August 9, 2009

The Irony of American History

I had the good fortune of reading a book praised by Dr. Andrew Bacevich as the "most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy." The Irony of American History is a book that does not fit neatly into a single genre. It is a work of philosophy, theology, foreign policy analysis, international relations theory and sociology written in impeccable prose. Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian, professor and writer, can be described as the founder of Christian Realism. Christian Realism is a conceptual framework which pursues a clear-eyed comprehension of world events, and principally recommends a humble approach to international relations and history.

The genius of Niebuhr's book rests less with its multi-disciplinary postulations, as impressive as those are, and more with its vision of man, the state and history. To Niebuhr, the individual human is virtually mystic by definition. Scientific and ideological approaches claiming to interpret/predict his/her behavior are bound to err. He laments the fact that "the realm of freedom which allows the individual to make his decisions within, above and beyond the pressure of causal sequences is beyond the realm of scientific analysis." Modern culture's tendency to behaviorize man prompts some to endeavor to manage human nature itself.

Attempts to manage human nature engender delusions about managing history as well. In the author's words, "[m]odern man's confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history. Modern man's confidence in his virtue caused an equally unequivocal rejection of the Christina idea of ambiguity of human virtue. In the liberal world the evils in human nature and history were ascribed to social institutions or to ignorance or to some other manageable defect in human nature or environment." It follows from this reasoning that human nature and history are improvable. Such a task, Niebuhr would argue, is a fool's errand. The irony is we are as guilty as our foes of that charge. The irony is also glaring in the contradiction between preaching and practice. In Niebuhr's era, for example, the Communists sought to establish a just, free and classless society that would eventually supplant the state through a coercive totalitarian state. The United States, furthermore, was (and is) the vanguard of free liberal nations through the most powerful army in the world. The former failed to found such a community, and the latter sacrificed a lot of its liberty.

The Irony of American History, Bacevich contends, contains four compelling "truths." These are the "persistent sin of American Exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions, and, finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power." First, the idea that whatever America does must, in essence, be virtuous and right is derived from the way the national myth was devised. Niebuhr explicates America was, in many ways, the new Israel of the chosen people, or rather people who chose to discard the "vices of Europe" and start afresh "in a corrupt world." Washington's emergence as the zenith of world power after World War II did not seem to alter the way Americans perceive their providentially-favored country. Niebuhr himself does not cringe from using such terms as "imperialism" and "hegemony" to describe America's superpower status. In the Niebuhrian paradigm, there is no room for terms like "reluctant intervention" or good vs. evil. Virtue is a lot more ambiguous than we are likely to confess.

Second, the forces of history are far greater than our oft-misguided attempts to manipulate its outcome. These forces are virtually impossible to quantify or neatly delineate. Niebuhr decries that "[m]odern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management." He further admonishes that even superpowers are "caught in a web of history in which many desires, hopes, wills, and ambitions other than their own are operative." Also, "the recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning." The unfortunate example of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq comes to mind. All the arms and contractors of the world's sole superpower failed to render Iraq the type of a safe democratic nation, Washington may have envisioned. This points ties to the following "truths;" power, particularly its military component, is less efficacious (and less desirable) than we may think. Niebuhr advised equilibrium rather than coercive change. The nation's leader must find the common areas where national and international interests meet, not diverge. This is the "art of statecraft." He finally recommends "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history's] perplexities."

So what is so ironic about America's history? I'll leave you with Niebuhr's definition of irony, and it'll probably make you reflect on our nation's history. "Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous…If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic." Niebuhr is correct about the irony inherent in these situations, but the irony is universal to all great powers, not merely America.


* Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.


Matt said...

Not having read the book in question or studied the author, my comments may be mistaken in their interpretations.

Perhaps the point of greatest disagreement between myself and Niebuhr is his image of man as "mystic by definition." While hardly at the point of definitive understanding, modern fields such as behavioral economics and neuropsychology have made leaps in bounds in our ability to predict and influence human actions. In addition, despite much disagreement, the study of IR theory has rapidly developed in recent years and produced pretty convincing models to predict the impact of global events.

In addition, Niebuhr may deride our pursuit of such knowledge, but it is clear that "behaviorization" can be beneficial to people and may help solve some of the most troubling conflicts. His ideal sounds nice, but ultimately it is impractical.

Another one of Niebuhr's follies is his argument that man should not try to influence "historical destiny." This is a prime example of poor logic, as is it not human action's that form history? There is no path that cannot be altered, shifted, created or destroyed by the actions of a person or group of people. A more appropriate analysis would be that such change is difficult to effect with any accurate idea of what change may occur, but, as I stated before, we are constantly improving our ability to influence actions in specific ways.

This finally brings me to Niebuhr's second irony. Niebuhr seems to be arguing from a overly Christian and overly twentieth century point of view. His focus on man's need for "humility," his view of history and the world as "too large for human comprehension and management" is much too narrow, as is your assessment of George W. Bush's failure in Iraq. It is not that people cannot manipulate outcomes, nor can it be assumed that because George W. Bush threw everything he had at Iraq, the hope for a "safe democratic nation" there is an untenable pursuit.

Rather, I would argue that such manipulation requires the right kind of actions, in concert with the proper pursuit of knowledge. The Bush administration did not seek to understand Iraq as it was, instead assuming that all cultures are alike in thoughts and behavior (or, even worse, that such distinctions are unimportant). I have no doubt that, had the proper actions consistent with a comprehensive understanding of Iraqi culture and social construct been taken, we would see a far better situation in Iraq and, yes, perhaps even a safe democratic nation.

We are not there yet. By no means can we claim to be able to target and manipulate events, on the micro or macro level, in an exact manner. But it seems that Niebuhr rejects even the possibility that progress can or should be made in such fields. I would argue that these topics should continue to be explored, as the advancement of human understanding is a major mechanism that spurs the forward progress of society and may provide major benefits for all people in the future.

Mike said...

Matt, briefly, the decision to invade depended on our misunderstanding of Iraq. It was not the "correct way" to invade and occupy that country, nor was it the correct time, as Iraq was not a threat to us.

Yasser, thank you for bringing this book to my attention.


Yasser M. El-Shimy said...

You are welcome, Mike. The book is very much worth your while.

Matt, I doubt Niebuhr is arguing humans are incapable of changing events and outcomes. What he is arguing, rather, is that they tend to uniformly overestimate their ability to yield desirable outcomes. Niebuhr warned before Vietnam, Cambodia or Iraq that the use of power can hardly mold historical developments in forms akin to our liking. In most cases, he would say it backfired.

As for the issue of behaviorialism, suffice it to say that there is a sharp distinction between social science and natural science. The latter is founded on clear, unchanging physical laws. If A, then B. Or 1+1=2. Social science, conversely, leaves a lot of room for the ambiguous and the ambivalent. There are no hard laws governing human actions. Agency, or the ability to freely choose a course of action, must be taken into account in any social science. This is why in social sciences, there are patterns, tendencies and probabilities. In natural sciences, there are laws, equations, rules, etc.

Niebuhr not only deemed that modelling human behavior is erroneous, but he also did not think it was desirable in and of itself.