Essays & Reviews

More on Niebuhr: Should Strategy Be Un-Grand?

We previously published a post that summarized the views of Paul D. Miller (Clements Center, University of Texas at Austin) on the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  Miller reviewed the current debate over Niebuhr’s legacy, particularly his well-known admonitions against self-righteousness and utopian idealism.  Miller contended that the focus on this aspect of Niebuhr’s thought by many contemporary realists ignores full range of his arguments about democracy and the limits of the balance of power (vice justice) as an element in maintaining international order.

Daniel Clausen and Max Nurnus, writing for The Diplomat, take a different perspective on Niebuhr, as a way of praising the Obama administration’s stated approach to international politics (as laid out in the recently-released National Security Strategy), which recognizes that our resources and influence are not infinite” and that America must rely on “strategic patience and persistence.”

President Obama, who has said that his thinking on international relations was influenced by Niebuhr, warned in a subsequent interview of the temptation to see quick fixes for complex problems.  His agenda was said to be one of humility: “You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.”

This, in contrast with what Obama (and Clausen and Nurnus) regard as the overreaching of the George W. Bush administration. Even if a future administration is less reluctant to use force than Obama clearly is, “they do not need to create constructs of hubris. They can search for forms of strategy, less than grand, that are at once thoughtful, skeptical, and grounded in an understanding that the lessons of history may be beyond our grasp. . . . they must be cautious not to succumb to fantasies of ideal solutions – whether it is democracy promotion, world empire, or preventive war.”

Clausen and Nurnus believe that Niebuhr’s writing can be read as a cautionary tale about the perils of Grand Strategy – at least when it reaches the extremes of idealism or hubris. Democracy keeps us away from the hubris of grand forms of strategy that can lead to calamities on grand scales.  Thus, what lies at the heart of Niebuhr’s philosophy can make up the core of a new un-Grand Strategy tradition. This core would be based on pragmatism, empirical skepticism, and emotional maturity.

  • Pragmatism (with equal measures of humility):  Given that history may have designs beyond our comprehension, policymakers should be cautious and humble. While perfect solutions will be out of reach, policymakers can still “discern extreme forms of each evil very clearly; aid also to recognize various shades of evil between the extremes and the norm.”
  • Empirical Skepticism:  At the heart of Niebuhr’s approach was a distrust of the scientization of policy, which tended to dream up ideal solutions and to artificially enclose the randomness of social life in idealized forms.  As Niebuhr himself says, “we must moderate the extravagance of our theory by the soberness of our practice.” 
  • Emotional Maturity: We must realize the limitation of our own knowledge and acknowledge that even our most strongly held virtues will not always work in a world fraught with dangers.  An appreciation of ironic elements of human history can provide humility and resilience in the face of inevitable frustration. Niebuhr therefore spoke of the “difficulty of our own powerful nation in coming to terms with the frustrations of history, and our impatience with a situation” – and warned of the danger of shying away from acknowledging these unpleasantries.

I suppose one question for those who study the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy, is, whether grand strategy must inevitably be grandiose and hence subject to meet failure at the hand of the ironies of history.  Here we might consult the case studies in Hal Brands’ 2014 book, What Good Is Grand Strategy?: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush.  Brands argues that, on the one hand, grand strategy is essential – yet extremely difficult to get right amid the turbulence of global affairs and the chaos of domestic politics.  It is full of potential pitfalls on the long road between conception and implementation.  Perhaps that recognition itself, born of the careful study of history and recent experience, is sufficient to overcome the tendencies towards extreme solutions.

We would note, however, as does Brands, that the Truman and Reagan administration’s pursued rather grandiose goals with a fair bit of success, if not to perfection, employing what at the time were often regarded as risky means.  Only in retrospect can we judge those means to be pragmatic.  (Brands lays out a series of lessons learned from these and less successful attempts at grand strategy).

Another question is the degree to which democracy may provide a self-correcting mechanism to grand strategic hubris (Clausen and Nurnus say so, without elaboration); or whether the dynamics of democratic politics may push or enable policymakers to excess.  The American constitutional order heretofore has succeeded well enough, as public opinion has been able to reject both foreign policy immoderation as well as dangerous passivity.  The cost of the time lag has sometimes been high, although not fatal to the constitutional order or to fundamental American interests.  And it required (or brought about, depending on one’s point of view) the coincidence of a presidential genius with the needs of the times.  Other democracies have not been so successful in this regard, for reasons that should be considered seriously.

The imperatives of coalition (alliance) management, one of the major features of grand strategy, likewise may encourage moderation, although coalition partners sometimes may also be the source of pressures to exceed what unsentimental logic might dictate.

Finally, one might reflect on non-Biblical, non-pragmatic sources of moderation in foreign policy.  In his examination of Thucydides, Leo Strauss explores the perspective of classical political philosophy on this subject.

There is no short and easy answer to this question from the classical perspective, but to offer layman’s shorthand (excuses to those with much greater sophistication):  the clear superiority of rest (peace) to motion (war), for the health of the rightly-constructed regime, is such as to indicate the advantages of a moderate approach to what we would call international politics (indeed, it would indicate complete isolation from other regimes, if such were feasible).  But as other regimes may not behave in similar fashion, indeed, may threaten one’s own existence, there is may be a necessity to expand and engage in warfare; but with the ultimate focus on the good of one’s own domestic order, and not for the good of any other domestic order; nor is there any intrinsic worth in empire.