See also: Part One: I Face the World as It Is
Must We Play Hardball?
Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech can be read as a concise restatement of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political ethics as a guide to U.S. foreign policy for the twenty-first century. The major themes in Niebuhr’s thinking found powerful resonance in the speech, in which an American president in a new century reasserted, as the doctrinal basis of his foreign policy, the cherished political theology of America’s two major parties for most of the past century.
In the face of Nazi evil, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) broke decisively with Christians who continued to urge nonviolence as the only path to peace. Instead, he urged a form of political engagement that he described as “Christian Realism.” His use of such words as sin and grace touched deep chords in the self-understandings of many Americans and gave his pronouncements on foreign policy an orthodox-sounding varnish. He provided America’s political elites from the 1940s on—and the Truman and Kennedy administrations in particular— with valuable ideological legitimization for more pragmatic policies in the context of Cold War power rivalries. As Niebuhr biographer Richard Fox notes, “He helped them maintain faith in themselves as political actors in a troubled—what he termed a sinful—world.” Niebuhr, says Fox, “taught that moral men had to play hardball.”
And play hardball the Kennedy administration did. Humiliated by the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the president ordered a secret campaign of psychological warfare, sabotage, and attempted assassinations of Castro under the code name “Operation Mongoose.” These covert activities helped to generate the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the United States risked nuclear holocaust for the sake of American prestige. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara informed Kennedy that the missiles in Cuba did not significantly alter the military balance of power because Soviet nuclear submarines already were operating just off of America’s shores. The president might have tried possible diplomatic solutions (such as an offer to remove the U.S.’s already obsolete Jupiter missiles from the Soviet Union’s doorstep in Turkey as a quid pro quo for removal of the missiles in Cuba) instead of high-stakes nuclear brinksmanship. But John F. Kennedy refused to consider these options; he deemed it cowardice to “blink” (as Secretary of State Dean Rusk later termed it) while standing at the edge of the abyss.
Elsewhere in Latin America, as part of his Alliance for Progress, Kennedy implemented a rapid buildup of military forces and counterinsurgency programs focused not, as in the past, on “hemispheric defense,” but on a new strategy of ensuring “internal security.” In practice, as historian Walter LaFeber notes, “this meant that in Central America the military forcefully maintained the status quo for the oligarchs”—corrupt elites who kept the majority of their people in a state of landlessness and virtual indentured servitude, but who served the interests of U.S. corporations such as United Fruit and Standard Oil. Under the tutelage of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the School of the Americas, Latin American dictators learned “to use gas guns, helicopters, and other anti-riot equipment.” It proved “only a short step,” LaFeber concludes, “to controlling dissent through sophisticated methods of torture.”
The “dirty wars” of the 1980s (in which the Reagan administration trained, equipped, and funded right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador in the name of saving the free world from communism) are therefore a direct legacy of the policies of the Kennedy administration.
In Vietnam, President Kennedy ordered a massive troop surge; he increased the number of U.S. military “advisors” from 900 under President Eisenhower to 16,000 by the end of 1963. Kennedy thus may be credited with launching the Vietnam War; in addition to ordering in the troops, he authorized wide-scale bombing, the use of napalm and chemical defoliants, and the “strategic hamlet” program in which thousands of Vietnamese peasants were forced into concentration camps to deprive the Viet Cong of their “social base.” Kennedy also gave Vietnamese generals a green light for the 1963 coup that resulted in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Less than three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated.
This analysis of Kennedy’s foreign policy is, of course, thoroughly “realist” in the sense of seeing U.S. actions—actions no different from those of other great powers in history—as flowing from factors of self-interest and a logic of imperialism, and combining, as one would expect, “soft” as well as “hard” approaches. Yet, although Reinhold Niebuhr did come to criticize the war in Vietnam on moral as well as pragmatic grounds, this way of reading American history is not Niebuhrian. Niebuhr’s rejection of the myth of American Exceptionalism notwithstanding, his Christian Realism did not permit any critique of U.S. power that would radically undermine his goal of serving that power, which he took to be the only responsible political course available. Niebuhr saw the United States as deeply flawed (we have made mistakes, as Obama said in Oslo), yet still a fundamentally benign and noble force in world affairs. In Niebuhr’s political and moral calculus, therefore, our violence, unlike their violence, was historically necessary and justified to maintain stability and preserve what Niebuhr called the “citadels of civilization.”
By justifying tactics of violence and coercion in the name of tragic necessity, Reinhold Niebuhr thus ironically fell victim to what theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Michael Broadway describe as “a severe cases of ideological blindness.” His account of “reality” affirmed, in a religious key, the prevailing foreign-policy wisdom and elite decision making of the age—invasions, coups, dirty wars, mutual assured destruction and all.
These facts should give admirers of President Obama’s Nobel speech—in which he invoked the memory and spirit of Kennedy while defending an intensification of the war in Afghanistan on just war grounds—considerable pause. It is true that American power has changed in important ways since the height of the Cold War, and Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Nevertheless, the underlying dynamics, structures, and goals of U.S. power have not radically changed since the days of Kennedy’s Camelot, which the Obama administration clearly sees itself as recreating in important ways.
A realistic viewer of U.S. foreign policy will observe, for example, that America’s economy is driven by military spending, which consumes more than half of the federal discretionary budget and is roughly equal to the rest of the world’s military spending combined. The Pentagon system has continued despite the end of the Cold War because that system is woven deeply into the fabric of American life. Preserving what has been called a “permanent war economy” is a form of subsidization for key industries. It is a way of maintaining employment and generating profits among vital constituencies. It gives politicians a useful tool with which to manage and mobilize the population—and it gives corporations a way to manage and mobilize politicians. The result is tremendous institutional pressure on leaders to generate or inflate foreign threats and export violence abroad (in the name of security at home) because any major disruption of the arms industry would have massive and undesirable political, social, and economic consequences. It should come as no surprise, in this light, that President Obama’s proposed defense budget for 2010, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is $534 billion—an increase of $20 billion from President George W. Bush’s last military budget.
And while Obama’s repudiation of torture and his promise to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay are welcome, his stepped-up campaign of unmanned Predator drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan—strikes that, according to a recent study by the New America Foundation, have killed up to 1,000 people, one-third of them civilians, during the past three years—underscores a grim reality: The old rules are still very much in effect. The seal of American power is death on the wing, and it is the inhabitants of foreign lands who will continue to pay the cost. (Americans, too, may someday pay high costs for these policies—as they did on 9/11—in the form of what author Chalmers Johnson has called “blowback.”)
So what might an alternative realistic political ethic be, if not Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, with its pessimistic view of human nature and its hopelessly optimistic belief that policy makers can somehow manage a politics of violence without corrupting or destroying the ideals they say they are fighting for? The most eloquent voice for a constructive Christian ethic in times of war remains that of Martin Luther King Jr. His sermons and speeches—including his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address—offer not only a substantive politics of hope but also a profoundly relevant prophetic realism. King taught us three critical lessons that are especially vital to recall following President Obama’s speech in Oslo.
See, without illusions, the real nature of power and violence—and empire—in our age. In his 1967 address at the Riverside Church in New York, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” King directly linked the cause of civil rights to the war in Vietnam. He spoke, he said, from “a tragic recognition of reality” that racism, poverty, and militarism are deeply intertwined, and that the war was “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” he warned, “is approaching spiritual death.” While it was necessary to see “the ambiguity of the total situation,” it also was necessary to face the fact that the United States—while seeking to “maintain social stability for our investment accounts”—had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The nation was building a house “on political myth,” shored up “with the power of new violence.”
King proceeded to offer an unsparing catalogue of the brutalities being inflicted on the Vietnamese people by their occupiers and a searing indictment of U.S. policy as a continuation of European colonialism, driven by a fatal mixture of paternalism and greed. America was “adding cynicism to the process of death,” King said, by “refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” Failure to “undergo a radical revolution in values . . . from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society” could only lead, he predicted, to future conflicts in other parts of the globe—conflicts that ultimately would result in America’s joining “the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations” that had ignored “the fierce urgency of now.”
Reorient your primary loyalties and learn how to think from below. King’s militant nonviolence was a direct expression of his commitment to living out the political meaning of the Cross as the instrument of “weakness” by which God had ironically overcome the “principalities and powers” of the world and broken down barriers to create peace between former strangers and enemies. What this meant for King was that “our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.” People of conscience now must be “bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions.”
Instead of constructing his political ethics from perspectives of national self-interest and fantasies of control over the means of violence (“But what would you do if you were President Obama?”), King urged his listeners at the Riverside Church to embrace a politics of engagement from below. He sought to reorient the moral imaginations of Americans by insisting that we approach questions of conflict and war through the eyes of the Other—the powerless, the suffering, and even the enemy. “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
Hold those in power accountable to their own highest values, and build concrete and pragmatic bridges to peace. For the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military, an ethic of strict nonviolence is clearly not an option. But, as Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder pointed out, honest just war theorists and pacifists will stand united in opposition to virtually every war because the purpose of the just war tradition, as developed by the Catholic Church, was never to justify war but to place stringent limits on what those in power can do. And the limits are great. President Obama mentioned King’s name no less than four times during his Nobel speech; he also mentioned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. By doing so, he demonstrated (one hopes) a rare willingness on the part of a statesman to take seriously the power and courage of nonviolent direct political action. Pacifists should now demonstrate equal understanding and respect for the moral seriousness of the just war tradition by holding Obama accountable to that tradition’s high ideals: strict immunity for civilians, force only as a defensive measure of last resort, absolute proportionality of means, and a striving for the global good—not merely America’s self-interests—as the final end.
Martin Luther King urged the peace movement to pursue a course of “wise restraint and calm reasonableness.” He called on the Johnson administration to adhere to international rule of law and outlined phased steps (including creating ground conditions for negotiations, ending interference in neighboring countries, setting dates for the removal of troops, granting asylum to political refugees, and providing humanitarian assistance to help rebuild the country) for “the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves” from Vietnam. At the same time, King offered strategic guidance to students, clergy, and others not in public office to resist the military draft and engage in acts of civil disobedience. In the process, King demonstrated that there are ways for Christians to work pragmatically, creatively, and realistically to end conflicts without forgetting who they are while they are still inside the belly of Leviathan.
Ronald E. Osborn is a Bannerman Fellow in the Politics and International Relations program at the University of Southern California.