“The tragedy of man,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “is that he can conceive self-perfection, but cannot achieve it.”
This line does not come from Reinhold Niebuhr’s great work The Irony of American History, but it encapsulates its tone as well as any that actually does. Niebuhr’s book is probably not, “the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy,” as it has somewhat dramatically been described as, but it cannot be too far off.
Written in the early years of the Cold War, Niebuhr indentified the challenge to the American national soul that would arise in the struggle for world supremacy against Soviet Communism. Although the book is in many ways a document of the Cold War, its lessons will remain relevant as long as there is an America to have a foreign policy.
The Communists were intoxicated by the idea that they alone had mastered history. With this conviction firm in mind, there was no evil that could not be committed in the name of a glorious future. Niebuhr rightly saw this toxic ideology as a threat to the world that it fell to America to combat.
However, the United States was in great danger of becoming too convinced of its own righteousness in the course of combating something so obviously evil. America is a nation born in the idea that it was destined to be a virtuous example for all mankind, free of the corruptions of the Old World. Both New England Puritanism and Jeffersonian Deism, the two religious trends that Niebuhr sees as having shaped our national soul, agree on that, if nothing else.
This tendency can lead us into two dangerous directions. On one end are the isolationists who are convinced that America is never righteous enough to do anything on the world stage and is fit for nothing other than staying home and ruminating on its own misdeeds. On the other are the crusaders who believe that there is no evil that this nation can commit that will not ultimately end up justified by the correctness of our cause.
Neither is correct. Foreign policy must be conducted humbly and self-critically, but it cannot be passive. There are threats in the world that only the United States is capable of dealing with and we cannot shrink from them. Nations are not subject to the same moral requirements we demand of individuals.
Niebuhr’s great contribution was his call for a foreign policy grounded in Christian thought, though in a way that would be unrecognizable to many in Washington today. Religion should serve not to convince policymakers of the righteousness of what they are doing, but should instead serve as a check on their ambitions, to remind them that they are mortal and fallible beings capable of making immense mistakes.
They cannot control history. History, instead, controls them, whether they are aware of it or not. When a policymaker is intoxicated by righteousness, convinced that they alone can master the tides of history, they are no longer fit to make policy.