Between Niebuhr and Luce: The contradictions of Obama’s statecraft



What, if anything, does President Barack Obama believe about America’s role in the world? Beyond taking boots off the ground, being more polite and the Asia Pivot?

Does he believe in American exceptionalism? Does he believe America’s power is limited or limitless?

Its just not clear, nor would an amateur psychological appraisal be very useful. But we can see in his statements about the world two conflicting traditions.

Consider two of his speeches. At the Air Force Academy in May 2012, he announced:

I see an American Century because of the character of our country-the spirit that has always made us exceptional. It’s that simple yet revolutionary idea-there at our Founding and in our hearts ever since-that we have it in our power to make the world anew; to make the future what we will. It’s that fundamental faith-that American optimism-which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard. It’s the spirit that guides your class-“never falter, never fail.”

But about a year later, he struck a different chord at the National Defence University:

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.’

In May 2012, nothing was beyond Americans, who were exceptional and whose transformational power is limitless, and Obama invoked Thomas Paine to drive the point home. In May 2013, the world is one of tragic limits. America cannot alter the fallen nature of humankind. There are limits to its power, and it had to learn to live with insecurity.

Its tempting to regard these words purely as the opportunistic rhetorical shifts of a man who wanted to get re-elected by ramping up exceptionalist and nationalist rhetoric, and then dialled it down to justify bringing the war on terror to a close in favour of a leaner, quieter, and cheaper programme of counter-terrorism.

But Obama’s different rhetoric reflects something deeper – the combination in his world view of the spirit of Henry Luce, the magazine magnate and early visionary of the Pax Americana, and the Christian pessimist Rheinhold Niebuhr.

In a Life Magazine article in 1941, Henry Luce prophecied that the coming era would be an American Century, and that the struggle against the Axis was also a struggle for liberal democratic values worldwide, one that knew no frontiers.

In spirit, Obama has echoed that logic of a world state with an unbounded domain. At times, he has talked about the expansive extent of America’s security interests. He is, after all, a ruler who authorises assassinations at a record scale. He escalated a war in Afghanistan. He bombed Libya. And he invites emerging powers of the future to play by American rules and accept American leadership. Rhetorically, he defies pessimists never to bet against America. He spoke of ‘red lines’ in Syria that the American-led world would not tolerate tyrants like Assad crossing. More on that in a minute.

But Rheinhold Niebuhr is also an important intellectual and moral influence on Obama. For the anti-utopian Niebuhr, American exceptionalism was flawed because it lost sight of the fallen nature of creation, the tragic and imperfect nature of international relations, and the ironic patterns of unintended consequences to be found in history.

In this vein, Obama talks of prudence, the elusive quality that recognises the conflicted nature of political problems and the need to negotiate and trade off between competing things – a far cry from the sense of unlimited power of the indispensable nation. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he dwelt in an almost Augustinian way on the dilemmas and agonies of making policy in a world fallen from grace.

In practice, Obama was conspicuously restrained in his handling of the Iranian uprisings of 2009 and the Arab Spring revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, and at a time when the Wilsonian family of liberal hawks and neoconservatives was calling for a full-throated Reaganesque embrace of the democratic movements. They were deeply disappointed with Obama’s caution. As for red lines, it seems he won’t enforce them after all, and the Syrian rebels with beheaders and chemical weapons users in their ranks might also be crossing them.

He twists and turns. Note his awkward dealing with the question of whether the republic is truly ‘special’, a sentiment that at times he embraces, but at other times dilutes and parses.

Obama feels entitled to talk of limits, prudence and humility…just don’t use the word ‘decline’, in which case you ‘don’t know what you’re talking about’, even in an era of astronomic debt.

Instead of looking for the true Obama essence, we should recognise that the age of financial crisis and the brutal exposure of the limits of American power have reintroduced an alternative American tradition of pessimism and self-doubt, to sit uneasily alongside the bright talk of American moments, centuries and new revolutions.

Who could better reflect the clash of the visions of Luce and Niebuhr than the part-idealist, part-cold pragmatist, part assassin-in-chief, part preacher of norms and laws, part messianic agent of change, part bank-bailouting defender of the status quo, part bomber and part boots-off-the-ground, part man of the Harvard educated establishment, part community organiser and outsider?

It ultimately reflects the gap between a persistent rhetoric about America being the guardian of world order that will always rise again – a standard vocabulary that presidential candidates must nod to- and the bleak material condition of a superpower that it seems will struggle more and more to pay the bills.

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