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What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

The Irony of American History

by Reinhold Niebuhr, with an introduction by Andrew J. Bacevich
University of Chicago Press, 174 pp., $17.00 (paper)

A fog of know-nothing ideology, anti-intellectualism, cronyism, incompetence, and cynicism has, for eight years, enveloped the executive branch of the United States government. America’s role in the world and the policies that should shape and maintain it have been distorted by misguided decisions and by willful misinterpretations both of history and of current events. That fog is now being dispersed, and the vast intellectual and managerial resources of the United States are once again being mobilized.

A blessing of this time of liberation and hope is that serious works of political analysis and philosophy may contribute to the new administration’s approach to its daunting agenda of global and national problems. That Barack Obama has made clear his admiration for one of the books under review—Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History—is in itself reassuring.1

It will take time to develop once again the elements of a coherent national program that most Americans can agree with and support, not to mention Congress, where the recent lack of a single House Republican vote for the President’s economic stimulus package makes a mockery of bipartisanship on important matters. In the meantime, thinkers and writers of various political persuasions offer a rich harvest of ideas and suggestions.

1.

Andrew J. Bacevich, in his introduction to the republished edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, calls it “the most important book ever written on US foreign policy.” Certainly it would be hard to think of another book from the 1950s that retains, nearly sixty years later, both its compulsive readability and so much of its relevance. The elegance, strength, and charm of Niebuhr’s writing invite quotation at every turn. And behind the prophetic style lie wisdom, Christian charity, and a profound understanding of both history and the ways of human beings, individually as well as in groups.

The Irony of American History was published in 1952, the year in which Niebuhr suffered a stroke that limited his public activities for the remaining nineteen years of his life although he continued to teach and to write books. Primarily a Protestant theologian, Niebuhr, as a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, also became a social reformer. From 1928 to 1952, as a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was an influential voice on a wide range of issues, including politics, ethics, and foreign policy. He was a strong supporter of United States intervention in the war in Europe, but in 1946 was a drafter and signatory of the Federal Council of Churches statement that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “morally indefensible.”

Niebuhr warns of “our dreams of managing history” as a source of potentially mortal danger for the United States. To quote Andrew Bacevich again, his book “provides the master key…to understanding the myths and delusions that underpin this new American view of statecraft.” By 1952 the United States had reached a unique position of world power and influence. In such circumstances “dreams of managing history” seem understandable, if unwise.

Prosperity and the country’s almost unlimited abundance were dominating forces in the growth of America. Niebuhr foresees the danger of an excessive national pursuit of gratification. In 1952, a powerful agent of mass gratification, television, was rapidly invading American homes. “Television,” he writes, “may represent a threat to our culture analogous to the threat of atomic weapons to our civilization.”

In 1952 the ideological-military-political standoff with the Soviet Union was the defining phenomenon of American policy. As a Christian socialist and a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action, Niebuhr detested the Soviet system as a monstrous tyranny disguised as a utopian democracy. The struggle against it, however, was also the cause of a major irony: “…The necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument for the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation.” “Thus an ‘innocent’ nation finally arrives at the ironic climax of its history.”

Niebuhr’s main indictment of the “communist movement against which the whole world must now stand on guard” rests upon

the cruelties which follow inevitably from the communist pretension that its elite has taken “the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom,” and is therefore no longer subject to the limitations of nature and history which have hitherto bound the actions of men.

The delusions of grandeur implicit in such an idea rule out once and for all the Soviet Union’s claim to be the master of historical destiny. At the same time, along with his fellow members of the ADA, Niebuhr deplored McCarthyism and other attacks on civil liberties in the name of anticommunism.

There has, from the country’s earliest Puritan years, Niebuhr wrote, also been “a deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America,” which the unprecedented scope and influence of America’s post–World War II power did little to discourage while vastly complicating the country’s involvement in world affairs. As to the universal values that the United States supposedly holds in trust for mankind, “we were, of course, not immune to the temptation of believing that the universal validity of what we held in trust justified our use of power to establish it.” Niebuhr quickly adds, “Except in moments of aberration we do not think of ourselves as the potential masters, but as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.” During the last eight years we have learned a good deal about “moments of aberration” and have, as a result, fewer illusions about our ability to manage historical destiny.

The fateful turning point came during and after World War II when “it…became apparent that we could neither be really secure in an insecure world nor find life worth living if we bought our security at the price of civilization’s doom.” The unparalleled scope of American power created “the temptation to become impatient and defiant of the slow and sometimes contradictory processes of history…. Man cannot rise to a simple triumph over historical fate.”

The capacity to make sacrifices and to sustain endeavors without complete certainty of success is an essential element of Niebuhr’s prescription for America’s pursuit of peace and justice in the world. He even seems to anticipate the national security policy of George W. Bush:

We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.

A democracy can not of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable.

In our recent case, of course, the heighteners were civilians.

Discussing the weaknesses of the American political and economic system, Niebuhr, again prophetically, writes:

The lip service which the whole culture pays to the principles of laissez-faire makes for tardiness in dealing with the instability of a free economy…. Some believe that…a recurrence of such a catastrophe [the Great Depression of the 1930s] is impossible; but it is not altogether certain that this is true…. We remain an irritatingly incalculable element in world stability.

Niebuhr often uses the word “pretension” to describe a particularly undesirable state of mind for a powerful state. “The pretensions of virtue,” he writes, “are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power.” Pretension blinds nations “to the ambiguity of all human virtues and competencies,” not to mention “the larger meanings of the drama of human existence beyond and above the immediate urgencies.” And again:

This tendency is accentuated in our own day by the humorless idealism of our culture with its simple moral distinctions between good and bad nations, the good nations being those which are devoted to “liberty.”

In our own day also.

It is impossible to summarize a book so strong and yet so subtle, in which every word has meaning. I have tried to extract a few of Niebuhr’s ideas that seem particularly relevant today and to give some idea of the grandeur of his vision and style. In his peroration he suggests

the possibility and the necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities….

2.

Andrew Bacevich is a devoted disciple of Niebuhr, and his latest book is very much in the Niebuhrian spirit, which he applies with great skill and originality to the problems, mostly of our own making, that now beset the United States. Bacevich retired from the US Army as a colonel and became a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. An earlier book, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), assailed the myth of the US as a reluctant superpower and urged it to act openly as a benevolent leader in the world. His son Andrew, to whom his present book is dedicated, was killed in Iraq in May 2007. A traditional conservative, Bacevich’s style is compounded of military clarity, great eloquence, and invigorating overtones of Oliver Cromwell, Savonarola, and other inspired reformers. His book is both highly readable and enormously worth reading.

In Bacevich’s account of the descent of the United States few leaders go unscathed. Both successive administrations and the people have ignored common sense in their belief that an exceptionalist America is immune from the normal process of cause and effect. The result is the triple crisis—economic and cultural, political, and military—that has now befallen the country. A quotation from Niebuhr sets the tone for Bacevich’s book:

One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay that leads to death has already begun.

Bacevich traces the “crisis of profligacy” in which the American way of life has outstripped the means available to satisfy it. In 1947 America’s economic position was unrivaled. That moment soon passed. By 1950 the US had begun to import foreign oil, which Bacevich calls “the canary in the economic mineshaft.” The first negative US trade balance occurred in 1971; in 1972 US oil production peaked; and the 1973 “oil shock” caused a 40 percent rise in gas prices. Later in the decade Jimmy Carter’s warnings of “a fundamental threat to American democracy,” which he described as the “worship of self- indulgence and consumption” and a “constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility,” fell on deaf ears. By the 1980s the “Empire of Production” had become the “Empire of Consumption.” Carter does not escape, however. Of his statement that control of the Persian Gulf was a vital US interest, Bacevich writes, “not since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution has a major statement of policy been the source of greater mischief.”

Ronald Reagan has a special place in Bacevich’s rogue’s gallery. He is a “faux-conservative” and “the modern prophet of profligacy” who encouraged the fantasy that credit had no limits and bills would never come due. He had a “canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear” and presided over eight years of “gaudy prosperity and excess” based on cheap credit and cheap oil. Bacevich remarks that Reagan’s beliefs “did as much to recast America’s moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” By 1990 the United States imported 41 percent of its oil and was embroiled in the Islamic world as a result. Deficits and the national debt had soared, and the United States was no longer a creditor country. “Americans have yet to realize,” Bacevich writes, “that they have forfeited command of their own destiny.”

Operation Desert Storm, which ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, also created a permanent US military presence in the Gulf, which, in Saudi Arabia, provided the proximate cause for the birth of al-Qaeda. After September 11, 2001, the United States was plunged into an orgy of exceptionalism—disdain for its allies and the UN, contempt for international law, and a new and unwarranted enthusiasm for preventive war, a concept that had been shunned by previous administrations.2 The very real limits of US power soon became clear.

As for George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, Bacevich remarks that it was originally supposed to be the first step in “a breathtakingly ambitious project of near global domination.” Of Bush’s posturing as commander in chief in a nation at war he comments bitterly, “Washington may have fancied itself to be at war; the nation most assuredly was not.”

Bacevich maintains that, starting in 1947, an informal national security elite has caused an “atmosphere of seemingly permanent crisis” and has deprived Congress of most of its responsibilities except ensuring the reelection of its own members, whom he refers to as “narcissistic hacks.” The ideological conviction of this extra-constitutional group—that America’s destiny and obligation is to ensure the triumph of freedom worldwide—adds “a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that…the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.”

James Forrestal and Paul Nitze were founding members of this elite and of its mindset—“sounding the alarm at the drop of a hat” and favoring the worst-case scenario. In 1950 Nitze wrote NSC 68, “one of the foundational documents of postwar American statecraft.” NSC 68 finds the US, then at the peak of its power and influence, in “deepest peril” and “in greater jeopardy than ever before in our history,” with the possibility of “the destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.” The long-expected Chinese Revolution and the first Soviet nuclear tests apparently induced this doom-laden mood. Succeeding generations of the elite, sometimes referred to as Wise Men, have also seen the United States as perennially beset by hideous threats, often inflated and based on a misinterpretation of reality. One recalls with embarrassment Condoleezza Rice’s smoking gun as mushroom cloud and other Saddam Hussein fantasies.

The resulting permanent militarization of US policy produced ever-increasing military budgets and persistent fearmongering, which, in Bacevich’s phrase, became “the stock-in-trade of Wise Men from Nitze’s day to the present.” Bacevich pronounces the national security elite ideology, with its reliance on the false security of military power, as “American exceptionalism in its most baleful form.”

As a soldier, Bacevich regards the overexpectations of America’s forces after September 11 as puerile. When the Iraq war went sour, “the ills afflicting our political system, including a deeply irresponsible Congress, broken national security institutions, and above all an imperial commander-in-chief not up to the job, became all but impossible to ignore.” A vast gap existed between what George W. Bush “called upon America’s soldiers to do and what they were capable of doing….” Bacevich is withering about the quality of current American generals, starting with Tommy Franks. He maintains that no general since Marshall and Eisenhower has understood Winston Churchill’s dictum that “at the summit true politics and strategy are one,” and writes that strategy is now a lost art, confused by civilians with ideology, by soldiers with operations. Post–cold war US military supremacy has produced—as may now be the case in Afghanistan—the prospect of open-ended conflict rather than enhanced security.

America doesn’t need a bigger army,” Bacevich writes. “It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy….” Instead of the “war on terror,” containment should be tried in order to allow the Islamist threat to wither away. Efforts should be concentrated on major goals like the abolition of nuclear weapons or the reversal of climate change. His conclusion is fatalistic: “Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self-destruction.”

3.

In The Freedom Agenda, James Traub eschews both the grand prophetic style of Niebuhr and the sometimes biblical thunder of Bacevich. His book is an even-tempered but critical study of America’s self-imposed obligation to bring freedom and democracy to the world. The post–September 11 doctrine known as the “Freedom Agenda” derives from George W. Bush’s highly debatable assertion, in his second inaugural address, that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” The Bush administration’s promotion of the Freedom Agenda was not a success.

Bush’s Freedom Agenda, Traub points out, was the latest restatement of the venerable idea that Providence had chosen Americans to ensure the blessings of liberty for all. From the occupation of the Philippines in 1898, he traces the policies and experiences that tried to make a reality of this long-held and noble belief. He discusses many basic questions, with vivid practical examples. At what stage of development can democracy be usefully introduced? Is prosperity an essential prerequisite for democracy? Can freedom exist without democracy? How important is tradition or the building of liberal institutions? How much can outsiders really help in the process of democratization? How is the United States supposed to deal with essential but autocratic allies? How did the Bush administration’s encroachments on an open society at home affect the credibility of the US as a promoter of democracy abroad?

Traub’s excellent book presents a fascinating account of the progress, or lack of it, of liberty. He is an imperturbable ironist, brilliantly portraying long-standing American dilemmas like copious freedom rhetoric at home alongside expedient support of repressive autocratic states abroad. He shows how education, potential prosperity, existing public and nongovernmental institutions, and, in some cases, previous experience of democratic government favor the poster states of successful democratization—Germany, Japan, and the Eastern European countries. He describes, among many fascinating examples, the failure to promote democracy in Russia and its unexpected success in Serbia.

Traub describes the “vast and frustrating undertaking” of building up failed states like Somalia, Bosnia, or East Timor. “The arc of democratic development…,” he writes, “was vastly longer than the arc of international attention.” African states, with virtually none of the prerequisites for democracy, present, and will continue to present, a particular problem for the promoter of democracy. Traub contrasts the often short-lived nature of “electoral” democracy with the hardier variety of “liberal democracy,” where the recognition of individual rights is already enshrined in law.

In a chapter called “Realism Died on 9/11,” Traub describes the way in which the Iraq war would forever define, and discredit, Bush’s Freedom Agenda, because it seemed to prove that “the president and his team of neocons believed that democracy was something that could be imposed at gunpoint….” He gives a fascinating account of the administration’s doomed efforts to persuade President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to be more democratic, a cautionary tale of Washington’s perennial difficulty with so-called “liberal autocracies” that are also vital allies.

Another democratic mishap with violent consequences was the 2006 Gaza election on which, against all advice, the Bush administration insisted, and which gave Hamas a lawful majority over Fatah. During the recent war in Gaza, we did not hear much about Hamas being democratically elected; except for Egypt, nobody concerned would even talk to its leaders. To paraphrase George Orwell, some lawful democratic elections are evidently more lawful than others. The Iraq war certainly diminished other Middle East countries’ enthusiasm for democratization, Bush-style. It had, a reporter in Syria told Traub, accomplished what President Bashir al-Assad “had been unable to do by himself; silence public demands for democratic reforms here.”

Another of Traub’s striking case histories concerns Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, which, against all probability, clings to its own version of democracy, in which, in addition to national elections, village elders are capable of settling local disputes peaceably in the shade of the mosque. Traub’s comments on Africa and China, whose “new type of strategic partnership” in African countries offers a less moralistic approach to aid for Africans, are particularly valuable in stressing how much prolonged assistance in development and poverty reduction will be needed before African democracy can take hold.

James Traub has written a thoughtful and splendidly informed book on a vast subject that in the wrong hands can very easily become elusive, even boring. As he writes in conclusion, “Liberty at home may not depend on liberty abroad, but it surely depends on a sense of hope and possibility abroad.” His book is very much in tune with the content and the tone of the new administration’s ideas, and it should be a valuable guidebook for those working on them. It can also be read with enjoyment and great interest by anyone hoping for ways to make the world more livable for all its inhabitants.

4.

The excellence, in their different ways, of these three books raises the tantalizing question of how books can help or inspire leaders and others in public life. Reinhold Niebuhr has been a strong influence for many years. Andrew Bacevich’s brilliantly expressed perceptions should clarify and invigorate the minds of busy politicians at a critical moment in history. James Traub’s assessment of the state of America’s self-imposed mission to spread freedom and democracy should be of great practical value to all who work in this controversial and complex field.

In a democracy the people need to be informed if they are to fulfill their duties as citizens. May we now be entering a renewal of participatory American democracy? If we are not, we shall be in even greater trouble than we are now.

The fatalism of Bacevich’s final sentence about Americans being firmly set on self-destruction is deeply disturbing, as no doubt it was intended it to be. Since his book was published, the presidential election has shown how intelligent use of the Internet can bring together an enthusiastic and disciplined body of volunteers and bring young people in large numbers back into politics. There is now talk of using the Obama campaign’s online network to foster support for his legislative program and presidential initiatives. Brilliant and essential political analysis by writers like the three reviewed here could be a useful part of such initiatives.

Bacevich suggests that the acknowledgment of the truth of the following Niehbuhr principle would be a useful standard for election or appointment to public office: “The whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” That might also be a good start for a renaissance of knowledgeable democratic participation.

  1. 1

    On the back cover:

    [Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] 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.
    —Senator Barack Obama
    (Obama’s comments originally appeared in an interview with David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” The New York Times, April 26, 2007.)

  2. 2

    In a more recent book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009), the British journalist and historian of America Godfrey Hodgson writes, from his long experience in the US:

    My thesis is not that American exceptionalist thought is intrinsically corrupting or that it was destructive in the past, but that what has been an essentially liberating series of beliefs has been corrupted over the last thirty years or so by hubris and self-interest into what is now a dangerous basis for national policy and for the international system.

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