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My post of 5 November sought to identify influences behind Barack Obama’s thinking, particularly in foreign policy. The main conclusions were:

  • George Marshall for his inspiration for the renewal of the global order
  • Rheinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian

I have just carried out a similar exercise for Hillary Clinton, only to discover that she too is a Niehbuhr disciple.

Rheinhold Niebuhr’s analysis of human nature and history came as a vast illumination of the infinite depravity that men are capable of. The death camps and the gulags proved that something is wrong with the heart of man. Monnet did not believe that human nature could be changed – only human behaviour, hence his preoccupation with creating institutions which outlast human life.

To Jean Monnet, the greatest obstacle to establishing lasting peace was the concept of sovereignty – that is the right of every state to act according to its own, autonomous judgement. He believed in equality between nations. He vehemently opposed the concept of ‘balance of power’ which the European Community was designed to destroy. Monnet saw the European Community not as an end in itself but as process of change, a stage on the way to the organised world of tomorrow.

Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian of the 20th century who was more or less his contemporary, clearly agreed. Niebuhr believed that a balance of power is a kind of managed anarchy, and that “an equilibrium of power without the organising and equilibrating force of government, is potential anarchy which becomes actual anarchy in the long run”.

The political thinking and acting of men such as Niebuhr and Monnet is today more relevant than ever. Many of today’s leaders may say and believe that these men were idealists. But, they believed that those who trust military power on the open world market to solve our problems and guarantee peace, are the Utopians: men like Niebuhr and Monnet are the realists.

Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

The last lines of his “The Irony of American History,” written in 1952, resound more than a half-century later. “If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Niebuhr also had a message for Americans ,which remains valid today, particularly after eight years of George W Bush. Like all God-fearing men, Americans are never safe “against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire.” This is vanity. To be effective in the world, we need “a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us” and “a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities.” None of the insights of religious faith contradict “our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it.”

Today the world is in danger of returning to the old balance of power politics.

We must not forget recent history, particularly at a time when countries face a frightening array of economic, political, social and security challenges which cannot be individually solved. A return to twentieth century balance of power would be catastrophic.

It is not too late. With the the powerful team of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Washington and the odd couple of Sarkozy and Brown working closely together in Europe – hopefully soon to be joined by Merkel, we may again have a group of transatlantic leaders who recognise the absolute necessity of working together.

We must all support them and expose the fallacy of lasting peace based on a simple balance of power policy. Niebuhr temporarily went out of fashion but is back. Monnet’s teachings seem largely forgotten. But the audacity of hope lives on.

(note this post draws on Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s article of 18 September 2005 for insights into Niebuhr’s thinking).

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