William Galston on Niebuhr and Doubt

I met Andrei Cherny at the same party at which the Secretary of the Army first approached me about becoming General Counsel of the United States Army (that I became General Counsel eight months later speaks volumes about the length of the vetting process in Washington, D.C. at the time). Andrei was quite impressive. A former Senior Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Cherny was the youngest White House speechwriter in American history. In 2000, Cherny was the lead negotiator and chief drafter of the national Democratic Party platform. At the time we met, Andrei was working on his first book, The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age, one of the top-selling political books of 2001.

Andrei now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and works for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. But that is only his day job. He is also co-Editor (with Ken Baer) of a very interesting new policy magazine Democracy. It is well worth a read.

In the current issue, William Galston has a very interesting essay about the importance of doubt in American politics. In particular, he identifies the "moral doubt" of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, as the type of doubt that progressives should adopt as they face policy issues:

A keen observer, Niebuhr noted what he termed a "deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America." Not only do we regard ourselves as a chosen people, a new Israel, and a city on a hill, but also, he said, we consider our government as the "final and universally valid form of political organization." Most of the time, fortunately, we seek to promote its spread through peaceful processes of imitation and moral attraction: "Only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees."

Instead, Niebuhr wrote, our success in world politics depends upon our ability "to establish community with many nations despite the pride of power on the one hand and the envy of the weak on the other." We have inherited the resentments produced by centuries of European imperialism and colonialism, which further complicates our diplomacy. As we seek to promote freedom and self-government around the world, Niebuhr contended, we must reckon with the reality that many nations lack the preconditions for a rapid transition to democracy. And we must also reckon with our longstanding incapacity to comprehend the distinctive characteristics of other nations. As Niebuhr observes, Americans "can understand the neat logic of either economic reciprocity or the show of pure power. But we are mystified by the endless complexities of human motives and the varied compounds of ethnic loyalties, cultural traditions, social hopes, envies, and fears which enter into the policies of nations, and which lie at the foundation of their political cohesion."

These cautionary notes were not an invitation to disengagement 50 years ago, nor should they be today. History has given us no such option. Now, as then, we have enemies who cannot be defeated by withdrawing from the world stage. Now, as then, our power brings with it responsibilities to others. The question is not whether to act, but how–to what end, and in what spirit. This entails perennial, unavoidable risks, spiritual as well as material. We may be able to change our circumstances, but we cannot change our nature. In Niebuhr’s words, "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous action to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent of particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimated."

In the end, there is no substitute for moral doubt, and for the moral honesty and realism to which it leads. While America is an unusually fortunate nation, it is not a distinctively virtuous nation. For its leaders to believe otherwise is to delude themselves and pander to the people. Under most circumstances, the best that can be expected is that powerful nations will conduct themselves so as to promote the interests of other nations while serving their own. The great successes of U.S. foreign policy after World War II rested, not on altruism, but on enlightened self-interest. The tragedy of current policy is that too many nations have come to see a contradiction between America’s interests and their own.

In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr quotes an unidentified European statesman as expressing the fear that "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." Half a century later, this same asymmetry of power persists, which renders our imperfections all the more damaging. The absence of moral doubt makes it far too difficult to recognize and rectify our mistakes. The cure, Niebuhr teaches, is the humility that comes from the acceptance of limits to human striving. One can only hope that this long-overdue humility will not be the bitter fruit of national humiliation.

Read it all.


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