Europa & die Welt Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

Dangerous liaisons! Niebuhrians and Neocons



Our involvement in the Afghanistan War is inextricably intertwined with that of the United States, whether through a pacta sunt servanda imperative or acceptance of a certain political mindset.* To understand this mindset, we need to poke around a little in recent American intellectual history. Much ink has been spilt on how the Bush era was determined by neoconservatism, but what about Obama’s intellectual background?


Two years ago he praised Reinhold Niebuhr – Germans listen up – as his ‘favourite philosopher’. One feels free to call him a ‘Niebuhrian’. Driven by the theoretical fresh breeze, his foreign policy poses and promises a new beginning. Yet how much of a difference is there between neoconservatism and Niebuhrianism? I think conceptually there are problematic continuities between the two which need to be overcome. If progressives want to enter a fruitful ethical debate on the ongoing wars they will have to irritate both neocons and Niebuhrians.

Niebuhr’s Realism: Dealing with, rather than overcoming evil

So who is Obama’s man? Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a German-born Lutheran theologian, a towering public intellectual who influenced American politics for the best part of five decades. An early class warrior, the disappointed Niebuhr (Henry Ford read his articles and didn’t comment) soon developed his brand of ‚Christian realism‘. Reluctantly he acknowledged how humans’ intrinsic ‘evil’ and the structural realities of our modern industrial world set limits to our ethical possibilities. Individuals and small groups hold on to noble ideals realizable in organic environments. But solidary group coherence suffers at the national level and beyond. Purely selfish mechanisms prevail in a hostile world. The limitation of ‘sin’ or ‘damage’ – the alleged reality of this sphere – is pretty much all we can hope and aim for. Cool-headed pragmatism promises the best results. On a personal horizon, hope is the key Christian realist’s virtue, hope for a kingdom not of this world. As for now, instead of overcoming evil, we have to practically deal with it. Niebuhr fervently encouraged the U.S. to enter World War II. By the same token he angrily rejected the folly of Vietnam.

The Realist Critique of the Iraq War

From Niebuhr a solid Christian realist criticism of neoconservative foreign policy has been extracted. Simultaneously IR departments have revived the arch-realist Hans Morgenthau. Realist bashings of neocons abound. The Iraq war was simply too traumatic. Whilst an anti-terror camp in Cuba took on ‘unlawful combatants’ closer to home, Bush was foolishly crusading against evil itself abroad. The altruistic element to the wars’ justifications painfully highlighted proud exceptionalist vanity, presuming a non-existent world good (e.g. ‘democracy’) in need of chivalrous do-gooders – a classic mistake to the realist mind. A healthy dose of Niebuhrianism would have pulled the brakes before Iraq. Writ large, Niebuhrians beat conservatives; realism beats Iraq. Today, Obama’s approach to Afghanistan smacks of Niebuhr: live with the dirty reality of war, tone down the missionary rhetoric, get down to pragmatism, don’t go on adventures. Set aside the annoying fact that Obama’s pragmatism might pretty much be the same as that of a Mr. Hussein: what’s wrong with that?

Between personal idealism and pessimist pragmatism

A quick read of John Milbank’s critique of Niebuhrians shows that, in fact, they aren’t any less cranky than the neocons. Milbank is a somewhat controversial figure: founder of his own “radically orthodox” theological movement and frequent Žižek collaborator, the man knows his Nietzsche by heart and talks turkey like St. Augustine on a real bad day. His charge against Niebuhrianism reflects back on our foreign policy dilemmas. In short, it is a two-ended stick with personal idealism on the one end and a calculating, pessimist pragmatism on the other, rubbing itself on ambiguous ‘realities’. Apply this to the past eight years and the four ahead, and the picture looks gloomy.

Milbank’s critique of Niebuhr: The reduction of ethics to a private sentiment

Milbank complains that Niebuhr grounds his ‘limits to ethical possibilities’ ultimately in a version of natural law and a theology of original sin that divorces a violent world from the personal ‘ideal’ of love. Love becomes a personal aspiration rather than a fact of social cohesion, so that it remains confined to the individual’s conscience, who may despair in view of the world’s chaos. ‘Ethics’ is a matter of private sentimentality, soppy feelings and unattainable ideals. Added to that, Milbank argues, Niebuhr portrays human ‘sinfulness’ or imperfection as childish immaturity in need of (divinely warranted!) parental surveillance. In this respect, George W. Bush as a figure of infantile stupidity is humourous, but the continuing disproportionate expansion of the military sector or the patronizing politics of so-called security are not. Familiar deterrence patterns and brinkmanship fit well into this technocratic paternalism. Whilst Obama personified Niebuhr’s personal idealism as pre-election messiah, Niebuhr provides no fundamental change of paradigms for his foreign policy apart from dubious ‘limitations’ (never ‘withdrawal’). Whilst war images and sentimental narratives are churned out as a replacement for arguments (Who teaches the teachers of Afghan girls schools?), the justificatory minimum is covered by the ‘cruel necessities’ our enemies impose on us.

The costs of pragmatism: A denial of guilt and a lack of critical self-evaluation

But if immaturity is the decisive human flaw, then ‘the sting is taken out of human culpability’. Milbank argues that if we confine ethics to the sphere of sentiments, we fail to understand the role of reason and imagination as key ethical tools. If somebody does wrong, we can always conceive of a different scenario. Niebuhr has ‘no idea of a discursive “practical reason” in the Aristotelian sense, and no idea of ethical action as linked to “expanding vision”’, a process in which one’s apprehension of the world is inherently evaluative and rational assessment is inseparable from the ordering of one’s desires’. For us it means that one cannot simply mean well, as the coalition in Iraq did, without taking into account the imperative of proportionality, the extent of suffering and destruction, the role of pure self-interest. This failure to imagine and assess is not a question of ‘tragedy’, but human guilt with remorse as as a valid option. The Iraq Inquiry under way in Britain could have been an occasion to prevent oblivion of that fact, had the staffing of the committee not been such a farce. Obama has refused to even consider an inquiry. In Afghanistan the do-good politics of ethically correct war chronically refuse to match the reports of returning military and aid personnel, the aims set, achieved or imaginable. But a rhetoric of ‘failure’ and ‘success’ produces losers rather than perpetrators. With America simply being ‘ready to lead again’ (inauguration speech), no break with neoconservatism is in sight.

The perpetual management of violent realities

As to Niebuhr’s pessimistic view of larger society, Milbank notes his refusal to see that ‘human relatedness is the primary context of morality’. Since linguistically established ‘plots’ transcend the ‘natural’ bonds of families and tribes, we cannot restrict an ethos to a particular organic social community. But Niebuhr’s view of a naked sphere of power, the political sphere of ‘pure force’ presumes that ‘pure persuasion’ and power are disjointed. Politics, especially foreign policy, becomes antagonism and chaos to be managed technologically (see ‘intelligent weapons systems’) rather than a distinct ethical field of human action. Fear is the unabashed basic mood. Niebuhr then is forced to encourage pragmatic consequentialism in foreign policy, an orientation utterly dependent on infinite external contingencies rather than geared towards the charitable care of one’s political subjects. The nastily resilient utilitarianism contained in pragmatism is all too painfully reflected in Obama’s incapability to end Bush’s torture programs. More exhaustingly, ‘violent reality’ always triggers an extension du domaine de la lutte. In AfPak (remember, we started off in Kabul) Obama’s foreseeable role recalls Macbeth: ‘I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’ver./Strange things I have in head that will to hand,/ Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.’ Set aside the neocon boast about the ‘reality’ of American unilateralism, there is no better summary of William Kristol’s Iraq war defense.

Eery connections: Niebuhrian Neoconservatives

The fact that there is an odd species called Niebuhrian neoconservatives even further throws into question Niebuhrianism’s supposed healing power. The neocon connoisseur Gary Dorrien recently complained that if they had read their Niebuhr properly, neocons would have spared us the Iraq invasion. True, but Niebuhr’s flexibility made it possible for them to appropriate him in the first place. In 1992 Michael Novak in the National Review praised Niebuhr for his criticism of sentimental, idealistic, rational liberalism. As to conservatives, ‘Niebuhr taught them how to be conservatives in new way-fresh, future-oriented, alert to factors of power and interest.’ They devoured Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, darkness being moral cynicism and lawless self-interest – an excellent label for foreign dictators and Bush critics. Mix this with ‘the lessons of 1938’ or the ‘failure of appeasement’, and Niebuhr’s Christian realism provided an excuse for extensive war. For public intellectuals the demotic ‘messiness of the world’ was a constant state of supreme urgency justifying black site torture in best utilitarian manner. Ends were noble, means required dirty hands. In this view every inhumane strategy could range under ‘tragedy’ or ‘necessity’, leaving no choices. The good Bush warrior was born. Simultaneously Niebuhrian neocons could ridicule international lawyers as idealist ‘utopians’ and the U.N. as a sentimental institution of ‘legalism’, thus betraying their Protestant inheritance of New Testament ‘love’ gloriously overcoming Hebrew ‘law’.

Of course, by now even neocons have understood the impossibility of creating a democratic Middle East through swift military victory. Democrats and Republicans alike claim their visions to be ‘moderate’. Yet neocons themselves have traditionally chided utopians of all stripes. As early as in 1987 proponents of neo-Manifest Destinarianism, infusing the American imperative for democratic empire with fresh crusading spirit, labelled their approach ‘chastened’. Ben Wattenberg, an early Reagan functionary, had no problem with ‘the assertion that democracy is our creed; that we believe all human beings are entitled to its blessings’ and at the same time conceding that destinarianism ‘at time did go overboard, into distant geographic expansion and wild-eyed cultural imperialism.’ So evidently the claim for ‘limited expectations’ is tricky. After all, nobody calls himself a hippie. Niebuhr’s recognition of human sinfulness and limitation works both ways: as an easy argument to quell uneasy questions about dirty hands; alternatively, it urges us to better get used to terrorism as a systemic problem here to stay.

The Origins of Obama’s Discourse of Hope

Obama’s Niebuhrianism probably became most obvious in the key word of his election campaign: hope. A smashing rhetor excelling by force of non-illusion, he was well aware of the temporary empowering force of hope without the object of one’s hope being imminent at all, whether peace or health care reform. Another similarity between Niebuhrians and neocons: upon a world of harsh and hostile realities a ‘religious’ dimension is grafted as optional ethical warrant and neglected once action is at hand. Naomi Klein’s recent Guardian article on “hopeovers” and “hopesickness” is symptomatic for the collective wake-up call to Obamafanland. It is a fanland whose inhabitants can’t even complain they have been fooled. Yet whilst searching for new ‚homes for hope’ in loco, Klein notably evades the question of foreign policy.

What can progressives do?

So how do we overcome the continuities between neocons and Niebuhrians? If progressive movements – as Klein demands – become independent indeed, they will also need to revise their foreign policy parameters. Progressives will hesitate to simply endorse Niebuhrianism, because it contracts and shrinks down to realist conservatism. Mere pragmatism alienates, evading ethical questions. Progressives will not accept any limits to legitimate demands by amoebic realities. They will confidently let go of the control-freakish, fear-mongering bandwagons of war rolling down slippery slopes. They will stop frantically oscillating between the rhetoric of idealism and realism. They will not only talk responsibility, but accept the prospect of culpability. As a first step the focus of ethics will not be guided by so-called violent realities but dare a shift of personal mindset. New pockets of possibilities can be found. Four initial imperatives: Be imaginative! Be spontaneous! Be confident! Be smart! The rest may follow.

* I have little patience with the claim that Germany is not fighting a war. I trust the next government will not betray the public’s and its own best instincts.