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What Niebuhr would say about the US reaction to Ukraine

America's 20th century intelligentsia seemed better equipped to teach us about humility and restraint in war, at home and abroad.

Analysis | Europe

“I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.”

— Bob Dylan, "With God on Our Side"(1964)

In the 1950s and 1960s, The United States produced analysts of American politics and history of unparalleled brilliance. Among their number were Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, C. Vann Woodward, and the international relations thinker and Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

As the United States plunges headlong into a new cold war with Russia and China, it is urgently necessary to relearn the lessons they taught. Indeed, the failure to do so after 9/11 contributed greatly to the disasters of the “war on terror.” My own book on American nationalism had as its central purpose the revival of those lessons – in vain.

These men had lived through the great historical turning points of the mid-20th century: the rise of Nazism and the Second World War; the appearance of nuclear weapons; the start of the Cold War; and (most importantly, from a U.S. point of view), the transformation of the United States itself into a permanently mobilized global military superpower. 

From their observations about Nazism and Stalinist communism, they understood the meaning of true political evil — unlike many of today’s liberal intellectuals who employ this word as a propaganda tool against foreign leaders who often do not differ significantly in their basic ideas or ethics (or lack of them) from the cold-blooded apparatchiks who infest the institutions of Washington D.C. 

These scholars’ deep grounding in history and philosophy gave them a breadth of culture and an independence of vision that are rapidly vanishing from contemporary academia. Living before the bitter political and cultural wars of the present era, they never had to contend with the warping effects of unconditional partisan loyalty.

Perhaps most importantly of all, having grown up in America before it became a military superpower with an embedded sense of global ideological mission, they shared a deep feeling not only for the essential character of America’s confrontation with Nazism and Communism, but also for how much it risked and lost as a result of the nature of that confrontation. Unlike the establishment political intelligentsia of today, these scholars did not take the military-industrial complex, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, or U.S. presence and interference in every region of the earth as simply natural givens. 

Their greatest works were written during and between two disasters that starkly revealed the darker sides of American culture: McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. Both had deep roots in American culture that they sought to analyze and explain. 

McCarthyism gave rise to two of the greatest works on American political culture since Tocqueville: Richard Hoftstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. From different angles, both sought to explain how a country officially dedicated to freedom of speech and the rule of law could periodically succumb to episodes of collective hysteria involving the suppression of free speech and the violation of basic legality and due process. In Hartz’s words:

“Here is a doctrine which everywhere in the West has been a glorious symbol of individual liberty, yet in America its compulsive power has been so great that it has posed a threat to liberty itself…when this germ is fed by the explosive power of modern nationalism, it mushrooms into something pretty remarkable.”

Hofstadter saw the demonization of domestic opponents as foreign-inspired traitors as particularly characteristic of the Republican Party. Recently, however, we have seen that Democrats are equally susceptible to this temptation, from a similar combination of political opportunism and genuine paranoia. For example, both left and right members of the establishment have joined in seeking to demonize and silence those who have called for compromise with Russia over Ukraine.

From the point of view of U.S. foreign policy, most important of all is these scholars’ examination of the roots of American democratic messianism, myths of national innocence and accompanying self-righteousness, and how these characteristics could fuse with and help justify national hatreds and intense ruthlessness and savagery. 

Reinhold Niebuhr, who as a theologian was acutely aware of human fallibility and the ability of sin to cloak itself in virtue, warned of these tendencies in American character in his great work, The Irony of American History. (The preface to the kindle edition is by Quincy Institute’s president, Andrew Bacevich). Niebuhr played a key role in rallying liberal American intellectuals to oppose international communism but he also wrote the following about the Cold War atmosphere in the United States:

“Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddies 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…

There is no simple triumph over this spirit of fear and hatred. It is certainly an achievement beyond the resources of a simple idealism. For naïve idealists are always so preoccupied with their own virtues that they have no residual awareness of the common characteristics in all human foibles and frailties, and could not bear to be reminded that there is a hidden kinship between the vices of even the most vicious and the virtues of even the most righteous.”

We should remember these words when thinking about U.S. reactions to the present war in Ukraine. For on the one hand, there is entirely justified outrage at the Russian invasion and its cruel effects on the Ukrainian people, and justifiable loathing for the Putin regime that carried out this act of aggression. 

On the other, as highlighted by Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg and David Sanger in the New York Times, there are powerful elements in the U.S. establishment (and its British clients) that appear totally uninterested in the well-being of ordinary Ukrainians and are prepared to sacrifice enormous numbers of them by deliberately prolonging the war indefinitely in an effort to bring down the Putin regime, weaken or even destroy the Russian state, and isolate China. 

To this end, they are threatening to extend intensive sanctions even after a peace settlement (thereby removing one of the greatest incentives to Moscow to make peace) on the grounds that Russia must be “punished” for its invasion; seeking to block a peace settlement by insisting on conditions that no Russian government could meet; and calling for Putin to be tried as a war criminal (before an International Criminal Court that the United States itself does not recognize). This crudely Realist strategy, however, is cloaked in the language of hyper-moralism and legalism.

In these circumstances, to recall America’s own acts of aggression and violations of international law over the past generation is not an exercise in rhetorical “whataboutism.” It is an essential exercise in the sort of basic honesty, humility and self-examination called for by Niebuhr, as well as an essential basis for the pursuit of an equitable and lasting peace in Ukraine. As C. Vann Woodward wrote:

“The irony of the moralistic approach, when exploited by nationalism, is that the high motive to end injustice and immorality actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundations of the political and moral order upon which peace has to be built.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers remarks to U.S. Congress, March 16, 2022. (CSPAN/screenshot)
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