xbn .

Grand Illusions and Modest Proposal: Christian Realism in the Postwar World — Robin Lovin

With this post Robin Lovin launches our symposium, co-hosted by the Niebuhr Society, on the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. The symposium is occasioned by the Library of America’s recent publication of Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton. The symposium or reading group is envisioned less as an exhaustive review of the volume than a collective exploration of its usefulness for introducing students to Niebuhr and for thinking in conversation with Niebuhr about political theology. Posts will appear on Wednesdays.  If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact Executive Editor, Dave True at dbtrue@gmail.com.

Robin Lovin on “The Myth of World Government” and “Sources of American Prestige”


Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of politics becomes clear in the way he dealt with specific policy questions. When others developed large theories or immersed themselves in details, Niebuhr saw the forces that were at work shaping the framework of possibilities. This prompted him to reject elegant, ideal solutions in favor of realistic uses of power and exploitation of available opportunities, but he also rejected extreme formulations of realism that reduced all political questions to problems of self-interest and power. We see this especially in the years after the Second World War, when many saw American power as virtually unlimited and some hoped to remake the world as an idealized constitutional democracy. Two essays, a decade apart, show us how Niebuhr’s historical realism assessed those visions of the world, and how it developed as the world changed.

“The Myth of World Government,” published in March 1946, responds to the high expectations that greeted the establishment of the United Nations and the sense of new beginnings after the fall of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. To political idealists, the lesson of two World Wars and the failure of the League of Nations was that diplomatic constraints on national power were too weak and that war after Hiroshima and Nagasaki was too dangerous. What was required was genuine world government, replacing national sovereignties with a constitutional federalism modeled on the American experience. It is difficult now to reconstruct the brief window of opportunity in which that seemed a plausible proposal, but Niebuhr cites the books that raised the hopes of intellectuals and activists to a high pitch, especially among readers of liberal journals like The Nation.

Niebuhr was quick to point out that theoretical elegance can obscure the contingencies on which a political system really rests. The idea that government is based on a voluntary “social contract” obscures the fact that “all human communities had a long history of organic cohesion before they ever began explicitly and consciously to alter or extend it” (662-63). Liberal theory and American constitutional history create the illusion that such a contract could be made on a global scale, despite the evidence of that the requisite organic cohesion is missing. More important, Niebuhr reminded the readers of The Nation that these mythic expectations were fueled by an American hegemony that often confused national interests with global necessity. “It must be observed in this connection,” he added, “that a great deal of enthusiasm for world government is explicitly anti-Russian” (662). The chill of the impending Cold War could already be felt by Niebuhrian realists in the State Department, and no one who understood Soviet policy, Marxist theory, or the Russian experience expected that the leaders in the Kremlin would see their future through the lens of liberal constitutionalism. Niebuhr shared with the advocates of world government the awareness that an ideologically divided world is a dangerous place, but he did not expect to overcome the dangers by constitutional fiat. The aspirations of realism were less grand, but they could be tested against results. “Many creative acts are required of America that are more difficult, though more immediate and modest, than espousal of world government” (665).

Much changed in the decade that passed before Niebuhr wrote “The Sources of American Prestige,” for the New Leader in January 1955. For one thing, as the first sentence of the essay reminds us, television had become a major source of news and opinion. Niebuhr does not seem aware that he is introducing the New Leader to the force that would lead to its extinction, but journals like The Nation and the New Leader, which since the 1930s had provided a secular audience for Niebuhr’s political theology, would find it increasingly difficult to maintain a public voice.

Strikingly, too, the Cold War between the US and the USSR, not yet named in 1946, dominates the international scene at the beginning of 1955. It is a reality too pervasive to require introduction, and the question of how American interests are faring in this ongoing contest with the Soviet Union is the background question in every discussion of foreign affairs. The question of constitutionalism raised by the advocates of world government is still a live issue, but it can now be discussed on the more familiar realist ground of what it contributes to American prestige. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education the previous year had troubled Niebuhr in some of its domestic political implications, but on the international scene, it is definitely a positive development, for contributes to the “final source of prestige” for a government, which is “the reputation of any authority for maintaining order and justice.” Alongside this most important resource, there is also the growing reputation of American leadership for “prudence,” that is, for the capacity to seek peace as well as to wage war.

Six decades later, Niebuhr’s assessment of the sources of American prestige may strike us as coldly instrumental, if not actually immoral. We are now alert to the criticisms that Charles Marsh and James Cone have leveled against Niebuhr’s response to racial injustice, and when we recall his worries that the Supreme Court’s pace of change may have been too fast, his readiness to use Brown to enhance American prestige may seem like cynical exploitation, caring less about the realities of justice than about useful appearances.

But this is to read the realities of 1955 from the perspective of 2015, or even 1980. Niebuhr was assessing the sources of American prestige at a time when nuclear war was a real strategic option, and many thought that such a war could be won. In that context, to say that “prudence in a ruler is almost as great a source of authority as the sense of justice” (670) bends the dogmas of power to the constraints of realism and subjects the constraints of realism to the requirements of justice. It was no small achievement to transcend the mood of the time enough to make those judgments, let alone to articulate them in terms that might make sense to his contemporaries.

Niebuhr’s first achievement was a realistic grasp of the limits of American power. This came, perhaps, from a Burkean grasp of the limits of all power that made him more dubious than we wish he had been about the power of law and mass movements to change longstanding social practices like racial segregation. But realism about the limits of power also implied prudence in international affairs and a move toward a more consultative, collaborative foreign policy. Niebuhr was concerned to measure American prestige, not in some abstract forum of world opinion, but precisely among America’s European allies, who worried that their superpower partner might plunge them into a nuclear conflict and who had begun to doubt that our propaganda about justice and equality had any real meaning in our domestic political life.

If in 1946 Niebuhr’s writing was directed against idealists who thought that our commitments to constitutional justice could easily be transferred to the international order, he was addressing in 1955 realists who thought that power alone could solve every problem. His concern, in both cases, was “whether we are fully conscious of those moral and political imponderables in community-building which lie between obvious power and constitutional arrangements” (670). He did not believe that those forces were strong enough in 1946 to create a world government, but he warned in 1955 that an “alliance of free nations” could not be held together by American power alone. Niebuhr’s historical realism thus differs from Hans Morgenthau’s principle that politics is best understood through the concept of power, independent of economic, ethical, or religious considerations. Power is important, but it is also limited. Power creates its own legitimacy, up to a point, but Niebuhr insists that authority finally depends on justice.

It is in the nature of this kind of historical realism, with its delicate equilibrium between power and justice, order and adaptation, law and community, that we understand it best when it is set against simpler and more self-confident analyses. That is why Niebuhr is at his best in short pieces like these. The events covered in “Writings on Current Events, 1928-1967” in the Library of America volume are often obscure to readers today, but they once were matters of immediate public concern. Niebuhr’s ability to address these details goes a long way to explain the influence of his work. These essays allow us to see the implications of the more abstract themes set out in Nature and Destiny, Children of Light and Children of Darkness, and Faith and History.

Niebuhr was influential. He was also, of course, often wrong. At various points, Niebuhr predicted that German business interests would restrain Hitler’s international ambitions, warned that Federal insistence on school desegregation would provoke a destructive local backlash, and—as we see in “The Sources of American Prestige” – worried too much about America’s European allies and not enough about the Third World where the “ugly American” was already sowing the seeds of future conflict. Assessing the balance of forces at work in any actual situation calls for difficult judgments, and every realist knows how easy it is to get those wrong. Most of us have not been so productive as to see so many of our mistakes into print.

We should not reread the essays in “Writings on Current Events, 1928-1967” in search of simple principles that we can apply directly to our own situation. Still less should the limitations of these analyses suggest that theologians have no business making judgments about politics. Rather, they provide examples of what is involved in the realist disposition, which Niebuhr traced back to Augustine, to take all factors in a social and political situation into account. That means paying special attention to self-interest and power, but not neglecting the norms of justice that limit self-interest and the requirements of community on which durable power depends.

Nor should we suppose that realism limits moral imagination. It works against comprehensive ideological programs or long-lasting moral crusades, but it focuses attention on those “more difficult, though more immediate and modest” creative acts that Niebuhr commends at the end of “The Myth of World Government.” One that almost escapes our notice at this distance in time is the possibility he mentions of “transferring our dangerous knowledge of the atomic bomb to some kind of world judicatory.” Knowing, as we do, what was coming, this seems as mythic as the idea of world government itself, but Niebuhr would have been aware as early as March 1946 of the Baruch Plan, which the United States would propose that June, to share the secrets of the atomic bomb and place its control in the hands of an international agency as a way to avoid the arms race that would otherwise inevitably follow. In the end, that “immediate and modest” proposal proved too difficult. The Soviets decided to pursue their own program and successfully exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. But the fact that Niebuhr could help to put forward the suggestion of international control of nuclear armaments when America still held a nuclear monopoly illustrates both the scope of his realist vision and his engagement with the leaders who were trying to make sense of the new world that began at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The questions that Niebuhr’s legacy poses to us in these essays thus is not so much what we think of his judgments, but rather three questions about our own time: Are there similar “immediate and modest” proposals that Christian realists should be making in place of visionary abstractions? To whom should Christian realists look for leadership in those efforts, and who among them would look upon us as allies? If there are such proposals to be made, what would be the forum, comparable to The Nation or the New Leader, where we could make them?


Robin LovinRobin W. Lovin is William H. Scheide Senior Fellow in Theology at the Center of Theological Inquiry and author of Christian Realism and the New Realities.


One thought on “Grand Illusions and Modest Proposal: Christian Realism in the Postwar World — Robin Lovin

  1. An excellent post. Thanks so much for that Robin and Political Theology Today.

    In light of the articles treated here, I would also want to add another question to your list: what are the grand illusions that plague our society today?

    At first, it would strike me that we live in a much more divided world than Niebuhr did. Such that political partisanship may lead to conflicting grand illusions. But I wonder if there is a growing coalition of strange bedfellows who agree at least on the significant limitation of the deployment of American power around the world. On the one hand, there are skeptical liberals who follow Niebuhr’s doubts about the righteousness and effectiveness of American power, especially in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. On the other hand are libertarian conservatives who oppose the deployment of American power on principle – the state exists primarily to stay out of the way of individuals, not to influence global affairs. No doubt, the articulated visions of these different groups would diverge significantly. The liberals would call for the US only to act through the support of multilateral organizations, etc., while libertarians would tend to want a more thorough-going withdrawal from international entanglements. But both tend to see an international scheme where the United States is no longer called to be leading international affairs, especially as concerns military action.

    For me, then it is a good Niebuhrian question whether we need a new push for American responsibility on the international scene today.

Comments are closed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!