What we can learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

Brian Urquhart has an interesting review of a new edition of noted American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and two new books that take a distinctly Niebuhrian view of recent world affairs in the New York Review of Books:

Andrew J. Bacevich, in his introduction to the republished edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, calls it “the most important book ever written on US foreign policy.” Certainly it would be hard to think of another book from the 1950s that retains, nearly sixty years later, both its compulsive readability and so much of its relevance. The elegance, strength, and charm of Niebuhr’s writing invite quotation at every turn. And behind the prophetic style lie wisdom, Christian charity, and a profound understanding of both history and the ways of human beings, individually as well as in groups.

. . .

Andrew Bacevich is a devoted disciple of Niebuhr, and his latest book is very much in the Niebuhrian spirit, which he applies with great skill and originality to the problems, mostly of our own making, that now beset the United States. Bacevich retired from the US Army as a colonel and became a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. An earlier book, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), assailed the myth of the US as a reluctant superpower and urged it to act openly as a benevolent leader in the world. His son Andrew, to whom his present book is dedicated, was killed in Iraq in May 2007. A traditional conservative, Bacevich’s style is compounded of military clarity, great eloquence, and invigorating overtones of Oliver Cromwell, Savonarola, and other inspired reformers. His book is both highly readable and enormously worth reading.

In Bacevich’s account of the descent of the United States few leaders go unscathed. Both successive administrations and the people have ignored common sense in their belief that an exceptionalist America is immune from the normal process of cause and effect. The result is the triple crisis—economic and cultural, political, and military—that has now befallen the country.

. . .

In The Freedom Agenda, James Traub eschews both the grand prophetic style of Niebuhr and the sometimes biblical thunder of Bacevich. His book is an even-tempered but critical study of America’s self-imposed obligation to bring freedom and democracy to the world. The post–September 11 doctrine known as the “Freedom Agenda” derives from George W. Bush’s highly debatable assertion, in his second inaugural address, that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” The Bush administration’s promotion of the Freedom Agenda was not a success.

. . .

Traub’s excellent book presents a fascinating account of the progress, or lack of it, of liberty. He is an imperturbable ironist, brilliantly portraying long-standing American dilemmas like copious freedom rhetoric at home alongside expedient support of repressive autocratic states abroad. He shows how education, potential prosperity, existing public and nongovernmental institutions, and, in some cases, previous experience of democratic government favor the poster states of successful democratization—Germany, Japan, and the Eastern European countries. He describes, among many fascinating examples, the failure to promote democracy in Russia and its unexpected success in Serbia.

. . .

The excellence, in their different ways, of these three books raises the tantalizing question of how books can help or inspire leaders and others in public life. Reinhold Niebuhr has been a strong influence for many years. Andrew Bacevich’s brilliantly expressed perceptions should clarify and invigorate the minds of busy politicians at a critical moment in history. James Traub’s assessment of the state of America’s self-imposed mission to spread freedom and democracy should be of great practical value to all who work in this controversial and complex field.

Read it all here.

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  1. Bill Ghrist

    Those interested in this topic should also listen to or view Krista Tippet’s Speaking of Faith program “Obama’s Theologian,” an interview with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne.

    “President Obama has cited Reinhold Niebuhr’s teachings as significant in shaping his ideas about politics and governance. In a public conversation, we discuss the great public theologian’s legacy and ideas — and what influence they may play in the future of American politics.”

    It is at

    http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/obamas-theologian/

    (or http://tinyurl.com/bj7z2j )

    Bill Ghrist

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