Will the real Reinhold Niebuhr please stand up?

There’s been much made of the “Niebuhrian” nature of President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech: its frank recognition that dealing with evil sometimes requires the use of force; its rejection of non-violence; its anti-utopianism with respect to ending violent conflict, etc. And that’s all fair enough.

But there was one key Niebuhrian theme that was conspicuously missing: deep skepticism about our own motives coupled with an appreciation of our virtually bottomless capacity for self-deception. “Realism” in the Niebuhrian sense isn’t just about recognizing intractable evil without, it’s also about being alert to the even more insidious evil within. Nations, Niebuhr argued, are almost necessarily self-interested, an egoism bolstered by the qualified altruism that devotion to the nation calls forth. And this egoism inevitably manifests itself in hypocrisy, particularly when nations present themselves as bearers of universal values (sound familiar?).

Here’s Niebuhr:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised. One can never be quite certain whether the disguise is meant only for the eye of the external observer or whether, as may be usually the case, it deceives the self. Naturally this defect in individuals becomes more apparent in the less moral life of nations. […]

The dishonesty of nations is a necessity of political policy if the nation is to gain the full benefit of its double claim upon the loyalty and devotion of the individual, as his own special and unique community and as a community which embodies universal values and ideals. The two claims, the one touching the individual’s emotions and the other appealing to his mind, are incompatible with each other, and can be resolved only through dishonesty. This is particularly evident in war-time. … In other words, it is just in the moments when the nation is engaged in aggression or defense (and it is always able to interpret the former in terms of the latter) that the reality of the nation’s existence becomes so sharply outlined as to arouse the citizen to the most passionate and uncritical devotion toward it. But at such times the nation’s claim to uniqueness also comes in sharpest conflict with the generally accepted impression that the nation is the incarnation of universal values. This conflict can be resolved only by deception. (R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1960 Scribner’s edition, pp. 95-96)

When the President says, for example, that the U.S. has helped underwrite sixty years of global security without mentioning Vietnam (a war Niebuhr opposed), Cambodia, Central America, or other places where American military power was perhaps not so gratefully received, he’s doing exactly what Niebuhr is describing here: identifying the interests of the U.S. with the universal aspirations of mankind. He may be able to do it in a more subtle and nuanced way than his predecessor, but it’s not a fundamentally different claim. This doesn’t mean that President Obama is wrong when he says that war is sometimes justified, but he is wrong to omit the point that our own motives must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny and skepticism. Particularly, Niebuhr would say, when economic elites exert a disproportionate influence on policy-making. Again: sound familiar?


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