That we should grieve for the people of Ukraine is unquestionable. The boot of their powerful Russian neighbor is on their necks. That we should condemn Moscow’s aggression while cheering the courage of Ukrainian soldiers and the determination of that aggrieved nation’s leaders is also self-evident. Yet as we take sides, we are well served by theological reflection. The Christian realism articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr helps us avoid the embarrassment of a self-complimenting moralism—virtue-signaling, translated to international affairs. And the same theologically informed realism can shed light on the moral responsibilities of the United States as world affairs are reconfigured by great-power competition.
In the two years before Pearl Harbor, liberal Christians and many secular progressives maintained ardent opposition to American involvement in Hitler’s war in Europe. Among Christians, the rationale was moral. They argued that the last generation’s bloodletting in the trenches on the Western Front had shown warfare to be a futile undertaking. The only moral and authentically Christian stance was pacifism.
As the pastor of a church in Detroit in the 1920s, the young Niebuhr made a name for himself as an advocate for factory workers and a spokesman for progressive causes. Appointed to a faculty position at Union Theological Seminary in New York, the center of liberal Protestantism in America, he was among the organizers of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. (Niebuhr was keen to ensure that the emphasis fell on socialist Christians, not Christian socialists.) A popular speaker and sought-after guest preacher, he was regarded as a leading light of progressive Christianity. As the clouds of war gathered in the late 1930s, his advocacy put him in close association with institutions and publications that regarded the anti-war outlook as the truest and purest expression of Christian witness.
But in the late 1930s Niebuhr broke with liberal Protestant pacifism and became an influential theological voice for American preparation for war. After the conflict ended, he supported vigorous Cold War resistance to communism. Niebuhr’s ethics of war and great-power conflict came to be called Christian realism. In his 1940 collection of essays, Christianity and Power Politics, he laid out his case.
In Niebuhr’s account, too many mainstream Protestant figures had adopted the outlook of “secular perfectionism.” By this term he meant a moralistic optimism based on the naive view that man is inherently good. Niebuhr insisted that this outlook rested on “the Renaissance faith in man,” not the biblical understanding of the human condition. The upshot was “a very sentimentalized version of Christian faith.”
Niebuhr recognized that a sentimental and moralistic outlook may seem innocent, but it has a dark side. The problem is not just that pacifism disarms the Christian in the face of evil, although he certainly worried about that. Moralism can also tempt us to bring the eschatological conflict between good and evil into the present, setting up an all-or-nothing conflict between the Children of Light, who have attained “moral clarity,” and the Children of Darkness, whom we deem moral monsters. With this Manichean framing of conflicts, a sentimental moralist easily flips and becomes a crusader who seeks to annihilate evil, and this attitude can lead to the unrestrained use of violence, sanctified by supposedly noble aims. Put simply, if we deem war-making immoral, then when events drive us to take up arms, we’re all too likely to make war in immoral ways.
As a native German speaker, Niebuhr was well informed about the wickedness of Hitler’s regime. He knew that we must “make discriminate judgments between social systems.” This is always the case. In the face of Russia and China, we need to make judgments, recognizing that the American-led system is much to be preferred. But in so doing, we must maintain critical self-awareness. “The Christian faith ought to persuade us that political controversies are always conflicts between sinners and not between righteous men and sinners.” God’s righteousness is pure, and it has triumphed in Jesus Christ’s cross and resurrection, but its final dominion over human affairs occurs in the “not yet” of eschatological fulfillment, not in our worldly projects here and now. Even the best causes are entangled with the corrupting effects of original sin.
In his later writings, Niebuhr calls this awareness of the “not yet” a tragic view of history. In Christ, we have a glimpse of perfect love and its triumph over sin and death. We see that the principalities and powers that rule this world have been defeated. In prayer, worship, and acts of charity we can enter into the victory. But this is not the case in public affairs. Until Christ’s return in glory, we must discern our collective responsibilities as a nation, knowing that we can attain only a relative justice. This is especially true in the face of violence, when sword must be met by sword.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the leading spokesmen for “secular perfectionism” were not pacifists, as had been the case in the 1930s. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, those claiming the moral high ground were advocates of a new world order, a liberal-democratic consensus that promised to knit the world together in peace and prosperity. It was assumed that economic globalization would lead to the spread of liberal democracy. The rise of social media in the twenty-first century added further confidence. The democratization of information, we hoped, would hasten the democratization of nations. In addition to these liberalizing dynamics, which were thought to be nearly inevitable, the human rights agenda was expanded and claimed to express a global consensus. A utopian dream flourished. Many in the triumphant West believed that the world was poised to make a transition from never-ending great-power competition to enduring internationalism, a perpetual peace that would be overseen by newly founded institutions such as the International Criminal Court.
One of the ironies of history was that some of the most effective proponents of the global project were realists.The George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations saw economic globalization as a tool for expanding American power. The George W. Bush administration married democracy promotion—an idealistic element of the post-Cold War consensus—to a vast expansion of U.S. military operations in the Middle East. Old hands knew that our vaunted principles often bowed to American security interests. (Except for a few years, Japan has been ruled by the same party since 1955, hardly a sign of a vital liberal democracy, and yet our leaders neither mention nor object to this reality, because the long-ruling party has ensured Japan’s role as a loyal and pliable ally.)
Unfortunately, the marriage of American realism to liberal-democratic idealism failed in some instances. Iraq provides the signal example. But it succeeded in others. We owe our ability to impose punitive sanctions on Russia to the architects of Wall Street’s massive expansion, the foundations of which were laid in the 1990s. Critics denounce these developments as triggering “financialization.” Perhaps, but they ensured that the worldwide web of finance would fall under Washington’s regulation, which means under our political control. (I worry, however, that a too aggressive use of sanctions against Russia will encourage the balkanization of the global financial system, and thus weaken our control—but that’s a topic for another time.)
The American-led global project has always had proponents more intoxicated by its moral ambitions than by realist reasoning. These idealists became prominent as practical problems emerged in the global system in the twenty-first century. The 2008 financial crisis exposed systemic weaknesses. The off-shoring of manufacturing accelerated, hollowing out the American middle class. Our nation-building projects in the Middle East failed. The color revolutions brought conflict, chaos, and renewed authoritarianism rather than liberal democracy. It was not surprising, therefore, that during the Obama administration American elites amped up the idealism. The realist rationales for what was by then a neoliberal status quo had become less plausible. A sentimental moralism was ascendant, quick to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” rather than to sober assessments of the limits of American power.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted another upsurge in moralism. We are told that American ideals of freedom and democracy must guide our foreign policy. Editorials claim that Russian forces are guilty of genocide and war crimes. The West must not only stymie Vladimir Putin’s military efforts by means of military aid and economic sanctions. We must bring Putin to justice!
In some quarters, the cry has been raised for more forceful uses of American power. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in early March, former senator Joe Lieberman called for the United States to escalate her engagement. He urged the Biden administration to impose a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine. “We cannot stand back and allow this mass murder from the air to continue.” Former assistant secretary of defense Bing West argued that our goal should not be limited to defending Ukrainian sovereignty. He called for ongoing, even intensified sanctions until Putin is removed from power. We must seek regime change!
A nearly universal outrage over the Russian invasion animates these calls for no-fly zones, stiffer sanctions, MiG jets, deadly drones, and other measures. It’s not too much to say that the mainstream media have framed the conflict in Ukraine as the Children of Light versus the Children of Darkness. America, the righteous nation, must face down the architects of evil.
I have no difficulty saying whose side I am on. I wish Vladimir Putin every failure. But as Niebuhr notes, “the spirit of contrition is an important ingredient in the sense of justice.” We do well to cultivate it at this moment.
For those anguished by reports of destroyed buildings and civilian casualties, I recommend pictures of Raqqa, the Syrian city that ISIS made its capital. As Time magazine reported, “One day after U.S.-backed Syrian militias defeated the Islamic State in the country’s capital, the town is an urban husk of hollow buildings and bodies lying in rubble-strewn streets.” The United States had good reason to seek the defeat of ISIS and other insurgent groups. Nevertheless, it’s worth meditating on the untold destruction wrought by American intervention in the Middle East over the last two decades. This certainly does not justify the Russian invasion, which is without just cause. Nor does it excuse violations of just war principles, as may have occurred in Russian operations in Ukraine. But it ought to dampen our moral hauteur.
And when we fling charges of war crimes, we do well to recall the U.S. drone attack in the final days of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was based on faulty intelligence, resulting in the massacre of ten civilians, seven of whom were children. The tragic truth of warfare, especially modern warfare, is that it invariably inflicts suffering and death on the innocent.
Again, it is important to emphasize that acknowledging the human costs of war should not undermine our resolve to resist unjust aggression. Niebuhr was opposed to moral paralysis, a condition easily encouraged by perfectionist ethics. But we should be self-aware. Those living in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries that have witnessed the massive firepower of the U.S. military are very likely to find our denunciations of the indiscriminate destructiveness of Russian assaults self-serving and hypocritical.
And let us not be deceived about the circumstances that put Ukraine on the front lines of this great-power conflict. No honest policymaker in Washington can deny that America has sought to support a Western-oriented government in Kyiv, and that we have done so not solely out of solicitude for the people of that country. Ukraine has been an instrument of our foreign policy, which seeks to stymie Russia’s ambitions. Acknowledging this fact does not require us to conclude that making Ukraine a thorn in Putin’s flesh is wrong or immoral. Nor should we discount the will of the Ukrainian people, manifest in their heroic efforts to fend off Russian forces. But we must acknowledge the role of America’s decades-long policy of pressing our sphere of influence to Russia’s borders. Absent that policy, previous Ukrainian governments might have sought a modus vivendi with Moscow, thus averting war and subjugation.
One may deem our policy of expanding NATO and then dangling the possibility of Ukraine’s admission to the alliance unwise and reckless. A number of pundits have said as much. But that’s water under the bridge. At this juncture, the United States is implicated in the conflict. We have responsibilities.
Those responsibilities have to do with far more than Ukraine. As I have noted, after the end of the Cold War, the United States sponsored the erection of the present global system, for which our country serves as the economic and military anchor. That system is being challenged by Russia and China. Whatever one thinks of our liberal-democratic empire (if I may be permitted the e-word), it would be irresponsible to abandon it. Our allies depend on it. Furthermore, the system is American in conception and the product of our leadership, which means that now it is intertwined with our national interest. Thus, whether our aim is to sustain, reconfigure, or retract America’s global commitments, in the here-and-now we have a duty to manage those commitments well. Thus the question for the Christian realist: How are we to think morally about this responsibility without falling into the trap of sentimentalism?
During the Cold War, Niebuhr urged moderation. In the face of a powerful and dangerous Soviet adversary, he warned against both pusillanimity and rashness. American leaders were to seek the mean, a stance of prudent and measured resolve. In view of the risk of escalation to nuclear war, avoiding direct military engagements with the Soviets was imperative. In 2022, our confrontation with Russia is different, and at this point less dire. But the imperative of preventing direct engagement still obtains. Only a supercilious moralism could justify actions that are likely to trigger expansion of the conflict into NATO countries, which would draw the United States into combat and risk escalation to the use of nuclear weapons.
As Niebuhr recognized, one of the signal dangers of sentimental moralism is that it underwrites the “at any cost” mentality, and in so doing sidelines the virtue of prudence and undermines the conditions for morally responsible action in a fallen world. When we see horrifying images of destruction, it’s understandable that we pine for forceful action. But our leaders need to weigh carefully the political and strategic costs, which, if ignored, will lead to the erosion of America’s global influence.
In the main, I think the Biden administration gets decent marks from a Christian realist, or at least it does at the time I’m writing this column in late March. Although the administration has not allowed us to be drawn into direct military conflict with Russia, it has endorsed Ukraine’s right to national self-determination and supported its efforts of self-defense in material ways. Our leadership has drawn formerly reluctant NATO allies into a more unified stance than anyone imagined was possible before the invasion.
Moscow may be able to wring concessions from Kyiv, should a peace be negotiated. This outcome is sure to anguish the moral perfectionist. But the nation of Ukraine seems likely to survive. And perhaps Putin will have learned that the West is not fractured and feckless—nor reckless—but united and capable of gathering itself for forceful action. As Niebuhr recognized, this knowledge offers a more powerful deterrent to future aggression than anything we constructed while we dreamt of a liberal-democratic empire that would put an end to history.
The Valley of the Fallen
High as a fifty-story skyscraper, the soaring cross northwest of Madrid is the largest in the world. It sits atop a granite outcrop that overlooks a Benedictine monastery to the west and, to the east, a gigantic neo-classical plaza that stretches out before a vast underground crypt carved into the hillside. Behind the crypt’s many altars are the remains of an estimated forty thousand soldiers, killed during the Spanish Civil War.
The complex is called Valle de los Caídos, the “Valley of the Fallen.” General Franco ordered its construction as a memorial for the war dead. He called the dedication of funds and the extraordinary scope of the monumental architecture a “national act of atonement.” After his death in 1975, Franco was buried beside the main altar in the crypt.
In early March, a conference took me to Madrid, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit on the first Sunday of Lent. The Valley of the Fallen is one of the grandest expressions of twentieth-century monumental architecture. The classical proportions of the arches that frame the crypt’s entrance bespeak the humanism that motivated the Renaissance revival of this architectural tradition, yet the memorial is executed on a scale so enormous that the result overawes a visitor.
My warm interest in visiting was stoked by my awareness of the historical moment in which we live. Like Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Valley of the Fallen may be erased in the near future. In a recent essay (“The Politics of Memory,” May 2021), the eminent historian of modern Spain Stanley Payne detailed the ways in which the Spanish left continues to fight that country’s civil war, using the power of government to eliminate Franco from public memory. The socialist government that held power from 2004 to 2011 undertook a thoroughgoing campaign to remove Franco’s image and other symbols of his regime from public spaces and buildings.
It was natural, therefore, that the Valley would come under attack. Before 2004, it was one of the most visited national parks in Spain. In the main, its popularity reflected not a nostalgic desire for a return of authoritarian rule, but instead a piety toward the tragedy of fraternal conflict, not unlike the sentiments that led those who survived the Civil War to consecrate battlefields in the United States. Moreover, one need not endorse every aspect of Franco’s rule, and especially not its authoritarian character, to recognize that his regime preserved Spanish civil society from destruction by the left-wing ideological fevers that destroyed so much in the twentieth century, allowing Spain to become a stable democracy after Franco’s death.
Among the measures to erase Franco’s memory, a socialist government in 2009 declared the Valley’s structures “unsafe” and closed the site to visitors. A subsequent center-right government reopened the Valley. But as power once again shifted to the left, efforts were redoubled. In 2019, Franco was exhumed and his remains translated elsewhere. Funds for repair of the structures in the Valley are being withheld. Proposals have been floated to have the towering cross removed, the monastery shuttered, and the crypt, which Pope John XXIII declared a basilica, deconsecrated. Christianity and its cross are deemed “divisive.”
I don’t discount the unique reasons that Spain continues to relitigate her agonizing civil war. But it is also the case that the neo-classical architecture of the Valley of the Fallen and its Christian iconography rankle twenty-first-century progressives, not just in Spain, but throughout the West. The monumental aesthetic is a stick in the eye of postmodern conceits, which emphasize aesthetics of deconstruction and disorientation that undermine authority. If the current government remains in power, the Valley may suffer the same fate as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the monumental statues in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
The dreary spirit of left-wing iconoclasm had little hold on my mind when I visited. That morning the sun shone brightly in the plaza, which is large enough to accommodate tens of thousands. Madrid’s modern glass buildings were visible thirty miles to the east. The snow-covered mountains north of Madrid rose majestically in the distance. Pine forests in the surrounding parkland presented an inviting prospect.
The Benedictines run a choir school attached to the monastery, training young voices that blended in Renaissance polyphony, echoing in the enormous domed sanctuary carved into the granite mountainside. The monastery’s abbot preached about the three temptations of Christ in the desert. My grasp of Spanish is minimal, and thus in the cascade of foreign words I meditated on the second temptation, which in Luke’s account has Satan showing Jesus the kingdoms of this world, promising him all authority and glory if he will but worship him. It’s such a sweet dream: finally gaining command over history, bending its arc, bulldozing symbols of oppression, and designing a new and inclusive world order in which all are affirmed and celebrated.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Daniel Mahoney, sometime professor of political philosophy, has launched a regular column at RealClearBooks: “A Monthly Guide to Thoughtful Reading.” Mahoney draws attention to “thoughtful and engaging books” that, without getting mired in academic jargon, speak to intelligent readers who wish to entertain sophisticated and consequential ideas. His March column discusses a new book on ancient Greek historians—and the great texts themselves—as well as books on Robespierre and happiness. Dan Mahoney is among the most well-read people I know. I look forward to his monthly recommendations.
♦ You might remember the story about Hunter Biden. In the final weeks of the 2020 campaign, Miranda Devine of the New York Post reported the discovery of a laptop Hunter had abandoned at a repair shop. The hard drive contained a trove of emails showing how then-candidate Joe Biden’s son had connived to cash in on his father’s political connections. At the time, CIA experts deemed the whole affair a likely instance of Russian disinformation. Mainstream media ignored the story. Facebook suppressed discussion. Twitter closed down the Post’s account for two weeks.
A 2021 book by Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger examined the Biden family’s activities over the years. Schreckinger demonstrated the authenticity of the emails. And on March 16 of this year, the New York Times, which had denied the authenticity of the emails in 2020, published an article about a Justice Department inquiry into Hunter Biden’s business affairs. A key element of that investigation concerns “a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop.” In other words, the story reported in the Post—and ignored, censored, and suppressed by the New York Times and its media allies—was true.
Commenting on these revelations, Glenn Greenwald describes the whole affair as “one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in modern American electoral history.” CIA experts, former Democratic operatives in key positions at social media companies, and the editors and reporters in purportedly responsible mainstream media conspired to deceive the public. “With strength of numbers, and knowing that they speak only to and for liberals who are happy if they lie to help Democrats, they all joined hands in an implicit vow of silence,” writes Greenwald, “endors[ing] a disinformation campaign.” The admission by the New York Times “that this archive and the emails in it were real all along proves that a gigantic fraud was perpetrated by the country’s most powerful institutions.”
No doubt the fraud and disinformation were justified in the minds of those who orchestrated the suppression of truth as necessary to save “our democracy.” And I’m sure that no editor, reporter, Big Tech executive, or government official will suffer the slightest punishment. On the contrary, their careers are likely to flourish. Meanwhile, the marginal and ineffectual people who stormed the Capitol without the slightest hope of affecting our political system are being sent to prison.
♦ Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, Nathan Pinkoski returns to Civil War in Europe, 1905–1949, Stanley Payne’s 2011 book about social disintegration and conflicts in the disastrous first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on Payne’s historical research, Pinkoski observes that civil war erupted in Spain because the supposedly responsible centrist figures in power had winked at the left’s violence while punishing the right: “Centrist authorities were unable or unwilling to stop attacks on private property, businesses, churches, convents, and clergy. Instead, they blamed the victims, arresting not the actual perpetrators but scapegoating monarchists and conservatives.” We are not, fortunately, anywhere near the kind of social breakdown that catapulted Spain into three years of brutal civil war. But there are disturbing parallels, one of which is the way our powerful establishment institutions lie and censor without consequences while canceling dissent and howling about the claims of electoral fraud made by Trump and his allies.
♦ Charles Péguy: “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”
♦ Nadine Strossen teaches at New York Law School. Former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, she’s not remotely conservative. Here is what she told Aaron Sibarium in an interview about the atmosphere in legal education today: “I massively self-censor. I assume that every single thing that is said, every facial gesture, is going to be recorded and potentially disseminated to the entire world. I feel as though I’m operating in a panopticon.” In the same article (“The Takeover of America’s Legal System”), Sibarium quotes law professor Katie Stith: “Law schools are in crisis. The truth doesn’t matter much. The game is to signal one’s virtue.” The rising illiberalism infects the entire legal profession. A high-powered attorney in Washington, D.C. (who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals) told Sibarium, “Partners are being blindsided by associates who they think are liberals in their own image. But they’re not. The associates want to burn the place down.”
♦ The law students and young lawyers bent on destroying our liberal traditions of free speech, due process, and judicial neutrality are not the products of communist summer camps in the Catskills. They were formed by mainstream educational institutions that have been dominated by establishment liberals for nearly a century. Put simply, the environment created by a dominant liberal elite has produced the radicalism that now undermines the pillars of the American culture of freedom.
♦ I recently went back to reread one of the great American liberals, John Dewey. In his 1920 book, Reconstruction in Philosophy, he insisted that the definitive test of a rational argument rests in its political effectiveness. “Logic” is a “clarified and systematized formulation of the procedures of thinking . . . [that] will enable the desired reconstruction [of society] to go on more economically and efficiently.” According to Dewey, something is true if it contributes to progressive causes; it is false if it fails to do so. The same holds for justice. Are the woke law students rued by their liberal professors operating otherwise than Dewey advises?
♦ When I began as editor here, I adopted a policy of not allowing authors to use pseudonyms. My reasoning was simple: We need to take responsibility for our arguments, and that means standing up in public and acknowledging that they are ours. But I’ve changed my view. Today’s atmosphere of intimidation has grown toxic as Twitter mobs roam the virtual landscape looking for dissenters to load into tumbrils. Baby Boomer leaders have proven feckless, often acceding to demands that those who venture disfavored views must be fired. In the present moment, the protection afforded by anonymity is often necessary.
♦ On March 25–26, we held an intellectual retreat in Phoenix. The theme was freedom. The syllabus and seminar leaders were provided by Wyoming Catholic College. This allowed me to participate, free from pedagogical responsibilities. The discussions of Pericles, St. Paul, Milton, and the other assigned authors were vigorous and stimulating. On my return home, I marveled at my good fortune. Few editors are as fortunate as I am to have such well-read and intellectually engaged readers. Many thanks to our partners at Wyoming Catholic College for guiding us through another successful intellectual retreat.
♦ I am sad to report the departure of Matthew Schmitz, who worked beside me from the very first day of my role as this magazine’s editor. He has joined forces with Sohrab Ahmari and Edwin Aponte to launch Compact, a new e-magazine. It’s an exciting venture, and I wish Matthew every success.
♦ Patrick Wheeler is forming a ROFTERS group in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. You can reach him at email@example.com.
In the area of Sammamish/Bellevue, Washington, Kathi Lehr is forming a ROFTERS group. To join, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Chicagoland ROFTERS group has shifted its meetings to Wheaton, Illinois. If you would like to join, contact Andrey Drozd: email@example.com.