Obama, Grand Strategy and Reinhold Niebuhr


A common refrain from both pundits and foreign policy analysts has been to ask: Where has U.S. grand strategy gone? There has been no shortage of commentary arguing that the United States, and in particular the Obama administration, lacks a grand strategy, and that one is desperately needed if the U.S. is to restore its power and purpose. In various articles, critics have charged the administration with having no guiding design for its foreign policy, allowing power vacuums to form in various regions, and responding sluggishly to international turmoil. In the midst of these criticisms, the Obama administration has released a National Security Strategy that outlines what various commenters have labeled “Strategic Patience.” The document is available here and has been comprehensively analyzed by the Brookings Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and other observers.

The National Security Strategy (published irregularly in 2002, 2006, 2010, 2015) is a consensus document written through an interagency process led by the White House. For this reason, they are typically what Richard Rumelt has dubbed “a dog’s dinner of goals” rather than a true strategy that outlines strengths and how they can be applied to opportunities. Still, the documents usually allow the public to glean the essence of how an administration sees the strategic environment and what approaches it thinks will work.

In past National Security Strategies, most notoriously the 2002 one that outlined what has since been called “The Bush Doctrine,” one could spot philosophical linkages to International Relations theory and the social sciences. Most prominent of these was the linkage to democratic peace theory, and thereby the notion that the promotion of democracy abroad would result in a more peaceful international environment since democracies do not go to war with one another. As Piki Ish-Shalom argued in 2008, this theory “lies at the heart of the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on democracy promotion.” It has featured prominently in American foreign policy since the years of Woodrow Wilson and can be traced back to thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th and Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. As the latter wrote in 1795, the first prerequisite for permanent peace is that “The civil constitution of every state should be republican.”

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In contrast to the Bush administration’s approach, the Obama administration is conspicuous in its reluctance, its selectiveness, and “Strategic Patience.” The president’s foreword to the 2015 National Security Strategy illustrates this when he speaks of that fact that “our resources and influence are not infinite” and that America must rely on “strategic patience and persistence.” Elsewhere, Obama showcased a similar attitude, for example in his recent VOX interview where he warned of the temptation to see quick fixes for complex problems. His agenda was one of humility: “You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.” Other members of his administration have joined this rhetoric, such as National Security Advisor Susan Rice who recently spoke out against the prevalent alarmism in the U.S. against threats from abroad, none of which are of an existential nature. With an eye on the contrast to the Bush administration, and on the interpretation of these attitudes by critics as reluctance and sluggishness, it is fruitful to ask what underpins this approach.

The Thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr

This question, we believe, is an important one because it can be traced to a source that is underappreciated in today’s discourse on the foundations of contemporary American foreign policy: the philosophical works of Reinhold Niebuhr. A Protestant theologian by trade, Niebuhr was influential on a wide range of issue but is perhaps best known for his popularization of the Serenity Prayer. He also wrote a seminal work on foreign policy during the height of the Cold War, published in 1952, titled The Irony of American History.

Without question, the text is rooted in the anxieties and perils of the early Cold War. Niebuhr focuses on the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and he showcases some ideas that sound rather crude by today’s standards. For example, Niebuhr equates television’s influence on culture with the threat of nuclear weapons on civilization. Yet his writing presents a number of ideas that are as relevant today as they were six decades ago. These ideas are especially important philosophically because of the ways they differ from modern writing on foreign policy.

At the heart of Niebuhr’s work is skepticism of the scientific turn in the social sciences. Niebuhr doubted that a social science rooted in methods from the natural sciences could move beyond “minutia” and truly grapple with the grand historical and moral dilemmas the U.S. was facing. In this way, the book speaks less about the calculus of geopolitics and more to aspects of emotional maturity and ways of coming to terms with the dilemmas of current geopolitics. The guiding term is, of course, that of irony, which Niebuhr uses to refer to the hidden connection between good intentions and bad outcomes. A situation is revealed to be ironic when “virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue.” When a hero suffers as a result of a fight for a just cause, that is tragedy; however, when ignorance regarding the limits of human wisdom cause good intentions to become bad consequences, that is irony.

At the heart of Niebuhr’s philosophy was thus a sense of humility at humanity’s inability to master history. Man has no control over history, and history might have its own plans. Niebuhr states clearly that the “modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management,” and that any far-reaching ambitions to shape a region or the whole world is rooted in hubris. American action will frequently lead to moral failures, despite its noble intentions. This is not hypocrisy, it is sadly irony. Niebuhr himself links this thought, first and foremost, to the nuclear race of his time. Its moral ambiguity as well as its irony lie in the fact that it was seen as necessary for survival, and yet made the world a more dangerous place. “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” In Moral Man and Immoral Society, one of his earlier books from 1932, he further emphasizes the inevitability of these failings in international politics: “As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. hence found itself in a situation of “historic frustration.” At the moment of its greatest strength it was unable to do what it wanted; it had to engage in morally hazard actions to protect its values; and its desire for security led to ever greater degrees of insecurity. For Niebuhr, the ironic climax of America’s foreign policy journey was that a previously peace-loving nation with few ambitions on the international stage had developed a weapon capable of the destruction of mankind. Following this logic, we can think of the 21st century as the home of minor ironic climaxes. A nation that thinks of itself as the champion of liberal democracy and human rights has now employed torture, drone strikes on sovereign countries, and aerial bombardments that regularly kill civilians – all in the name of freedom, democracy, and moderation.

There is tragedy to this, but as Niebuhr emphasizes, tragedy “elicits tears of admiration and pity for the hero who is willing to brave death or incur guilt for the sake of some great good.” First and foremost, we therefore see irony and the sad absurdity of policies that rest on good intentions yet often lead to moral failure.

Humility and Prudence

The connection between the Irony of American History and the Obama administration is clear and explicit. Obama has referred to Niebuhr’s influence on his thinking in several interviews. In a 2007 interview with David Brooks he made evident that he understands the idea of irony, emphasizes the need for humility, yet also cautions that this can possibly lead to inaction. A similar attitude can be seen in several of his speeches where he speaks of the inevitability of imperfect solutions and the prospect of mistakes that will be made.

The connection is perhaps strongest in Obama’s understanding of the limits of military power, where he has supposedly come to the conclusion that even the most wisely crafted military interventions lead to second and third order problems that can be just as complicated and pernicious. One can reject elements of the Obama administration’s policy without rejecting this trend toward humility and moderation in foreign policy. Even if future administrations replace the administration’s limited engagements in the Middle East with a more robust strategy of military intervention, they do not have to overreach in the way the Bush administration did. They do not need to create constructs of hubris. They can search for forms of strategy, less than grand, that are at once thoughtful, skeptical, and grounded in an understanding that the lessons of history may be beyond our grasp.

Thus, if future administrations see the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” as erring on the side of aloofness, they must be cautious not to succumb to fantasies of ideal solutions – whether it is democracy promotion, world empire, or preventive war.

Niebuhr was also prescient in one other way: He foresaw that constant struggle and frustrations would lead to a strong desire to end the messy process of history through reckless action. As Niebuhr wrote: “We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is ‘preventive war.’ It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.” These words ring true not only regarding the intervention in Iraq, but in any contemplation of the use of force, may it be against Iran, Syria or North Korea.

Toward an Un-Grand Strategy

Niebuhr’s writing can be read as a cautionary tale about the perils of Grand Strategy – at least when it reaches the extremes of idealism or hubris. The morally hazardous course between the extremes of isolation and the illusions of empire is fraught with danger and frustration. Niebuhr was prescient in recognizing that during the Cold War it would be the vacillations and inconsistencies that democracy produced that kept the U.S. away from the dangerous blunders of the Soviet system, whose political leaders were often too faithful to their own ideology. As Niebuhr argues, it was our inconsistencies that frequently made us better in practice than our adversary. In short, democracy keeps us away from the hubris of grand forms of strategy that can lead to calamities on grand scales.

Thus, what lies at the heart of Niebuhr’s philosophy can make up the core of a new un-Grand Strategy tradition. This core would be based on pragmatism, empirical skepticism, and emotional maturity.

Pragmatism (with equal measures of humility): A persistent theme throughout Niebuhr’s work is the unmanageability of history. Given that history may have designs beyond our comprehension, policymakers should be cautious and humble. This approach will always frustrate purists and lead to charges of indecisiveness and inconsistency. Still, while perfect solutions will be out of reach, policymakers can still “discern extreme forms of each evil very clearly; aid also to recognize various shades of evil between the extremes and the norm.”

Empirical Skepticism: Empirical skepticism must play a role in our foreign policy. At the heart of Niebuhr’s approach was a distrust of the scientization of policy, which tended to dream up ideal solutions and to artificially enclose the randomness of social life in idealized forms. Niebuhr called this the “technocratic approach to problems of history, which erroneously equates the mastery of nature with the mastery of historical destiny.” The advice of learned “wise men,” must always be tempered by a humility to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called our “antilibrary” – the things we don’t know. As Niebuhr himself says, “we must moderate the extravagance of our theory by the soberness of our practice.”

Emotional Maturity: We must realize the limitation of our own knowledge and acknowledge that even our most strongly held virtues will not always work in a world fraught with dangers. The appreciation of irony in history is usually reserved for the observer, not the participant; nevertheless, an appreciation of ironic elements of human history can provide humility and resilience in the face of inevitable frustration. Niebuhr therefore spoke of the “difficulty of our own powerful nation in coming to terms with the frustrations of history, and our impatience with a situation” – and warned of the danger of shying away from acknowledging these unpleasantries. No human and no nation can escape this tendency, and no grand strategy should lose sight of this immanent problematic.

Historical Ironies

Even if we do manage to cultivate the virtues associated with a more pragmatic and emotionally mature foreign policy, Niebuhr’s thinking also points to the limits of escaping historical ironies. Like Don Quixote, we may be destined to be the victims our own pretensions and fantasies. Too entranced by our own historical situation, we may be blind to the absurdities of our situation and the very ways our actions may look comical to future historians. Even students of Niebuhr are not safe from this quandary – which might well represent an irony in its own right. With this in mind, the disappointment many feel about the promises and the reality of the Obama administration, about drone strikes and whistleblower prosecutions, hints less at the hypocrisy of a president or the tragedy of our times – and first and foremost at the inescapable irony of history.

Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in Strategic Insights, Asian Politics and Policy, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, and Culture and Conflict Review. Max Nurnus is a PhD student at the Graduate School of International Studies of Seoul National University.

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