Victor Nuovo: U.S. confronts Political Realism

42nd in a series

Political Realism is a theory of government whose special concern is with the immoral forces endemic to all governments, which are stubborn and persistent obstacles to justice. These are forces motivated by self-interest and political ambition, collective and individual, and their power to corrupt is ubiquitous and insidious. It is best summarized by the judgment of Lord Acton (1834–1902): “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton’s judgment needs a context. He wrote these words in a letter to an English Bishop who believed that persons in high office, political or religious, and the well-born in general, live on a higher moral plane, the plane of noblesse oblige, the proverbial social obligation of aristocracies, of dubious moral value. Acton, who was born and bred an aristocrat, strongly disagreed. Here is what he wrote: “I cannot accept your rule that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they can do no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historical responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise only influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

To summarize: Every nation has interests. Power is necessary to advance and protect those interests. Power corrupts.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) claimed to be a political realist, and in this essay I will employ his theory of political realism. I do so because I believe it is timely. I shall explain.

The United States of America is at a historical turning point in its career as a nation, and, because it is a great world power, this moment may be regarded as having world-historical import. Of all the figures in this nation’s intellectual history, and, maybe the history of the world, Niebuhr excelled in the scope of his interest and understanding of the forces that shape history, and so would be well suited to be our guide through this perilous course.

The moment or turning point was determined by a decision made by President Biden to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The president’s action was linked to a major foreign policy decision, to bring an end to U.S. world hegemony, to its political and military predominance among the nations. There is no doubt that this was an epochal decision that historians will be writing about for years to come. But you and I are living in this moment now, and we must try to understand it before all the dust has settled, which leads me to ask, How would Reinhold Niebuhr have interpreted this moment?

In 1967, The New Republic published an essay by Niebuhr entitled “Vietnam: A Study in Ironies.” It was his response to a decision by President Lyndon Johnson to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam war. The war would end with the unceremonial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saigon on March, 29, 1973, an event the likes of which President Biden promised, vainly, would not be repeated. Niebuhr’s comments on the U.S. entry into the Vietnam war, which the U.S. also lost, are relevant today.

He began his essay with an assessment. “We are a democratic nation whose power has grown to imperial proportions. We have made the mistake of being drawn into a civil war in an obscure nation …, a mistake that has imperiled our imperial prestige. But in a democracy, particularly one with nostalgic visions of original innocence, it became necessary for us to veil our imperial and strategic interests behind ‘democratic’ and idealistic goals. Hence this war is described as a struggle between the free world and the forces of communism, whereas it is more correct to describe it as a war of liberation from French imperialism.”

Niebuhr’s opening sentence revealed a contradiction in American policy, for democracy and imperialism are incompatible: a democratic government is supposed to rule by the consent of the governed; empires exercise hegemony by the force of arms and economic power. Hence, American imperialism was wrong from the start.

The Vietnam war was a war of national liberation that was opposed by two imperial powers, France and the United States. In the end, they were defeated. Yet, they were still proud nations, and they sought to rescue their reputations, and their pride. In our case, there was a need to justify our actions as righteous. And this involved our leaders in self-deception and hypocrisy. Niebuhr viewed it all tragically and ironically, although, also, sadly, for the war resulted great suffering of not only the people of Vietnam, but also of American personnel, who served their country honorably and nobly in a war that was not of their making.

How might this apply to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan? First, I suppose that Niebuhr would have stated that the United States should not have invaded Afghanistan in the first place. Its mission was to apprehend and destroy Osama bin Laden, a stateless terrorist, and Al Qaeda, his organization. And this it accomplished. But in addition, the U.S. overthrew the Taliban government, put in its place a mockery of a government, corrupt to the core, and as a by-product of all this, restarted a civil war, that is still raging, and which has resulted in the return of the Taliban to power.

And this is where the President’s decision and his government’s policy deserves praise. He took a hard look at the situation and the options available to him, and he made, I believe, a wise decision. The United States, remains a nation of great power but no longer burdened with imperial fantasies, vain ambitions and false pride, may redefine itself as a moral nation, a free nation, a benevolent nation, motivated by a love of justice and with a good will. These are enviable endowments, essential to a foreign policy whose goal is peace with justice. We must be under no illusion that this may be easily achieved, but it is, nonetheless, our only realistic goal. It involves our national destiny, which is still to be made manifest.

Postscript: The classic statement of political realism is “Politics Among the Nations” by Hans J. Morgenthau. Morgenthau and Niebuhr were friends well versed in each other’s writings.

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