Marching Into the Past

In a campaign interview last year with the columnist David Brooks, Barack Obama identified Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher. Following the president’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 15, many commentators noted that the speech reflected Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, a political theology that stressed the inescapable power of group egoism, especially in nation states, and the need of countervailing power to check injustice in the world. Niebuhr’s major works, Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, were sustained arguments for realism in politics and international affairs. But he equally insisted that nations were given to self-deception about their role in the world and employed myths and rationalizations to justify their self-interest.

Indeed, another Niebuhr book, The Irony of American History, offered criticism of the self-deceptions, moral confusions and rationalizations of American foreign policy. Comparing American naïveté to Don Quixote’s, he wrote:

Of all the “knights” of bourgeois culture, our castle is the most imposing and our horse the sleekest and most impressive. Our armor is the shiniest (if it is legitimate to compare atomic bombs with a knight’s armor); and the lady of our dreams is the most opulent and desirable. The lady has been turned into “prosperity.”

Niebuhr was writing of the U.S. struggle against Soviet Communism, but the lesson he drew from the Quixote analogy is eerily applicable to the challenge President Obama addressed in Oslo, the threat of jihadist terrorism. “If only we could fully understand,” he warned, “that the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruit of illusions similar to our own, we might be better prepared to save a vast uncommitted world, particularly in Asia...from being engulfed by a noxious creed.”

In a cold war spirit, the president stood up for the idealistic use of power. “Terrible wars have been fought and atrocities committed,” the president told his audience. “The ideals of liberty and self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced.... It is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.” Later he declared, “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of its citizens and the force of its arms.”

There is much in the historic record, especially about World War II and NATO, that provides reason to be proud. In Irony, however, Niebuhr warned against national self-congratulation. “It is characteristic of human nature,” he wrote, “that it has no possibility of exercising power without running the danger of overestimating the purity of the wisdom which directs it.” He would not have been surprised that the two wars since Korea in which the most American blood was shed—Vietnam and Iraq—went unmentioned in the speech.

While President Obama spoke in Oslo before an “Old Europe” audience, with pacifist and internationalist leanings, and invoked the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II, his speech provided ample reason to believe that his first concern was to placate American critics who quarrel with his talk-first diplomacy and an internationalism that is warmly welcomed overseas.

The Nobel speech was above all an apology for war as a tool for peace. “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetime,” the president said. “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” It was the proclamation of a doctrine right out of the classics of Christian Realism. But as a political philosophy for the 21st century, it was a march backward into cold war history, when the just war was the coin of the realm and “the imperatives of a just peace” were hardly considered.

Developments in international affairs since Niebuhr’s death in 1971 were clustered like an afterthought at the end of the address: accountability to the laws of armed conflict, the design of smart sanctions, nuclear nonproliferation, the promotion of human rights and socioeconomic development. Other recent developments that might have benefitted from a boost on the Nobel platform went unmentioned: nonviolent people’s revolutions, public apologies for national offenses—like President Clinton’s to Rwanda—national reconciliation processes, professional peacebuilding, trials for tyrants and the International Criminal Court. The president was right as far as he went. There is sometimes a place for force in righting injustice. But in Oslo he lost an opportunity to lend the lustre of the peace prize to constructive alternatives to war.

Patrick Eicker
7 years 7 months ago
My gosh, a (tiny) crack in your fawning.
William McGeveran
7 years 7 months ago

Those guys at Olso already know all about “public apologies” and “constructive alternatives  to war.” What they really enjoy is preaching to the United States. I was glad to see that in accepting the prize Obama told them some hard truths instead of delivering a script they could have written themselves.

Leonard Villa
7 years 7 months ago

March backward to the cold war?  The U.S. won the cold war in large part due to the strength and determination of Ronald Reagan and the papacy of John Paul II.  I would love to know your point of departure to determine forward and backward.  Would that President Obama had the determination of Reagan and would that he would see the real threat posed by militant Islam!  President Obama, despite the speech, is more in line with the weaknesses and fecklessness of Jimmie Carter in the face of a determined enemy.  Were it not for manifestations of that weakness and fecklessness largely by Democrats post-Vietnam, the cold war would have been won a lot quicker and millions of lives would have been saved.  Within the caverns of that weakness there were the ideological cousins of communism masquerading as liberals who today still form a fifth column of treachery since they seek the destruction of the United States and surrender to a status quo under the threat of militant Islam for which they blame the West.

Craig McKee
7 years 6 months ago
"The Nobel speech was above all an apology for war as a tool for peace."

Since its inception in 1901, FOUR U.S. presidents have been awarded this prize.( http://nobelprizes.com/nobel/peace/ ). A comparison of their acceptance speeches would suggest that President Obama is the weakest actual "peace-maker" in the group.

1. Theodore Roosevelt - 1906 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1906/roosevelt-acceptance.html

2. Woodrow Wilson - 1919

http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1919/wilson-acceptance.html

3. Jimmy Carter - 2002 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2002/carter-lecture.html

4. Barack Obama - 2009

http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/obama-lecture_en.html

Guy Blais
7 years 6 months ago

Very good article. And the comment by Craig was excellent while also being very informative. America's editorials seem to inspire some in the lunatic right to respond with their own unique view of the universe. 

The throwback to Joe McCarthy comment is really funny. Being a Korean war infantry veteran and having had the opportunity to get at least one degree, the comment by Lucious that today's liberals are communist in disguise, who are seeking "the destruction of the United States and surrender...." has to be the most idiotic response I have ever seen to an America editorial.

Do you really need to print such tripe as a balance to editorials?

Leonard Villa
7 years 6 months ago

Guy, needs to read accurately and study some history.

C Walter Mattingly
7 years 6 months ago

Initially, I would like to point out that I think all of us would like to win a war against tyranny without incurring significant casualties, such as the manner in which Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher did in freeing 20-odd countries from behind the Iron Curtain.  This however is not always possible.

Since Iraq has been singled out in the editorial as a war which Obama avoided mentioning, as well he might, since he was against the initial involvement, which proved very difficult, and against the surge, which proved surprisingly successful, one might do well to consider whether or not the good incurred was greater than the evil produced.

In the first instance, while NATO and the UN clearly considered the conflict undesireable and/or illegal, we might do well to consider the opinion of the Iraqi public regarding the overthrow of Saddam, popularly referred to as the Butcher of Bagdhad.  As it turns out, over 80% of the population wanted him overthrown. Perhaps they have a realistic perspective on the subject. It is easy to understand why. Saddam, to whom Hiter and Stalin were role models, committed genocidal acts such as nerve gassing a village of his own people and starving out the swamp Shiites by damning up their water supply and destroying their culture.  He is estimated to have killed about 70,000 in a good year.The attempts by the UN to limit him through sanctions had become a joke, as French and Russian companies particularly violated those sanctions. He also was regularly firing missiles at US planes attempting to enforce those sanctions he had agreed upon at the original war's end.

The war of course after its initial phase was badly mishandled. Had McCain's criticisms been adopted earlier, many fewer lives, both Iraqi and Americans, would have been lost.  Still, even with these errors, as of mid 2009 the Iraqi government estimated a total loss of just under 100,000 Iraqis killed, mostly from AlQaeda and sectarian violence. Under Saddam, the number typically would have been several times that number, and the prospect of a freer and largely democratic future would not be a possibility.

This is not intended to justify American involvement in Iraq from a point of view of American blood spilled and treasure expended. I simply wish to point out that as far as one can reasonably project, far fewer lives were lost and a genocidal butcher replaced by a flawed but promising government in this conflicted country. 

No American need be ashamed of having overthrown the Butcher of Bagdhad.


Edison Woods
7 years 6 months ago
The editors of this magazine are remarkably innocent if they do not understand that Mr. Obama merely says in a speech what he thinks his current audience wants to hear. The only real conviction he possesses is that of his own greatness. To promote that idea he would do or say anything. Never before in the history of this country has an individual occupied the presidency who is so lacking in convictions. He is truly a Madison Ave. politician.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago

Excellent editorial.

"The president was right as far as he went. There is sometimes a place for force in righting injustice. But in Oslo he lost an opportunity to lend the lustre of the peace prize to constructive alternatives to war."

Let's see what Obama does after he has been in office for a few years - see if he continues to lead our country to using war as a means of fighting injustice, or if he makes the turn toward other ways.  After all, the war mentality of the USA is deep and goes back a long way, and basically Obama inherited it all when assumed the power of the presidency. 

I believe that the change that Barack Obama will bring to this country and to the world has only just begun.

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