In this video, Mark Tooley interviews Gregory J. Moore, author of Niebuhrian International Relations: The Ethics of Foreign Policymaking.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of conversing with Gregory Moore, author of a new book on Niebuhrian international relations, perhaps the first of its kind, specifically focused on Reinhold Niebuhr’s view on global state craft. And Dr. Moore is now teaching at Colorado Christian University. So, Gregory, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
Moore: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Tooley: It’s very surprising given that most people when they think of Reinhold Niebuhr associate him with issues of war and peace and international relations, but he himself never wrote a book specifically focused on that topic, did he?
Moore: Well, he dabbled in that. There was a book called-
Tooley: The Irony of American History?
Moore: The Irony of American History, which has a lot of foreign policy in it. And then probably the most direct one he wrote on this topic is called The Structure of Nations and Empires. It’s kind of about history, but it’s also about the U.S. role in history. But yeah, he never wrote sort of like a Morgenthau kind of textbook on international relations. Most of his writings are very disparate and far spread over many articles and parts of different books. So, that’s actually one of the reasons I wrote the book, because I thought he was so wise in his commentary on topics of U.S. foreign policy and world affairs. They are so many and they’re so good. But there was really no one place that one could go to get really his thought on those things. So, that’s really why I wrote the book.
Tooley: Niebuhr was famous for often being very, very pithy, which makes them even more memorable. If you were to be pithy yourself in describing how Niebuhr viewed the world, how would you summarize that in a few sentences?
Moore: Oh, he saw everything in dialectical terms, and even the cover of the book has this blue and this red lightning, sort of looking like it’s hitting the earth from opposite sides. I chose that image. They humored me and let me choose that image to put on the cover of the book, because I think it kind of captures this idea of good versus evil, light and dark. Even our very nature as human beings, in yet above nature, for Christians, we believe that we are created in the image of God and Christians are in dwelt by the Holy Spirit. So, the potential of even holiness and rising above the material limits of the human flesh and all that. And yet at the same time, also the fleshy reality of the fall in Romans 7, kind of what Paul talked about there. So, I think he looks at the world and he sees this potential, but also this dark reality, and so he’s always worried that we’re going to miss either of those. That we become too dark and pessimistic, which I think some realists probably, he might have said, have fallen prey to. But on the other hand, he was also worried, and probably wrote more, about the opposite danger, which was this sort of utopian idealism that doesn’t recognize human fallibility and the fallen nature of man and that sort of stuff. So, that’s kind of how I would respond to that.
Tooley: Niebuhr came up on the national stage perhaps with his strong rejection, denunciation, of pacifism and isolationism in the mid and late 1930s. He founded Christianity & Crisis magazine to make his case and sustains that argument to World War II, of course. And then he carries the argument over into the Cold War, although starting somewhat slowly, but picking up tempo as the 1940s moved along. But at the same time, warning against hubris and overreach by the United States. So, how does he balance the two, demanding moral action by the United States but warning against overconfidence?
Moore: Well, you capture that just exactly right. That’s exactly the balance that he looks for, and I would say, I mean, in his writing he’s not always looking for balance. He doesn’t always expect to find a middle path. But in general, in the light and in the dark, he’s not saying we should be in the middle. Now, we should be on the side of the light, but when we’re looking at foreign policy options, we have to be prudent, as most realists emphasize. This idea of prudence is very important to him. It’s sort of a practical reality of the way the world is. But we can’t shy away from our responsibilities morally and strategically and practically. And so, he wants to see the world as it is. He wants to see the darkness of it as it is. Sort of be innocent as doves but wise as serpents. And so, that’s his admonition, for us to keep ourselves clean, to be honest about the disorder in our own house, but to look at what is our responsibility to our fellow man, to our allies and things. In that ‘30s era when most Americans were in an isolationist mode, he was really saying hey, we’ve got a moral responsibility to Japan. You have that debate with his brother, the morality of doing nothing. I forget, his brother H. Richard Niebuhr wrote an article called “The Beauty of Doing Nothing,” or something like that, about not getting involved in this war between Japan and China. And he just disagreed. He said no, we actually should get involved. And then, of course, World War II, the mood in the U.S. in the late ‘30s was very isolationist. His wife was British and he spent time in the UK, and as the Battle of Britain and things began to ensue, he just felt like why are we sitting on the sidelines? Why are Americans sitting on the sidelines? And he thought we should get involved. He thought we had a responsibility. So, there’s that tension between doing nothing and not getting involved and “come out and be separate,” that sort of Old Testament admonition on the one hand, versus being our brother’s keeper and loving our neighbor on the other hand. And I think he just expected that there would always be a tension there and that there’s no black and white answer to that. Really you have to take that on a case-by-case basis in terms of foreign policy. And I think he did a good job of that in his career. So, in the ‘30s he’s saying we should get involved in Japan, in the ‘40s he’s saying we should get involved in Europe, and then Vietnam comes along and he says we shouldn’t be in this, this is a mess, this is hubris, this is bordering on imperialism, this is something that we’ve gotten in over our heads. And so again, the nuance and the wisdom I think in his approach to all these sorts of things always impressed me. I think that’s one of the reasons he remains relevant today in the 21st century.
Tooley: Your book tries to apply his perspective to contemporary events, so you argue he would have opposed the Iraq War, connecting it, as you just mentioned, to his opposition to the Vietnam War. But you said he would be more hawkish in terms of China and recognize the long-term threat, and also, he would be more hawkish overall than most contemporary realists and would recognize the need for the U.S. as a continued global role.
Moore: Right. Yeah, I think that section of the book, I just have to say look, that’s speculation. No one knows what he would say if he was here. But what I do there is I tried to intentionally sort of drag him into the 21st century and say based on what he wrote about other events, what principles can we take away from those writings and how does that apply to what’s going on now? And so, I know not everybody believes, like Jean Bethke Elshtain, she wrote about the Iraq War, saying it was a just war. I would disagree based on Just War criteria. And then the China issue, I mean, I personally have become very hawkish, and China is sort of central to the kind of research I do. So, he wrote a lot about China. Actually, it’s not well known, but he actually did write about China. And he was very prudent, kind of the way he looked at Vietnam he also looked at China. And he said look, they’re just trying to rise up and become a civilized, economically-developed nation, and they’re not really trying to be a global hegemon or anything like that in the days that he wrote about. But I think today we have a different China and a more ambitious China. And I think a more dangerous China. I think based on all the things he wrote about the Soviet Union, and of course the two are very different, as I tried to point out in the book. But I think there’s a lot of lessons in terms of China’s regime type and then all the modern technology for surveillance and manipulation of public opinion and hacking that China does, the cyber wars and things, that I think Niebuhr, I’m very confident that Niebuhr would come down as I’ve sort of outlined it there in that chapter. That he would have been a voice of warning and urging the Washington establishment to be very, very cautious and even aggressive, defensively aggressive, about where China is today. And I think honestly that probably is where the Washington establishment is. But I know there’s some voices out there who are saying we’re going too far; we’re going to create a cold war. I would say, and I think he would say, if that comes, so be it. But it’s not us who brought it about, it’s China’s actions who’ve done so. We just have to be realistic about what kind of a power that is. And the potential to cooperate with a power like that, as long as they’re pursuing the goals that they are pursuing, is going to be very difficult.
Tooley: You make the case that Niebuhr’s Christian realism is in contrast to non-Christian realism. It’s much more, what’s a good term, nuanced, but is much more able to take in the human factor and recognize the idiosyncrasies of human nature, and not just to assume nations have concrete interests that they will inflexibly follow in all situations. So, that seems like a good point. And also in our current times, in comparison to even ten years ago when you had Obama and McCain citing Niebuhr, almost no one politically is citing Niebuhr these days. Is there any room for Niebuhr in the days of Trumpism or extremes on the left? So many polarities and ideological declarations that don’t leave a lot of room for Christian realism.
Moore: Yeah, that’s good framing there. I will say that at the beginning of the Trump Administration, we did have Mr. Comey, who was a great fan of Niebuhr, as it became kind of well known, he had a Twitter account named Niebuhr or something like that, I forget what it was, but since he departed, of course, there hasn’t been much Niebuhrian sort of policy direction or citations of Niebuhr or any of that kind of stuff. So, yeah, I would agree with you there. But I would say it’s all the more necessary right now given the polarity, as you were saying. It’s striking and very disturbing to me just how both sides demonize each other. It’s not only that we disagree with those people on the other side of the aisle, they’re downright evil and they’re trying to destroy America, which I find ridiculous. I don’t think either side is trying to destroy America. I think they are both trying to do what they think is best for America, and I think Niebuhrian insight is exactly what we need right now. If you’re on the left, the Republicans are not any more evil than anybody else. They’re just trying to do what they think is right. So, looking at human nature, we should understand that if you’re on the right, I don’t think the left is necessarily evil either. I think sometimes they’re diluted, we disagree about what the solution is. More state, less state, higher taxes, lower taxes, in foreign policy, more engagement, less engagement, that these are the sorts of things we debate about. But I think everybody’s got the same goal, which is to make America a better nation and to keep America a great nation. And just the demonizing, the mutual demonization, and the polarization, it’s going to rip our country apart. I think the way that Niebuhr, like you were saying, was quoted by McCain and by Obama, by David Brooks and Michael Novak, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the whole gamut politically, left and right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, that is missing right now. There are very few voices that can speak to all those crowds, and I think we really need that and that is something I really take away from Niebuhr.
Tooley: It seems that Christian political witness in America is prone to a dogmatic moralism, and arguably Christian realism is the antidote to that. But is at least Niebuhr’s play for Christian realism, is that just so alien to the American Christian political experience that it’s unlikely to take root, or is it a worthwhile project to push forward?
Moore: That’s a good question. I mean, I’m all for a dogmatic moralism on the right. I think that’s a good thing, but the question is, we stand up for what we believe, but how do we do it? Do we storm the Capitol a la January 6, or do we work harder to speak to people of color, to Latinos, to different demographics in this country? Or do we just demonize everybody else? And that’s how we’re losing elections, in my opinion. As a Conservative, I just think the party of Lincoln, why can’t we get more black voters voting Republican and Conservative? I just think we’ve gone too far to the whole demonization sort of mode. And same with the Latinos, I mean, they are social conservatives. Why aren’t more of them voting for Republicans? And again, I think that the last four years we’ve done nothing but demonize those folks, assuming they’re all Democrats and they are enemies, when in fact, most of those families, those folks, are hardworking people who would vote, they agree on a lot of the big moral issues and social issues. It’s just that they haven’t been shown very much of a welcoming hand, frankly, on the right. We’ve pushed them away. I don’t think that was necessarily the goal to push them away, but that’s really been the result. So, I think it is a bit of a hard sell, because right now there’s a mood to dig in, if we’re talking about the right anyway. The Mitt Romneys, the former John McCains, those folks that are more in the middle or more moderate on the Republican side, Liz Cheney, I mean, they’re attacked. They’re called RINOs, Republicans in name only. Niebuhr would get, well, he was a Democrat most of his life. He would probably be more of the conservative centrist Democrat, and he would get attacked by the Squad and by other people in the Democratic Party as well. It’s always kind of difficult to be the moderate voice that tries to speak to both sides, because people on the left and the right, they’re both going to attack you. I think that’s a universal truism. I mean, if you look at people like Rabin, former Israel prime minister, what happens is he gets assassinated by a conservative Jewish nationalist who didn’t like what he was doing. And Anwar Sadat, same thing, the Egyptians think he was too nice to Israel, so some people said let’s kill him. Martin Luther King Jr., same thing. So, yeah, it’s a difficult position to be, but I guess to me as a Christian thinker, and I think this is where Niebuhr was, our duty is to look at these things and to report on them, to write about them and to try to represent the Gospel and Gospel truth on the one hand, but just social reality on the other hand. And to try to see how they mixed together and just try to get it right. And it’s not our goal to try to satisfy everybody because that’s never possible. That’s why Niebuhr was both kind of a polemicist and kind of controversial, but at the same time, so widely loved and accepted, because he just tried to call it as it was. He got attacked from both sides at different times, and I think we need more thinking like that. Because I think that’s refreshing and that is part of the solution to where we are as a nation I think right now.
Tooley: Gregory Moore, author of Niebuhrian International Relations, thank you very much for this conversation, and hopefully my review of your book will be appearing somewhere soon.
Moore: Thank you, it was a delight to talk to you. All the best, thanks.