“It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”
Is this short quotation proof that the president of the United States hates the United States? Hardly.
Granted, some people see it that way. John McCain wasn’t too happy. “That’s one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times. We are the dominant superpower, and we’re the greatest force for good in the history of this country, and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower.”
McCain’s view is fairly typical for a 2010 Republican, and it would have been typical for a 1910 Democrat (back when Republicans were the isolationists). But halfway in between, conservative-leaning political thinkers tried to come to grips with a middle ground between isolationism and imperialism. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the era’s great Christian Realists (as they were called), wrote an entire book, “The Irony of American History,” devoted to seeking that middle ground in a modest yet realistic way. Whether we like it or not, Niebuhr mused, America was a superpower. Isolationism was impossible. Imperialism was—for Niebuhr, a Christian—unthinkable.
The question, then, was how to conduct a foreign policy that approached world affairs with humility and legitimacy, yet still sought to use America’s power for good. Niebuhr’s answer was rooted more in John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” notion than in either existing option. While agreeing that America must take “morally hazardous actions” to preserve itself, he cautioned that the mantle of global ruler was one incompatible both with America’s liberal nature and with its desire for the good life.
“Meanwhile we are drawn into an historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity; and the conviction of the perfect compatibility of virtue and prosperity which we have inherited from both our Calvinist and our Jeffersonian ancestors is challenged by the cruel facts of history. For our sense of responsibility to a world community beyond our own borders is a virtue, even though it is partly derived from the prudent understanding of our own interests. But this virtue does not guarantee our ease, comfort, or prosperity. We are the poorer for the global responsibilities which we bear. And the fulfillments of our desires are mixed with frustrations and vexations.”
If this sounds familiar, it is not a coincidence. “[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers,” President Obama has written. “I take away [from his works] 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 we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”
In a further irony, the president appears to have more reluctance to seize the philosopher-king role in foreign affairs than he does within his own borders. And his actions in foreign affairs have far from lived up to his ideals. But his comment this week revealed nothing beyond a Niebuhrean sobriety toward the heavy responsibility America bears.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.