wilfred McClay — and now Barack Obama — happily confess the influence of Niebuhr on their own thought. As for Obama, while I have in the past been skeptical of the depth behind his occasional references to Niebuhr, with the Oslo speech he has crafted something that would likely have resonated with Niebuhr — even if not as much with academic realists.

UPDATE: Matt Taibbi


1 Comment

Filed under Go Meta, Religion

One response to “We Talk Niebuhr, Oh Yes, We Do

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s