President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech: Embracing the Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr
Felice, William F., Social Justice
AFTER PRESIDENT OBAMA CITED CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN AND ETHICIST REINHOLD Niebuhr (1892-1971) as one of his favorite philosophers, the blogosphere erupted with commentary on what this might portend for the foreign policy of the new administration. Niebuhr had been known as the "pastor to the Presidents," with many, including Jimmy Carter, mentioning his influence on their moral reasoning. In recognition of his lasting impact on the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson awarded Niebuhr the Medal of Freedom in 1964. Pundits have had a field day speculating on the possible implications of Obama's self-defined connection to the ethics of Niebuhr. Will the foreign policy decision-making of the Obama administration thus mirror that of Carter, or that of other past presidents influenced by Niebuhr?
Mark Tooley describes Niebuhr as "probably the 20th century's finest ethicist in the liberal Protestant tradition," representing the school of "Christian realism." The rise of Nazism led Niebuhr to believe in a "transcendent evil" and he supported the war against Hitler. He criticized pacifists and Christian idealists who thought that force could never be justified (Tooley, 2009). Instead, Niebuhr argued: "Since reason is always, to some degree, the servant of interest in a social situation, social injustice cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone, as the educator and social scientist usually believes. Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power" (Niebuhr, 1932: xiv-xv). But even when force is justified, as in World War II (which he believed was a just war), he maintained that there were moral limits to the use of military power. Niebuhr, for example, criticized the Allied bombing of cities and questioned the use of nuclear weapons by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After World War II, he supported the efforts to contain Communism, but he strongly opposed the Vietnam War, and in general thought that U.S. involvement in unwinnable land wars in Asia was unwise (Tooley, 2009).
Niebuhr explained his views of human nature and politics in his influential book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, which was later cited by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." In this work, Niebuhr asserts that people are capable of doing good, but groups are driven by "predatory self-interest." Niebuhr explains: "Individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience.... [This] symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups, they take for themselves whatever their power can command" (Niebuhr, 1932: 9).
During a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Obama explained what he learned from Niebuhr and why he called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher." "I take away," Brooks quoted Obama as saying, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism" (Brooks, 2007).
Great-nephew Gustav Niebuhr points out that Obama's political rhetoric often reflects Niebuhr's worldview. He notes, for example, that both Obama and his great-uncle avoid moral absolutes (i.e., good versus evil; you're with us or you're against us) and realize that "the U.S. is not always right and its enemies not always evil." Gustav Niebuhr pointed to Obama's Cairo speech to the Arab world, in which the president acknowledged the U.S. role in undermining and helping to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950s and avoided a "clash of civilizations" framework that can imply that the United States is free of moral stain. Gustav Niebuhr continues: "We can't see ourselves as the ultimate arbiter for what's good and moral. Reinhold would say to do that is to claim a perfectionism that doesn't belong to human beings" (Blake, 2010).
There were definite connections between Niebuhr's ethics and the moral framework put forward by Obama in his Nobel speech. After acknowledging the power of the nonviolent civil rights movement by declaring that he was a "living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence," Obama went on to argue that force is at times necessary and stated: "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies." "Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." These sentiments clearly echo Niebuhr's critique of Christian pacifists (Obama, 2009). (1)
Obama Defines a "Just War"
George Bush was clearly not interested in the limitations on force outlined in "just war" theory when he decided to circumvent diplomacy and preemptively invade and occupy Iraq in 2003. The just war ethical framework on the use of force did not appear to affect his foreign policy. Bush administration officials, of course, tried to justify their actions with moral language (good versus evil) and utilitarian calculations (the ends justify the means). Yet, these arguments fell way outside the basic understanding of just war theory embodied in jus ad bellum (the decision to go to war) and jus in bello (the treatment of prisoners and civilians during the war). Even though the Bush administration ignored it, just war theory did provide a useful framework for critiquing and morally evaluating both the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq and the conduct of the generals and troops in the field.
The tenets of just war theory are well known. In Oslo, Obama summarized the theory as follows: "Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics, and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech: Embracing the Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr. Contributors: Felice, William F. - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 37. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2010. Page number: 47+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.