“I Face the World as It Is”
In his December 10, 2009, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Barack Obama offered a vigorous defense of the just war tradition in response to problems of evil and injustice in the world. More than this, however, he offered a moral vision that closely followed, without any direct reference, the ideas of perhaps the most influential American theologian of the twentieth century. In a much cited 2007 New York Times article, David Brooks wrote that he had asked then-Senator Obama an off-the-cuff question: Had he ever read Reinhold Niebuhr? “I love him,” Obama replied. “He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” He then proceeded, Brooks reported, to discuss the theologian’s ideas with great enthusiasm and incision. Obama’s speech in Oslo can be read as a concise restatement of Niebuhr’s political ethics as a guide to U.S. foreign policy for the twenty-first century.
Reinhold Niebuhr was born in 1892, in Wright City, Missouri, into the home of a German Evangelical Synod minister. Deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, he attended Yale Divinity School. After graduation he was sent to a working-class parish in Detroit, where he served as pastor for thirteen years, until 1928. During this period, he was a committed socialist and pacifist in the social gospel tradition, working as a community organizer alongside union leaders in the fight to improve labor conditions in Henry Ford’s factories. At the outbreak of World War II, however, his politics underwent a radical change. Niebuhr, who by then was Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, broke decisively with Christians who continued to urge nonviolence as the only path to peace. He rejected pacifism as morally insipid and politically irresponsible in the face of Nazi evil. Instead, he urged a form of political engagement that he described as “Christian Realism.”
Niebuhr’s Christian Realism has been the dominant political theology of America’s liberal establishment since the 1940s. It rests on a set of seemingly self-evident claims about the “tragic” dimensions of human nature and history; an assertion of the inescapable burden of “necessity” that confronts those who rule; and an appeal to the virtues of humility and restraint in the exercise of force, for the sake of the common good. For Niebuhr, Christian political thought must be guided by at least four basic truths. These, it turns out, are the same axioms that must guide all wise and responsible statesmen, whether or not they happen to be Christian.
First, the enlightened policy maker must maintain a constant awareness of the tragedy and irony of history. According to historian Andrew Bacevich, Niebuhr’s 1952 book The Irony of American History is “the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy.” Its central insight, Bacevich writes, is that Americans must “give up their Messianic dreams” and cease their “vain attempts to remake the world in our own image” because history, Niebuhr saw, is stubbornly resistant not only to all efforts to control its outcomes, but also to all utopian political projects. The tragedy of history is that choices for evil sometimes must be made for the sake of the greater good. The irony of history is that, as a result of hubris and folly, the good often can become evil, and strength often can become weakness.
The tragedy and irony of history, in Niebuhr’s thinking, can be traced back to innate aspects of the human condition. This leads to his second critical truth: the sinfulness of man. Niebuhr’s liberalism caused him to read Scripture as a wellspring of deep mythological truths about human experience and psychology. Among these mythological insights into anthropological questions was the idea of original sin—an idea that Niebuhr also took from his readings of St. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Human depravity, or “fallenness,” accounted for the persistence of violence and war in the world. Responsible political action thus could not be based on pious hopes in either eradicating conflict or changing recalcitrant human nature (through, for example, programs of education, economic development, or moral reform). Instead, heads of state needed to deal unflinchingly with the facts of self-interest and power in the “real” world. If necessary, heads of state also needed to accept dirty hands out of a sober awareness that all are implicated in the guilt of the human race, and violence is an inescapable part of the fallen human condition.
The third key axiom in Niebuhr’s political theory is the need to balance realism and idealism. Although Niebuhr described his political ethics as realist, like E.H. Carr he also emphasized the dangers of a politics divorced from moral ideals and transcendent values. Sheer realism, Niebuhr declared, leads to “cynicism.” Realism and idealism thus need to be held in constant dialectical tension, “lest we become callous to the horror of war” or “forget the ambiguity of our own actions.” Christian pacifists naively—and dangerously—failed to see that “the Cross is not an instrument of social policy.” Yet, by their refusal to participate in acts of violence and war, they also helped to remind responsible Christian Realists that “the true end of man is brotherhood, and that love is the law of life.” Warfare is always, at best, a necessary evil.
Finally, Niebuhr drew a sharp distinction between personal morality and the exigencies of statecraft. While he urged a dynamic tension between realism and idealism in international relations, he also insisted that political actors detach their private ethical—and especially religious—commitments from their public decision making. In a 1951 article in the journal Christianity and Society, Niebuhr wrote that “religion deals with life’s ultimate ends and meanings, while politics must inevitably strive for proximate ends of life and must use ambiguous means to attain them.” Hence, he declared, “it is dangerous to claim the sanctity of the ultimate for political ends and means.” Niebuhr explained elsewhere that grace is what frees the Christian “to act in history, to give his devotion to the highest values he knows, to defend those citadels of civilization of which necessity and historic destiny have made him the defender.” We may freely participate in morally ambiguous political actions to preserve the social order because God’s providence—by grace—can “bring good out of evil.”
Each of these four major themes in Niebuhr’s thinking found powerful resonance in President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. What Obama, in fact, did was reassert, as the doctrinal basis of his foreign policy, the cherished political theology of America’s two major parties for most of the twentieth century.
The tragedy of history. The great tragedy of history, Obama declared, is that war is terrible but unavoidable. “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” There will be times when “the use of force is not only necessary but morally justified.” A “nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.” Further, “global security for more than six decades” has rested on America’s defense of democracy through “the strength of our arms.” Hence, “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
The sinfulness of man. We must face “the core struggle of human nature,” Obama asserted. “We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.” “All responsible nations” must therefore “embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.” At the same time, Obama noted, we must heed John F. Kennedy’s words and pursue “a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”
The dialectic of realism and idealism. The great challenge, Obama said, lies in “reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths—that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human folly.” In facing this paradox, we must reject a “stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values”—the paths of realism or idealism. What is needed is a course of “enlightened self-interest.” The nonviolent tactics of religious leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in this regard are not “practical or possible in every circumstance.” Yet, as exemplars of the “law of love,” their visions can still “be the North Star that guides us on our journey.”
The separation of personal morality from the duties of public life. At a personal level, Obama noted, “I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence” through King’s legacy. “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”
The great irony of Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, however, is that in many ways it was not realistic enough, either about itself or about the nature of American power in the post–World War II era. Niebuhr’s positions on political questions ranging from the creation of NATO, to the doctrine of containment, to the Korean War, to nuclear armament (all of which he supported) are no more clearly religious or Christian than those of his friends George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau—fellow political realists who saw no reason to attach religious adjectives to their political philosophy. This, of course, follows directly from Niebuhr’s separation of personal morality and religious faith from the sphere of political ethics. But why, then, did Niebuhr describe his politics as Christian Realism? What did Christ or the Church or the New Testament have to do with it?
The answer is, nothing at all. The “realities” to which Niebuhrian Christian Realism appeals, writes theologian John Milbank, are, in fact, the realities of ancient Stoicism: ”not the realities of history, nor the realities of which Christian theology speaks, but simply things generated by its own assumptions, its own language and rhetoric.” Niebuhr’s use of words like sin and grace touched deep Calvinist chords in the self-understandings of many Americans and gave his pronouncements on foreign policy an orthodox-sounding varnish. But what Niebuhr provided to America’s political elites from the 1940s on—and to the Truman and Kennedy administrations in particular—was valuable ideological legitimization for more pragmatic policies in the context of Cold War power rivalries. Kennedy liberals “did not so much use Niebuhr’s name as feel indebted to his perspective,” Niebuhr biographer Richard Fox writes. “He helped them maintain faith in themselves as political actors in a troubled—what he termed a sinful—world. Stakes were high, enemies were wily, responsibility meant taking risks: Niebuhr taught that moral men had to play hardball.”
Tomorrow: “Part Two: Must We Play Hardball?”
Ronald E. Osborn is a Bannerman Fellow in the Politics and International Relations program at the University of Southern California.