Evangelical Foreign Policy is Over
By Andrew Bacevich
originally published November 6, 2008 in Boston.com
WITH Barack Obama's election to the presidency, the evangelical moment in US foreign policy has come to an end. The United States remains a nation of believers, with Christianity the tradition to which most Americans adhere. Yet the religious sensibility informing American statecraft will no longer find expression in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.
Like our current president, Obama is a professed Christian. Yet whereas George W. Bush once identified Jesus Christ himself as his favorite philosopher, the president-elect is an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned Protestant theologian.
Faced with difficult problems, conservative evangelicals ask WWJD: What would Jesus do? We are now entering an era in which the occupant of the Oval Office will consider a different question: What would Reinhold do?
During the middle third of the last century, Niebuhr thought deeply about the complexities, moral and otherwise, of international politics. Although an eminently quotable writer, his insights do not easily reduce to a sound-bite or bumper sticker.
At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness - never an American strong suit - poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself.
Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.
Niebuhr specialized in precise distinctions. He supported US intervention in World War II - and condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended that war. After 1945, Niebuhr believed it just and necessary to contain the Soviet Union. Yet he forcefully opposed US intervention in Vietnam.
The vast claims of Bush's second inaugural - with the president discerning history's "visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty" - would have appalled Niebuhr, precisely because Bush meant exactly what he said. In international politics, true believers are more dangerous than cynics.
Grandiose undertakings produce monstrous byproducts. In the eyes of critics, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo show that all of Bush's freedom talk is simply a lie. Viewed from a Niebuhrean perspective, they become the predictable if illegitimate offspring of Bush's convictions. Better to forget utopia, leaving it to God to determine history's trajectory.
On the stump, Obama did not sound much like a follower of Niebuhr. Campaigns reward not introspection, but simplistic reassurance: "Yes, we can!" Yet as the dust now settles, we might hope that the victor will sober up and rediscover his Niebuhrean inclinations. Sobriety in this case begins with abrogating what Niebuhr called "our dreams of managing history," triggered by the end of the Cold War and reinforced by Sept. 11. "The course of history," he emphasized, "cannot be coerced."
We've tried having a born-again president intent on eliminating evil. It didn't work. May our next president acknowledge the possibility that, as Niebuhr put it, "the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own." Facing our present predicament requires that we shed illusions about America that would have offended Jesus himself.
Obama has written that he took from reading Niebuhr "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world" along with the conviction that evil's persistence should not be "an excuse for cynicism and inaction." Yet Niebuhr also taught him that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things." As a point of departure for reformulating US foreign policy, we could do a lot worse.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism."© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company
READER COMMENTS (37)
I remember the forum with Rick Warren, when Obama was criticized for his response to a question re "confronting evil" ... but the question seemed to be more of a coded question about terrorism, rather than a question about confronting the personal evil that exists within each of us. I remember the forum with Rick Warren, when Obama was criticized for his response to a question re "confronting evil" ... but the question seemed to be more of a coded question about terrorism, rather than a question about confronting the personal evil that exists within each of us.
by SkipMendler November 07, 11:29 AM
Has unexamined Newtonian Mechanism crept into Niebuhr's thinking? Whence comes "original sin?" From an authority. He takes that as a given and starts rationalizing from there.
This is humanity's fatal error: believing our selves to be apart from the Divine. Joseph Campbell called it "mythic dissociation." Christ himself preached mythic identity: "I and the Father are One."
We get fooled, again and again, by thinking we are only part things that must relate to the Whole via bachelor fathers with terrible tempers and unspoken habits.
Physicists deliberately chose the absolutely isolated point particle as their fundamental unit. Psychologists, despite Oppenheimer’s 1955 warning to the APA convention, adopted this as our model of the ego.
This implodes our psyches into quantum singularities of pain. We, my friends, are cosmic pinheads. We are cellf-imprisoned in cellves of our own mistaken making. Torture by isolation isn’t aberrant for us, it’s what we do. Defining our selves as essentially imprisoned is at the root of human suffering.
By reducing us to Newtonian billiard balls, we psychologists sneak our belief system into our science under our priestly white lab coats. For the APA to uphold torture is perfectly in character.
And yet, no less a scientific eminence than the late Stephen Jay Gould declared reductionism, and its attendant Newtonian mechanism, dead almost 8 years ago.
Humbled by the Genome's Mysteries
"We [are] sharing a great day in the history of science and of human understanding in general.... The social meaning may finally liberate us from the simplistic and harmful idea, false for many other reasons as well, that each aspect of our being, either physical or behavioral, may be ascribed to the action of a particular gene "for" the trait in question.
But the deepest ramifications will be scientific or philosophical in the largest sense. From its late 17th century inception in modern form, science has strongly privileged the reductionist mode of thought that breaks overt complexity into constituent parts and then tries to explain the totality by the properties of these parts and simple interactions fully predictable from the parts.
But once again, we fell victim to hubris, as we imagined that, in discovering how to unlock some systems, we had found the key for the conquest of all natural phenomena. Will Parsifal ever learn that only humility (and a plurality of strategies for explanation) can locate the Holy Grail?
[O]organisms must be explained as organisms, and not as a summation of genes.
Second, the unique contingencies of history, not the laws of physics, set many properties of complex biological systems.' [end Gould quote]
So I thank you, sincerely, for bringing Niebuhr into public discourse. Absent the mythological, our erudition is empty of lived human meaning.
Here's where I do share the hope so abundant in these heady post-election days. I've never seen such serene smiles on a living face as I did on Obama's on Election Night. He's got the smile of a buddha (lower case b, meaning one who has awakened to his true self). That smile alone--not a grin, not a smirk--gives me great confidence in our president-elect. Still, even buddhas aren't infallible--that would make them Pope!
Christians believe in life as Holy War. You believe this, correct? You think there is evil, and there is good, and they fight. Else, what are the wages of sin, if not Hell? Wages, rewards, costs imply coercion. "Do as I say or suffer a living Hell until you do." Newton is with us still.
The *power* of myth is that it shapes the cosmos in which we enact the theater of Life. There is intelligibility to Being, yes; mathematics are true. Our tragic mistake is to allow war gods to remain installed permanently at the controls of the mathematical cosmos.
Baconian-Cartesian-Newtonian Science practiced as religion (the "Faith" was kept while princely States warred with the imperial Church) has spawned the little monsters, petro-powered engines, that have given our Mother a fever. Is it the fever before the flow? Is Gaia getting ready to miscarry us? She may be doing so already.
Even a Goddess has Her periods. When they've occurred on a global scale, paleontologists have called them "mass extinctions."
As a poet, I reject this horrible inheritance. We are not "just particles." We are not slaves on the plantation of someone else’s gods. We are not the creatures of the absolute tyrant-Creator of the universe.
We are KIN. We are divine vessels of a divine flow. We are in a Waste Land that may already be flushing us out of our Mother.
To release our selves from our hellish cellves, we can only do it the very same way the sun shines, the earth orbits, and plants grow: from within.
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