Reinhold Niebuhr and the ‘War against Terrorism’

One of the surprising things looking now at Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘The Irony of American History’ is how few mentions there are of Islam. To him the ‘Oriental religions’ are Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Shintoism. Nevertheless, there are some interesting analogies which his discussions of the struggle against Communism brings. The book was written at the height of the Cold War (1952), with Stalin still in power, the Korean War being fought and the threat of Communism being adopted by many Third World countries and even triumphing in parts of Europe. Niebuhr hated Communism as evil, but he was careful to distinguish it from Nazism:

There is no wisdom in the constant iterations of slogans in which liberty is contrasted with tyranny; and in which this tyranny is so defined that the utopian illusions, which nourish it, are obscured. Communism is not merely another version of Nazism. Nazism was a morally cynical creed which defied every norm of justice. It represented a moral nihilism which could have developed only in the decay of a highly developed and sophisticated civilization. Communism is a morally utopian creed which has a much wider appeal than Nazism because it speaks in the name of justice rather than in defiance of justice; and it is ostensibly devoted to the establishment of a universal society, rather than to the supremacy of a race or nation. The fact that its illusory hopes are capable of generating cruelties and tyrannies, exceeding even those of a cynical creed, can be understood only if it is realized how much more plausible and dangerous the corruption of the good can be in human history than explicit evil.

All the modern comment about Islamo-fascism tends to obscure the fact that in this way Islamism [in the sense of the desire to establish a widespread Islamic state/caliphate] is closer to Communism than Nazism. In fact, I’m not sure what Islamo-fascism really means except ‘it’s bad’ – there is clearly anti-semitism in Islamism, but there was in Communism as well, and I’m not sure it’s intrinsic to Islamism., as it was to Nazism. The other parallel with Communism is that it is in theory possible to have Islamism without violence: ‘tamed’ Communist parties have existed (for example in Italy and India), which participate in democracies and abide by unfavourable election results. (In contrast, Nazism can’t be fitted into a democratic system: its core beliefs of the right of might are alien to democracy). If there are groups who want to establish a Muslim state in Britain, I’m prepared to accept their existence, provided that they will work only via attempts at individual conversion/persuasion and eschew violence.

Niebuhr was also far-sighted in starting to discuss the implications of the USA being the dominant power in the world. He was already accepting, for example, European concerns about America as legitimate:

Significantly the same world which only yesterday feared our possible return to adolescent irresponsibility is now exercised about the possibilities of the misuse of our power. We would do well to understand the legitimacy of such fears rather than resent their seeming injustice. It is characteristic of human nature, whether in its individual or collective expression, that it has no possibility of exercising power, without running the danger of overestimating the purity of the wisdom which directs it. The apprehensions of allies and friends is, therefore, but a natural human reaction to what men intuitively know to be the temptations of power. A European statesman stated the issue very well recently in the words: “We are grateful to America for saving us from communism. But our gratitude does not prevent us from fearing that we might become an American colony. That danger lies in the situation of America’s power and Europe’s weakness.” The statesman, when reminded of the strain of genuine idealism in American life, replied: “The idealism does indeed prevent America from a gross abuse of its power. But it might well accentuate the danger Europeans confront. For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself.”

Niebuhr sees some advantages to the world in American predominance, because it can help provide international order and coherence.

Nevertheless, great disproportions of power are as certainly moral hazards to justice and community as they are foundations of minimal order. They are hazards to community both because they arouse resentments and fears among those who have less power; and because they tempt the strong to wield their power without too much consideration of the interests and views of those upon whom it impinges.

Niebuhr sees two possible ways of ensuring that international power serves justice. One is via international organisations such, as the UN, seen (possibly rather idealistically) as ‘an organ in which even the most powerful of the democratic nations must bring their policies under the scrutiny of world opinion. Thus inevitable aberrations, arising from the pride of power, are corrected.’

The second control on power is via religious and moral checks on it. Here Niebuhr has a very interesting take on the key virtue; not justice, but humility:

The inclination “to give each man his due” is indeed one of the ends of such a discipline [of power]. But a sense of humility which recognizes that nations are even more incapable than individuals of fully understanding the rights and claims of others may be an even more important element in such a discipline. A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice. In so far as men and nations are “judges in their own case” they are bound to betray the human weakness of having a livelier sense of their own interest than of the competing interest. That is why “just” men and nations may easily become involved in ironic refutations of their moral pretensions.

It is only via humility that genuine community between nations and individuals is possible:

This includes the charitable realization that the vanities of the other group or person, from which we suffer, is not different in kind, though possibly in degree, from similar vanities in our own life. It also includes a religious sense of the mystery and greatness of the other life, which we violate if we seek to comprehend it too simply from our standpoint.

Niebuhr, fifty years early, has put his finger on one of the most dangerous distortions of Bush’s America: that there is only possible view of the world, which is the American view and only one possible model for the good state: the American one. The delusions springing from these beliefs range from the ludicrous (that an acceptable constitution must provide for the separation of state and religion, which is news to most European countries) to the pernicious. For example, the repeated attempts to characterise the Arab TV station al-Jazeera as a terrorist organisation or part of ‘the enemy’ (see e.g. aren’t actually borne out by the facts. Al-Jazeera may be prone to sensationalism (how unlike our own beloved media), but it is a place of genuine debate and multiple viewpoints.

Niebuhr also has some prescient things to say about the dangerous effects of long ideological conflicts:

Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe. Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddles every pool of sanity. In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminate judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor.

This problem is common to any society, but Niebuhr also sees a particular danger to which the US might be prone, of impatience:

The fact that the European nations, more accustomed to the tragic vicissitudes of history, still have a measure of misgiving about our leadership in the world community is due to their fear that our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. 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.

Niebuhr’s ‘preventive war’, of course, was not Iraq, but a nuclear attack on the USSR, and thus far more cataclysmic, but for once he was sadly over-optimistic: ‘A democracy, of course, cannot engage in an explicit preventive war.’ Bush’s America is precisely what Niebuhr feared: a ‘pretentious idealism’, combined with great power and a vast lack of patience and charity.

PS: I’ve now found the full text of ‘The Irony of American History’, plus other works of Niebuhr’s online at:


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