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Shadow Government

What would Niebuhr say?

If readers of have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that’s because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy’s ranks I’ve enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls ...


If readers of have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that’s because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy’s ranks I’ve enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls and at different panels.

Today I spoke on a panel titled "Christian Realism in the White House? An Assessment of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Influence on Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy." Given the recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr, prompted in part by then-candidate Obama’s own favorable comments about Niebuhr to David Brooks in 2007, I thought I would share the following summary of my remarks.

The first disclaimer is that we should not and cannot try to ascertain "what would Niebuhr say today about x or y issue," because to do so wrenches Niebuhr out of his own time and place. Niebuhr’s own beliefs can be very elusive; his public career spanned roughly a half century that began with World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Soviet communism, the nuclear age, two land wars in Asia, the birth of Israel, and multiple wars in the Middle East, just to mention a few. The very fact that he acted in history, in a particular time, place, and context, should caution and perhaps even chasten us against too readily attempting to appropriate him for our own 21st century purposes. To do so would be to do violence to his prophetic voice and to his own contingencies as a historical actor. 

The second cautionary note follows from the first, and it is against the trap that Paul Elie memorably described as turning Niebuhr into "A Man for All Reasons," as various public personalities try to claim the mantle of Niebuhr for their own various ideologies or favored issues across the political spectrum. Niebuhr’s thought has wisdom for all of us, but endorsements for none of us.

But historical context does not mean historical silence, and Niebuhr’s body of ideas still has much to say of contemporary relevance. He is not so embalmed in the past that we cannot reflect on his principles for the world today. In that respect, I would apply four Niebuhrian themes to President Obama’s foreign policy, two affirmations, and two critiques.

First, I see two Niebuhrian resonances in Obama’s foreign policy:

1) American Limits. This is one of the most visible Niebuhrian themes in Obama’s foreign policy — an appreciation of the limits of American power. The Obama White House has made explicit that this is in part their reaction to the perceived excesses of the Bush administration’s confidence in American power, and also to a realization of the constraints on American action in an era of severe fiscal austerity and extended military deployments. This notion of limits pervades Niebuhr’s thought and is especially pronounced in the Irony of American History. To take just one illustrative quote from this book, written in 1952 in the midst of one of America’s most dominant positions in the international system, "our own nation … is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy."

2) "Dirty Hands." To the surprise of most of his supporters and detractors alike, President Obama has been very aggressive in his use of force against terrorists, terrorism supporters, and those suspected of terrorist intentions. These tactics, most especially the drone campaign, are morally ambiguous across multiple dimensions, including the questions of preventive action, noncombatant immunity, and executive authority. Yet this willingness to wield force, to get "dirty hands" in the quest for proximate justice and to defeat a greater evil, is a classic Niebuhrian theme. As Niebuhr once wrote of American nuclear policy in the early Cold War "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization."

Two other Niebuhrian themes are critical of Obama’s foreign policy:

3) Ideological Lassitude: The Obama administration has done little to articulate the ideological stakes in the conflict with militant Islamism, either to define what we seek to defend or what we fight against. Obama speaks occasionally of a "war against al Qaeda and associated groups" but has done little to develop and articulate either an analysis of the ideological comprehension of al Qaeda or of the ideological distinctiveness of the United States and allies and partners fighting against this foe. Such a neglect of the ideational dimension of a conflict is alien to Niebuhrian thought. Much of his life’s intellectual work can be considered an extended defense of democratic civilization, exemplified by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, even as he was also one of the most persistent critics of democratic illusions and propensities to self-righteousness. Niebuhr also devoted considerable intellectual energies to probing the ideological nature of America’s mid-century foes, be they German Nazism or Soviet Communism. Of the former, Niebuhr as early as June 1933 denounced Hitler for imposing a "totalitarian" government in Germany that deified the state, and when he later resigned from the Socialist Party over his support for American entry into World War II, he wrote that "if Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history." Of Soviet communism, volumes could be devoted to Niebuhr’s sustained critique, which included identifying it as a "monstrous evil" and "false religion" that deified both the state and the historical dialectic as the author of history, dangerously monopolized power, embodied utopian illusions, and embraced a materialist view of reality. In short, his advocacy for a robust American confrontation with the Soviet Union was based on a highly ideological understanding of the conflict.

This is not to imply that President Obama is not committed to democratic values or does not understand the ideological dimension of the conflict, but rather that he seems curiously reluctant to explain these themes to the American people and our allies. Just as the Obama administration’s drone war takes place in the shadows, so also is the Obama administration’s ideological rationale for the conflict confined to the shadows.

4) Unrealistic Pragmatism: The most extensive and sympathetic treatment of President Obama’s thought comes from Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, whose book Reading Obama identifies Obama as a philosophical pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey. Niebuhr, however, criticized pragmatism as a flawed account of human nature and reality and regarded Dewey as one of his primary intellectual adversaries. In Niebuhr’s mind, pragmatism was fundamentally unrealistic.

Niebuhrian principles would be suspicious of Obama’s pragmatism, seeing in it both an undue confidence in his own reason and an unwarranted optimism about the possibilities of human nature and social organization. In other words, while Obama may appreciate the limits
of American power, he seems less mindful of the limits on his own wisdom and virtue. This was perhaps revealed by his naïve offers of unconditional negotiation with rogue regimes in his first term, or his resistance to accountability for the drone campaign. In foreign policy terms, Niebuhrianism would also regard pragmatism as a cause of "muddling through," as experimentation unmoored from a broader set of strategic principles and foundational values. Such pragmatism is leery of democracy promotion and thus lacks a strategic framework to detect opportunities such as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. This might help explain the Obama administration’s tentative and erratic response to the Arab Awakening, with a half-hearted intervention in Libya, vacillations on Egypt, and negligence on Syria. In philosophical terms, pragmatism perhaps marks Obama’s most significant deviation from Niebuhrianism.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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