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.