From a Professor of mine when I was at Union, Gary Dorrien on Reinhold Niebuhr and Barack Obama:
In 1952 Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History, “We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the ‘happiness of mankind’ as its promise.” In The Structure of Nations and Empires, in 1959, he put it ruefully: “We are tempted to the fanatic dogma that our form of community is not only more valid than any other but that it is more feasible for all communities on all continents.” Niebuhr inveighed against his country’s innocent view of itself as the redeemer nation that invaded only to liberate. America was overdue for a dose of realism about its imperial ambitions, he urged. Any moral idealism not chastened by its own selfishness and that of others is pathetic and dangerous; at the same time, any realism lacking a moral dimension is corrupt.
By the latter standard, most realism is corrupt. For Hobbes, Machiavelli, and other founders of the realist tradition, the whole point of realism was to divorce politics from ethical factors. Niebuhr’s attempt to fuse realism to ethics, much less the love ethic of Jesus, constantly courted the danger of selling out the ethics. To hold together the worldly cynicism of the realist tradition and the theocentric morality of Jesus and the biblical prophets, one needs a very high tolerance for ambiguity and paradox. Even to try, as Niebuhr did, one has to be terribly serious about the scriptural injunctions to lift the yoke of oppression and build a just society. Otherwise the ethical part of Niebuhrian realism becomes mere window dressing for nationalistic will-to-power.
To many of Niebuhr’s critics during his heyday, that was exactly his legacy. After he was gone, liberation theologians said the same thing more forcefully and with greater effect. In the 1970s Niebuhr lost his high standing in theology after liberation theologians charged that Niebuhrian realism was too nationalistic, middle-class, white, and male-dominated to be liberating. Repeatedly Niebuhr’s thought was dismissed as an ideology supporting the economic and military interests of the United States.
But today Niebuhr is back in public discussion because he symbolizes, notably to Barack Obama, the possibility of a progressive realism that defends America’s interests more prudently and advances the cause of social justice. Niebuhr, like Obama, blends liberal internationalist and realist motifs, contending that multilateral cooperation is compatible with the power-seeking clash of nations. The case for a strong international community has a realistic basis, that the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs and risks of not working together. All parties are better off when the most powerful nations agree not to do everything that is in their power and nations work together to create new forms of collective security.
The early Niebuhr played up the irrelevance of Jesus’ love of perfectionism to politics, stressing that Jesus never talked about the realistic limits or consequences of social ethical choices. The later Niebuhr realized that the love ethic kept him and many others in the struggle, whether or not they succeeded. That was its political relevance. Justice could not be defined abstractly; it was a relational term that depended on the motive force of love. The meaning of justice could be determined only in the interaction of love and situation, through the mediation of Niebuhr’s three principles of justice—freedom, equality, and order.
Holding to a moral center while exercising power is notoriously difficult. President Obama is likely to find, while struggling with the difficulty, that he needs the counsel of Reinhold Niebuhr more than ever.