Religion is creating havoc in the world. Authoritarian governments are collapsing in the Middle East, and in the absence of credible alternatives, Sunni and Shi’ite religious groupings, fueled by ancient hatreds, are fighting each other to fill the void.
President Obama gave a speech last week on what to do about it. It was a sane and sensible speech, and one that may have drawn some inspiration from a Protestant minister who was a profound political thinker and one of America’s great public intellectuals of the mid-20th century.
In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama told columnist David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” “I love him,” Obama said, and despite the fact that Niebuhr was not a philosopher but a theologian, the President-to-be proceeded to give a very respectable capsule summary of his thinking.
Niebuhr is mentioned less frequently these days, but I heard a distinct Niebuhrian strain in the President’s speech. And that is a good thing. There is no foreign policy consensus today; in fact, there is barely any foreign policy coherence. The Republicans veer wildly from the interventionism of John McCain to the isolationism of Rand Paul. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is dismissive of the President’s foreign policy positions but seems to have none of her own. Yet amidst this confusion, the President spoke wisely and well, and I heard in his words some of the clarity, depth, and moral power that characterize the writings of his “favorite philosopher.”
A liberal clergyman, Niebuhr wrote forcefully about original sin and the existence of evil in the world. Setting aside the pacifism of his youth, he came to believe that liberal reformers too often exaggerate human goodness. And since nations are even more flawed than individuals, he saw power politics as inevitable. This meant that if justice were to be achieved in this world, America would have to be prepared to exercise the power that she possesses. For great nations in a messy world, there is no opting out; great powers must take chances and get their hands dirty in order to do right.
In this vein, the President was specific about the evil that is ISIS; he spoke of the attempted genocide, the mass executions, the abuse of women, and the killing of children. He mentioned the gruesome beheadings of American journalists. And he spoke as well of America’s obligation to lead in the world and to promote both justice and freedom, and did so with more passion than has been his custom of late.
But there is another side to Niebuhr, and there was another side to the President’s speech. Niebuhr affirmed power but also feared it. While individuals are sometimes humble, he believed that nations—and especially great powers—never are. They assume that they can change the world in ways they cannot. They act for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they are supposedly helping. They deify their own states and their own intentions. They fail to ask if what they are undertaking will help or hurt. And they do all of this, often, with the very best of intentions, certain of their own virtue. And the result? Tragedies such as Vietnam, where American pretensions led not to the justice that Americans aspired to but to suffering and disaster.
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Eric H. Yoffie