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An Unexceptional Nation

Neocons have begun to warm to Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision. What they’ve liked about his recent speeches (at West Point, but far more so in Oslo) is his willingness to defend (against the anti-political pacifism that dominates a segment of elite European opinion) the idea that there can be morally justified wars—and that the war in Afghanistan is one of them. I’m delighted that some on the American right have come around to supporting the president, but they should do so knowing that on one crucially important matter Obama will never satisfy them. That is the issue of American exceptionalism.

For the tradition of Christian realism from which the president’s foreign policy views derive, the United States is all-too-inclined toward what Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described as the “perpetual utterance of self-applause.” Neoconservatism has many facets, but the one that dominates today defines itself primarily by the opposite conviction—namely, that the United States suffers above all from a lack of self-confidence. That’s why neocon essays and editorials so often take the form of pep talks designed to serve as rhetorical standing ovations in our national honor.  

For Reinhold Niebuhr, the greatest exponent of Christian realism, this gets things exactly backward—and threatens to encourage the very aspect of America’s national character that most needs to be moderated or restrained. “Every nation has its own form of spiritual pride,” Niebuhr noted in The Irony of American History (1952), and the American version takes the form of the myth that “our nation turned its back upon the vices of Europe and made a new beginning”—a beginning marked by moral purity and the special favor of God. This uniquely American self-understanding has tended to inspire national over-confidence with regard to our virtue.

Niebuhr maintains that American over-confidence makes us a nation impatient with various limitations that are coeval with the human condition. We are, first of all, impatient with limits on our knowledge and power. Convinced that God is on our side, we lack the humility to accept that “the whole drama of human history is . . . too large for human comprehension or management.” We are likewise impatient with limitations on the degree of moral purity—especially our own—that is possible in political life.

Niebuhr rightly remarks that Americans nearly always mean well when they act in the world. Our moral perils are thus “not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power.” Yet the rules of the world are such that good intentions—even our own—often lead to unintended bad consequences. This is a lesson we seem incapable of learning, or remembering, so eager are we to deny that the actions of even “the best men and nations” are “curious compounds of good and evil.” And this leads to a third, distinctly American form of impatience—one that expresses itself in an attitude of impotent defiance toward “the slow and sometimes contradictory processes of history.” We desperately want to believe that we are contributing to the realization of God’s plans for humanity, but we find it exceedingly difficult to accept that the path humanity will take on the way to its appointed end is as obscure to us as the precise shape of the end itself.

Having imagined ourselves standing by God’s side as his trusted lieutenant, we half believe he has granted us wisdom and power comparable to his. But this is folly, a prideful delusion as old as Genesis 3. In Niebuhr’s view America needs regularly self-administered doses of humility. It needs to recognize that like the shapes discovered in the amorphous ink blots of a Rorschach test, patterns detected in history are unavoidably subjective, reflecting the necessarily narrow standpoint of the person or nation proposing the interpretation. Seeing and judging the whole with accuracy transcends our meager powers, both because of our limited perspective and because of the passions, including self-love, that nearly always lead us to judge poorly when our own case is involved. All of which is why, according to Niebuhr, we must “moderate our conceptions of the ability of men and of nations to discern the future.”

The point is not that patriots and politicians should abandon their faith that American power can play a positive role in the world. It is that they should act with caution in applying that power. Above all, they need to take the lessons of humility closely to heart and resist the temptation to view themselves as God’s agents in history. To do otherwise—to view their policies as having been personally authored or approved by the divine—is foolishness that will tend to distort their judgment, inspiring the distinctly American over-confidence that Niebuhr warned against so powerfully. Then there is a different temptation—one that needs to be resisted by believing and skeptical politicians alike. This is the urge to use exceptionalist rhetoric and the hopes and expectations it raises to mold and manipulate public opinion for the sake of political gain.

Many American politicians, from George Washington to George W. Bush, have succumbed to these temptations. Yet the case of Barack Obama may be different. Not only does Obama follow Niebuhr’s teaching very closely, but in his public rhetoric he clearly strives to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln—the public figure Niebuhr singles out for having left behind a public meditation on American exceptionalism that lives on to teach us by example. In his second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War was at long last drawing to a close, Lincoln somehow managed to step back from his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army to achieve a broader perspective on the conflict as a whole. Rather than praising the North for its victory or denigrating the cause of the defeated South, Lincoln spoke in tones of irony—of each side’s invocation of the blessings of the divine against the other. If providence was at work in the slaughter of the Civil War, it could be seen not, or not simply, in the triumph of the Union, but in the incalculable suffering of soldiers and citizens on both sides—as divine retribution for the national sin of slavery. But Lincoln did not permit even this humbling thought to serve as a consolation. For not even this possible theological meaning of the slaughter, or its ultimate outcome, could be known with any certainty. All the nation could do was hope and pray for an end to the conflict—and humbly accept whatever providence might bring.

Lincoln thus managed to invoke the idea of American theological exceptionalism while avoiding the vices it so often encourages. Which is why Niebuhr described the speech as an “almost perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization . . . while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle.” It was a considerable achievement—and one that our current president apparently wishes to emulate. So far the neocons have been receptive to the message. But will it continue, as the president combines military action with efforts to rein in the country’s theologically inflated vision of itself? Only if they begin at long last to learn their Niebuhrian lessons.

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