The prescience of Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Amazon’s Kindle, despite its very basic software, is the ability to make notes. Heavily graffitied, dog-eared paperbacks could well be a thing of the past, although my copy of Moby Dick with every third page in a right state will always be a little precious to me. As I said, the software is limited, and so all notes and clippings are piled into one document, and yesterday I was searching that document for a particularly compelling paragraph I’d ‘clipped’ from Howard’s End, and stumbled across the digital annotating I’d done whilst reading The Irony of American History. Niebuhr is, without doubt, my favourite philosopher and my intellectual hero, and his wisdom is unforgettable. What I had forgotten, however, just how prescient he could be. Not only can you see a great deal of the path the Cold War was to take hinted at, but Niebuhr also foresaw much of what we face in the America-dominated early 21st century, and so I present some brief passages from a book published sixty years ago.

-The charge is the more absurd since it is quite probable that the American class structure will become more fixed as the nation moves toward the final limits of an expanding economy.

-The second weakness in the American political and economic situation is that the lip service which the whole culture pays to the principles of laissez-faire makes for tardiness in dealing with the instability of a free economy, when the perils of inflation or deflation arise. They are finally dealt with pragmatically; but not before the consequences of inaction have become very apparent. Some believe that the lessons taught in the great depression of 1929 have been so well learned that a recurrence of such a catastrophe is impossible; but it is not altogether certain that this is true.

-A nation with an inordinate degree of political power is doubly tempted to exceed the bounds of historical possibilities, if it is informed by an idealism which does not understand the limits of man’s wisdom and volition in history.

-It is important, therefore, that the fragmentary wisdom of any nation should be prevented from achieving the bogus omniscience, which occurs when the weak are too weak to dare challenge the opinion of the powerful.

-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. A democracy can not of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable.

-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.

There’s much, much more to be found in the book itself, and many more bits of prescient wisdom that I clipped and could have shared. It is not without cause that The Irony of American History is considered by some to be the most important book ever written about American foreign policy. It is, to my mind, a must-read for anyone with a real interest in understanding American power, and indeed the role of power in international relations more generally.