Where Are The Real Niebuhrians?

Alan Koenig
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Admittedly depressed by recent American setbacks in Iraq, New York Times in-house neoconservative David Brooks rediscovered the Christian scholar Reinhold Niebuhr in his op-ed column of May eleventh. It was a bit strange that he should have forgotten him in the first place, for it was Brooks who in the Atlantic Monthly of September 2002 (and even earlier in the Weekly Standard in November of 2001) recommended resuscitating the sagacious political theologian to guide American foreign policy through the morally hazardous wilds of the War on Terror. Here, Brooks reasoned, was a grand thinker who forcefully argued for the necessity of confronting evil yet warned against an idealistic infatuation with our own virtue, the sort of grim and realistic resolution worthy of deep consideration in the face of a viral new threat. As Brooks wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “Niebuhr’s great foe was idealism. American idealism, he believed, comes in two forms: the idealism of noninterventionists, who are embarrassed by power, and the idealism of imperialists, who disguise power as virtue.”

But Brooks seemed to have shied away from Niebuhr’s more careful, multilateral prescriptions for foreign engagements and suspicion of American idealism when he read the work of his former editor, William Kristol, who cowrote The War over Iraqwith Lawrence Kaplan. Critiquing those realists who cautioned against “idealism” in foreign policy, Kristol and Kaplan note:

Early on in the Cold War, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr complained that “we are still inclined to pretend that our power is exercised by a peculiarly virtuous nation”… What realists feared was not so much the mechanics of American democracy at home—although they often had reservations about that, too—but rather what they perceived to be a messianic impulse that could lead America to upset the balance of power between it and the Soviet Union.

While this is not quite accurate,[1] Brooks still endorsed his editor’s work in a blurb on the back cover: “The reader finishes the book appalled at Saddam’s cruelty, furious at the feckless way American administrations have responded to the Iraqi menace, resolved that this time things must be different.” By signing on to the war effort with his fellow neoconservatives, Brooks seems to have elided Niebuhr’s profound concern over America’s “messianic consciousness”; the idealistic desire to expand the franchise of “universal values” throughout the world with our newfound power of military might. As per Brooks’s recommendations, it is worthwhile to ponder what Niebuhr would have contributed to the debate leading to the war in Iraq, especially given his following caveats from the book The Irony of American History:

We were, as a matter of fact, always vague, as the whole liberal culture is fortunately vague, about how power is to be related to the allegedly universal values which we hold in trust for mankind… Such Messianic dreams, though fortunately not corrupted by the lust for power [yes, so fortunate], are of course not free of moral pride which creates a hazard to their realization… Only occasionally [!] does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees.

Indeed. Brooks, now in retrospect, seems to be taking many of these Niebuhrian hazards more seriously, once again ruing the blinding effects of idealism and power. In his May eleventh New York Times column, he woefully opined about the Iraq War,

Nonetheless, it’s not too early to begin thinking about what was clearly an intellectual failure. There was, above all, a failure to understand the consequences of our power. There was a failure to anticipate the response our power would have on the people we sought to liberate. They resent us for our power and at the same time expect us to be capable of everything. There was a failure to understand the effect our power would have on other people around the world… Far from being blinded by greed, we were blinded by idealism.

The comparison with Niebuhr’s thinking here appears quite close. In noting America’s unease and odd naïveté in wielding power for universal ideals, Niebuhr cautioned that, “Consistent with the general liberal hope of redeeming history, the American Messianic dream is vague about the political or other power which would be required to subject all recalcitrant wills to the one will which is informed by the true vision.” Niebuhr, while resolutely prepared to use American power to confront evil, still thought that the American government “is expected to gain its ends by moral attraction and imitation,” not through force alone, and believed that “the success of America in world politics depends upon its ability to establish community with may nations, despite the hazards created by pride of power on one hand and the envy of the weak on the other.” Such a multilateral engagement would necessitate “a disavowal of the pretentious elements in our original dream” of spreading the universal values of liberalism, and require us to recognize “the values and virtues which enter into history in unpredictable ways.” How could a disciple of Niebuhr dismiss his more cautious and ironic evaluations of history, the perils of messianism, and the consequences of power in critiquing the run-up to the war? Perhaps Brooks’s fondness for Niebuhr was supplanted by another Cold War theorist, and his last New York Times column on Niebuhr hints at who this éminence grise could be: “Just after World War II, there were Americans who were astute students of the nature and consequences of American power. America’s midcentury leaders—politicians like F.D.R. and Harry Truman, as well as public intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and James Burnham—had seen American might liberate death camps.”

James Burnham?! Among the many foreign-policy experts like Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Paul Nitze who took long chilly looks at how America should conduct the Cold War, James Burnham was the most frigidly radical. An NYU philosophy professor and former Trotskyite, Burnham went on to join the CIA and fight the Cold War by establishing the Congress for Cultural Freedom before helping to found the conservative flagship, the National Review. Though they frequently touched on similar themes of irony and power, it is bizarre that Brooks would group two such markedly different thinkers together without more distinctions. Whereas Niebuhr eloquently warned against messianic engagements and American idealism, James Burnham in his frightening 1947 The Struggle for the World, asserted that communism was an expanding, monolithic menace with which any sort of peace was absolutely impossible. Therefore, he urged, the only logical course was a uniquely American policy of preemption, predominance, and democratization to contest the Soviet Union. In proposing preemption, Burnham pulled no punches: “The strategic plan must be, it would seem, to strike an immediate, paralyzing blow with atomic weapons at the Caucasian oil fields, Moscow and a dozen or more of the chief Soviet and Soviet-controlled cities and industrial concentrations.” Such a strategy would most likely deprive the Soviets of “war potential” and would best be launched before they attained atomic weapons, a cold calculus that looks quite ghastly in retrospect. Burnham leaves open the question of what to do next after reducing Russia to a smoldering, nuked wasteland but sounded confident that the rest of the world would quite reasonably understand this final solution to an imminent world crisis.

With diligent, dry logic, Burnham built off of Arnold Toynbee’s historical analysis of world empires to conclude that in the age of atomic weapons only one state with a monopoly of nuclear arms could triumph. American pre-dominance was the only possible answer, attainable through a “preventive atomic attack.” The nascent United Nations doctrine of the “equality of nations” would have to be discarded, as well as that of “non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations,” while a coalition of the willing needed to be forged to confront the Soviet threat: “A World Federation initiated and led by the United States would be, we have recognized, a World Empire. In this imperial federation, the United States, with a monopoly of atomic weapons, would hold a preponderance of decisive material power over all the rest of the world. In world politics, that is to say, there would not be a ‘balance of power.’”

On the policy of an alliance of democracies, Burnham teetered between advocacy of outright American world domination and a somewhat regretful acceptance of “others as partners, only by combining the methods of conciliation and concession with the methods of power, only by guarding the rights of others as jealously as its [our] own privileges.” The “balance of power would not in reality be suspended” after all, Burnham grudgingly concludes after dismissing it beforehand. Thus was born Burnham’s “policy of democratic world order,” a veneer for American power with which to confront the great evil of communism. Much like Niebuhr, Burnham notes the “ironic” protection of liberty afforded by the United States’s unwillingness to rule the world, but it is significant not so much as a protection of the abuse of power, “rather as a strategic handicap to the sufficient utilization of our power.”

After September eleventh, the proposed utilization of American military might for preemption, preeminence and democratization as a single foreign policy package didn’t stay on the margins of political discourse as it did during the Cold War. Though put forth by many publications associated with neoconservatives, its return is perhaps best summarized in Kristol and Kaplan’s The War over Iraq, which neatly encapsulates these tenets and sees no need to cite Burnham as an inspiration. In an eerie echo of Burnham’s The Struggle for the World, The War over Iraq solemnly examines the threat of a totalitarian menace with Weapons of Mass Destruction and coolly concludes that it is best confronted through a very aggressive Burnhamian policy. Preemption, according to the authors, has already “been part of American strategy for over a century.” As for preeminence, “Well, what is wrong with dominance, in the service of sound principles and high ideals?” It seems we are virtuous after all, and hence fit to dominate. And idealism? Acknowledging that though the “United States may need to occupy Iraq for some time… According to one estimate, initially as many as 75,000 U.S. troops may be required to police the war’s aftermath, at a cost of $16 billion a year… After Saddam Hussein has been defeated and Iraq occupied, installing a decent and democratic government in Baghdad should be a manageable task for the United States. But not according to some realists.” Ah, those realists with their grim irony and skepticism of the “dream of managing history,” surely their warnings should be dismissed instead of rebutted before undertaking the colossal endeavor of nation-building.

Indeed it might still be a “manageable” task for the United States, the parameters of manageable being very ill-defined, but as Brooks notes we are already at a stage where we must confront the “intellectual failure” of our recent policies, the sort of failure where postwar chaos was seen as merely manageable. The sort of failures which came when an America burdened by Messianism and blinded by idealism sought to use its power innocently, for the ideal ends, without understanding that power cannot be wielded without guilt. An America which in the present crisis might well benefit from more Niebuhrian contrition and wisdom and less Burnham-like predominance.

  1. Niebuhr frequently argues against a naïve idealism and “messianic impulse” not to maintain an international balance of power, but to prevent America from making a “tragic choice.” “If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.” The Irony of American History, 1954. 
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